Our intern, UW Lavin Scholar Sarah Jacob, sat down with Create33 member Tina Tran Neville,  CEO of Lana Learn for this interview. Tina was recently recognized by the Puget Sound Business Journal as a “40 Under 40” honoree, and will be representing Seattle in a US Senate women’s entrepreneurship table in Washington DC on 9/23. Read more about it here!

What was your inspiration for Lana Learn?

When I was a child, my parents and I had left Vietnam and came to the United States as refugees. It’s hard to get a job in America if you don’t speak English. In order to support our family, my parents started a series of small businesses, and that really was my first taste of entrepreneurship. I was the first in my family to go to college. After graduate school, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service. I worked overseas for awhile, and then I moved on to my next career, a teacher in Washington DC.  Utilizing new skills as an educator, I returned to my entrepreneurial roots and launched my first company Transcend Academy. Our focus at Transcend was to help students get into U.S. universities. A few years later, I moved to Seattle and with my husband we launched my second company, Lana Learn, a global online English language platform. Our mission with Lana is to harness our expertise in education and international markets to advance English education as a tool to increase academic and professional opportunities, improve economic development, and build cultural bridges. 

What tools did you and your parents use to learn English?

We would watch Oprah, read books, and practice speaking it in our community. One moment really stands out for me. In elementary school, we had these hardcover books with large print letters that kids would pick up if they’re just starting to read. One day I came home and realized my mom was reading my second-grade book on her own! Looking back at it, I realize she was learning English alongside me.

How do you differentiate your curriculum from other English tutoring sites? 

Most people who are teaching online lack a background in teaching; you could be 20 years old and traveling the world while teaching English. For Lana,  we curate a community of qualified teachers to deliver our curriculum. Further, we take a uniquely holistic approach to our curriculum. Many sites focus solely on pronunciation, but Lana enables students to practice writing and learning basic grammar rules in parallel to speaking.

How do you believe that technology is changing the education system?

Access to education has scaled globally.  Technology has enabled us to find new ways to connect people and change the way people learn. Technology allows teachers in the United States to connect with students all across the globe. A lot of English teaching is now done through Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. As a former teacher, I’ve found that people learn in different ways, and just speaking to someone isn’t always enough for them to grasp a language. So, at Lana Learn we built our own video conferencing platform, which includes a whiteboard to help students have a more immersive experience. They can see the instructor and the whiteboard while also practicing writing the language. We also added a multi-language chat feature with real-time translation, so that students who speak Thai, for example, can communicate with English-speaking instructors.

Do you see technology breaking the barrier of learning a second language?

Absolutely. Technology allows us to scale at an affordable cost. As we progress, we plan to use machine learning to make this more accessible to more students at lower costs.  

What’s been the biggest challenge in growing Lana Learn?

The technology roll out for China. Due to the “great firewall,” we have to locate our servers in China and obtain separate business licenses through much red tape. Also, to receive funds from China we have to set up a physical bank account in China. China is 15 percent of the online English learning market so we can’t ignore the market, but we must carefully devise an effective strategy and the infrastructure to serve that market. Our first three priority countries are China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Our plans over the next six months include testing, polishing our service with customer feedback, and achieving growth targets.  

Last, how do you see Lana Learn impacting our economy and startup ecosystem?

With all of our teachers based in the United States, we are proud to be creating jobs here in our home country while having a global impact on economic development. With such a strong immigrant and international affairs community in Seattle, it’s important to us that we’re creating opportunities locally. Lastly, it’s thrilling to demonstrate that education technology (EdTech) can scale globally! EdTech is a great example of American innovation that can benefit people around the world

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Meet our Resident Members

Create33 serves as a showcase for Seattle’s innovation economy, and the seed-funded teams that call Create33 home represent both enterprise- and consumer-facing businesses, many powered by AI and machine learning.  They span industry verticals including fin-tech, proptech, HR tech, wellness, productivity, gaming, interior design, media, cell therapeutics, and e-commerce. We host three graduates from Techstars, three spinouts from Madrona Venture Labs, and one from the Real Networks incubator.  Fourteen teams have been a part of our journey in our first year of operation (one is still in stealth mode so not covered here, but you’ll be hearing about them soon!)

Adaptilab is a technical screening platform that helps companies hire machine learning talent. The aim is to reduce the time managers spend screening potential candidates. These Techstars grads recently raised $1.8 in funding for their growth and use machine learning to power the machine learning recruiting process.

 

Airlift is a self-service market of local, fresh food, snacks and beverages. Airlift serves smaller to medium-sized offices, giving companies the option to offer affordable and nutritious snacks to their employees (including the teams at Create33 as one of our member perks).  They were covered in GeekWire’s Startup Spotlight when they launched in 2016.

Domicile combines modern luxury apartments with all the services of a hotel. Domicile launched in 2016 out of the Madrona Venture Labs, and last September raised $5 million in seed funding.

 

Downstream allows brands and agencies to use automation to manage, scale, and optimize their Amazon advertising strategies. The company was co-founded in late 2017 by Connor Folley and Salim Hadid, both ex-Amazon employees. These Techstars grads have secured $4 million in funding.

Kavout is a global investment technology company that utilizes AI and big data to power investment decisions for wealth management institutions. They have recently released K score for the United Kingdom and Germany stock markets and are growing their domestic presence.

 

Create33 resident team Oisin Biotech recently spun out OncoSenX, to redefine the way we target and kill cancer cells. OncoSenX targets solid tumors based on transcriptional activity using a unique lipid nanoparticle and plasmid DNA. This past July they raised $3 million to support their preclinical research. 

