News

2015 Public Policy Challenge Winner SmartTrack Finds Success

May 11, 2018

SmartTrack, the winning project of Penn’s 2015 Public Policy Challenge (under the name of Schoogle), is a mobile-based platform for managing assets and inventory that was created to improve districtwide tracking of textbooks, technology, and other educational resources in public schools. Since its creation, the team behind SmartTrack--headed by CEO and Fels alumnus Nate Bronstein, MPA ‘16--has had recent success in developing and implementing the system throughout the region. In this interview, Nate and Camden City School District Special Projects Manager Colin Sorensen, MPA ‘18, discuss the history and current state of the corporation, as well as the platform’s recent rollout in Camden area schools:

 

In your own words, Nate, what exactly is SmartTrack?

Nate: SmartTrack is a mobile inventory and asset management system. In essence, it’s a mobile app capable of scanning any barcode or asset tag, to transfer relevant information about the asset into a digital database that can be tracked, sorted and exported.

 

What is your current professional role, and what does your work entail?

 

Nate: I am the founder and CEO of SmartTrack. We’re a small team right now, so currently my role is everything from product development, to sales and marketing and team management.

 

Colin: As for me, I started interning for Camden City School District’s Chief Operations Officer (who is another graduate of Fels), and was assigned to work on “improving the inventory process”. This task naturally led me to Nate and SmartTrack!

What is the history behind SmartTrack? How did the idea for this system come about, and how has it developed over time?

Nate: There were four founding members of our team: Rob Alterman, Brittany Keesling, Soheil Eshghi and myself. Most of us had a background in education in one capacity or another, with several of us having been classroom teachers before coming to Fels. We knew we wanted to affect change in the realm of education, so when we were presented with the Penn Policy Challenge, we got to work thinking around what some of the big pain points were for teachers.  Before we came up for the idea of SmartTrack, we put our heads together and created a list of pain points we had all experienced. As you can imagine, there were quite a few. After we created a list, we began doing some research on each one.

Inventory management is one of those issues that no one really thinks about, and where there has been very little innovation. Both Rob and myself had personal experiences with what teachers deal with today. At the beginning and end of the year, teachers are tasked with getting a piece of paper and writing down information about all of the resources in their room. This goes into a manila envelope that is supposedly used for accounting and procurement purposes… but in reality, it’s not. Not only is this process time consuming, but it’s horribly inaccurate and is really only used for Title I compliance purposes.

When we did some research, we found this to be a much bigger issue than we thought. It turns out that city schools lose around $18,000 annually, just on misplaced items and procurement overlap. The very same year we began working on this issue, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a major incident in the Philadelphia school district where they found millions of dollars worth of resources that had been misplaced. These resources included what was described as, “a city block worth of books”, and 5 grand pianos that had been misplaced.

We knew that behavior change is tough, so we decided to maximize the fact that teachers are already required to do bi-annual inventory management by just replacing the pen and paper method with a much faster and more accurate system. As it turns out, there are other inventory management systems out there, but currently 90% of all school districts are still stuck using the “pen & paper method”. When we researched this, we found that the other solutions were prohibitively expensive and complicated, so we designed our system with the direct insights of the consumers we were looking to reach.

Thus, Schoogle was born. Later, we changed our name to SmartTrack because after finding out that Google actually owns the rights for “Schoogle”. Regardless, we are the easiest to use, most accessible inventory management system ever developed, and the only system out there that is intentionally priced at a point that will never be more than 10% of the savings realized by a school implementing SmartTrack.

A few years ago, SmartTrack (then known as Schoogle) won the Penn Public Policy Challenge. Could you tell me about that experience?

 

Nate: The Penn Policy Challenge was easily the most important experience of my time at Penn. It launched our company, it wildly expanded our professional network, and catapulted our careers. It is definitely an experience that equals what you put in, and I was lucky enough to have an incredible team that was prepared to make it a full-time job while we were going through Penn. I’d like to emphasize how amazing it was working with Rob, Brittany (or Kees as she prefers to go by) and Soheil. I learned so much from all of them, and am proud to still have them on our board as we continue to grow SmartTrack.