 

Pyron utilizes the power of AI to increase productivity for every employee. The team that sold their last startup to Amazon recently closed a $20 million in Series A.

 

Techstars graduate Rainway is a video game streaming service enabling player to run PC games on any mobile device, and “play anywhere.” They’ve racked up over two million hours in gameplay, and just closed a $3.5M round of funding, with Madrona Venture Group participating in the round.

 

 

Offering security without the deposit, Rentline is a fintech company that unlocks capital and redeploys it to help renters save money. Led by four co-founders with deep backgrounds in commercial real estate, consumer products, and technology, they spun out of Madrona Venture Labs in August.

 

Want to seamlessly watch Netflix with your friends, wherever they are? Install Scener‘s chrome extension, and you’ll be able to video and text chat with your friends in real-time while your favorite show is playing. 

 

Simply Augmented empowers sales teams by enabling prospects to easily visualize enterprise solutions, place products in a spatial environment and track engagement analytics via the cloud. Check out their elevator pitch on GeekWire.

 

Spruce Up is an AI-powered personal shopping service for all things home and design.   They recently raised $3 million in seed funding; read more in our interview with their Lead Designer, Anne Vigianno.

 

WEconnect Recovery is transforming addiction recovery for the modern world through the power of technology and community.  Those in recovery can stay connected to their recovery team and receive supportive messages, incentives and rewards through the WeConnect app. Last year, they raised an additional $6 million in Series A funding.  Co-founder and CEO Daniela Luzi Tudor is a 2019 40 Under 40 honoree– congratulations, Daniela! 

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The SpruceUp team has been a member of Create33 from day one– when we still had construction tape on the floors! Less than a year later,  we have been delighted to see their progress (you may have read about their most recent $3M raise in GeekWire). SpruceUp is a digital boutique for home goods that are curated for each user, powered by AI and home styling experts.  We had the opportunity to sit down with Anne Viggiano, SpruceUp’s lead designer.

 

How did you get your start in the digital design world? 

“I’m a trained artist, and years ago, started helping architects with color palettes. This led to interior design, and even starting my own business.” 

 

“I met Mia (CEO of SpruceUp) through one of my customers who happened to work at Madrona Venture Labs, another Create33 member. Mia was looking for someone with experience in interior design, so we got lunch and just hit it off. I’ve been with Spruce Up for almost a year and a half, and this is really my first time in a technology environment.” 

 

How do you believe AI is changing the design market space?

“AI is speeding up the work of connecting people with products they like. That’s the positive; a downside is that without human touch it can be homogenized design. Right now, people get bucketed too quickly into a style, and end up with the same look. That’s where SpruceUp comes in: we’re making shopping for home  hyper-personalized, helping you to mix and match styles, colors, and materials within your budgets and needs and create a look that’s uniquely you. Once you put together the AI and have a human training and filtering the information, that’s when the truly deep level of personalization happens.” 

 

Do you foresee a future where AI has taken over the design space, and there is no need for human interaction? 

“That’s a really interesting question, because over at Spruce Up we have a tech team and we have a design team. The whole purpose of the tech team is to get the AI to choose exactly what the interior designer would choose, but there are bits of a person’s life that AI will never be able to take into consideration. I think it will get really close, but to get that feeling that something was made just for you, you still need an interior designer. At Spruce Up, we combine the best of both: our interior designers are training our AI and style prediction algorithms, and we layer in the more nuanced and personalized support from an interior designer to give you the confidence to pull the look together.” 

 

Does the idea of AI growing within the design space make you excited or nervous as an interior designer?

“I think it’s important to differentiate that interior design only physically happens in people’s homes. That is an industry that will never be online. There are customizations, quality, and beauty of things that can never be sold on ecommerce. 

 

SpruceUp is not trying to bring interior design online, but rather leverages interior design expertise to train AI to provide hyper-personalized eCommerce to help you find just the right items and create a look that’s uniquely you. It excites me as an option for people who may not have the means to hire an interior designer, or have more of a transient lifestyle. It can be difficult for interior designers to accept that this market opportunity exists. As long as these two markets stay distinct, they can really help each other. It also helps separate the physical market, I think helping people shop online for quality things is important. People have a hard time differentiating and sorting through the clutter of what’s online.” 

 

How do you see SpruceUp growing within the next 6 months?

“Each week, our AI gets smarter, so our data will become cleaner and more precise. We want the data to really reflect people’s lifestyle and deliver even more relevant recommendations to customers.  And of course, we want even more people to know about us!.”

 

Is there an ideal number of consumers/ feedback you would like to achieve in order for the AI to become smarter?

“The more data, the better. We launched Style Tuner in July to gather learning data and to better map style preferences to create 100% unique style profile for each customer. Our initial goal was to have 10,000 feedbacks, and we’ve actually 10X it to have over 100,000 feedbacks in just the first month.What’s exciting is that people have been enjoying our style tuner, which gamifies providing product feedback. This is just one way we’re trying to take the seriousness out of home decor shopping and make it fun for consumers .”

 

What impact do you see SpruceUp making within the Seattle startup space?

“Our company is 75 percent women. And that’s partly because  Mia is committed to getting women interested in tech who haven’t necessarily had the opportunity, or hadn’t previously considered it (like me). She has a genuine passion for people doing what brings them joy. 

 

For many women, people expect you to play the part of superhero; have a baby and put on an amazing event in the same day, but that’s completely unrealistic. We’re encouraged to have a balanced lifestyle, where we can be passionate about things both in and outside of work, and I hope that other startups will follow suit.” 

 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, and conducted by Create33 intern Sarah Jacob.

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