Has public reception of SmartTrack met your expectations?

Nate: When it comes to people in the education sector, the reception is what I expected. SmartTrack has been in 22 accelerators, incubators and startup pitch events. When these events and accelerators are education focused, we clean up and tend to do very well. When it comes to speaking to the people who would use our system, across the board we get a lot of praise and excitement. Unfortunately, the EdTech world is very short on startup investment and capital. As a result, we’ve had to reach out to more general communities and investment circles. Similarly, investors have been consistently interested but also unwilling to support us. However, this has been true for almost every start-up and angel investment community in the greater Philadelphia area, and our pain point here has been consistent for other Ed start-ups as well. Philadelphia has a very serious start-up investment shortage for social good companies, and it took us about 2 ½ years to raise the funds needed to build out a fully scalable version of our system. Now that we’re here, though, we’re able to leverage all of the enthusiasm and interest we’ve been gathering along the way!

I hear that SmartTrack is having some great success in New Jersey. Could you tell me about the adoption process in Camden?

Nate: Colin is probably better suited to answer this one--he has been unbelievably helpful and instrumental in this process.

 

Colin: As I said before, when I started interning for the Chief Operations Officer at the Camden City School District, my main project dealt with improving the inventory process throughout the district. Luckily, I was given a great amount of autonomy to find a solution. While my supervisor expected me to simply refine their in-place counting by hand or Excel method, I ended up reaching out to Nate to form a partnership. He came to pitch SmartTrack a few weeks later and my supervisor was sold.

Because Camden was SmartTrack's first major district, it has been an iterative process of trial and error, which has included troubleshooting technology issues that are characteristic of new apps, interviewing school leaders to determine their needs and expectations, and training staff to use the system! Through the course of the year, Camden has received a product that meets its needs and SmartTrack has been able to use the lessons learned from Camden to improve its product for future districts!

Nate, what are your hopes and plans for the future of SmartTrack?


Nate: SmartTrack has the potential to save school districts across the country millions of dollars each year. This might be hard to believe, but in one school we visited in our early days, we found that they were able to free up an additional $40,000 in their annual budget through effective inventory management. Our philosophy is that all children should have access to an excellent education, and SmartTrack is one tool to help achieve that mission. We’re certainly not the end all, be all answer to educational inequity, but there is no doubt that we’re a step in the right direction and, as a for-profit company, proof that you can do well and do good at the same time.

As for my specific hopes for the future, I want to see SmartTrack expand to the largest districts in the country. I want us to make a statement for fiscal responsibility and help bring some more resources back to the students who need them the most. I hope, too, that we can serve as a positive example for the other “social good” ventures that are out there.

How have your experiences at Fels helped you achieve success in your work?


Nate: Fels, and perhaps more importantly, the people I met at Fels, are completely responsible for SmartTrack. Most recently, Colin is responsible for bringing us to Camden, allowing us to break that first barrier in implementing at a district level. From start-up to launch, Fels has been integral in this journey!

 

Colin: I would say that Fels has personally helped me in two ways:

 

First, Fels teaches us how to invest and involve stakeholders. This includes understanding each unique stakeholder and their pain points, identifying solutions, presenting costs/benefits of given solutions, and helping choose the optimal intervention/solution. The process requires listening to stakeholders and adjusting to find the best fit for their needs (which, in this case, was SmartTrack).

 

Second, a large-scale technology rollout requires a lot of details and project management skills. Fels' extensive use of project-based learning (often throughout the duration of an entire semester) has helped develop my project management skills, which easily transferred to this project with Camden.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Nate: I want to make it clear that this process has been a team effort since day one. Soheil, Rob and Kees were integral in the beginning, and now our current COO Tony Ho (who I’ve known for over a decade, and who also attended Penn), has been helping us to expand and launch as we leave our beta and testing phases. Thank you all for your help and continuing effort throughout the years!

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu