Cork tech firm to tackle college drop out rates using AI

 Cork tech firm to tackle college drop out rates using AI
Nathan Mayes, left, and Darragh Lucey, co-founders of Yooni

Cork tech firm Yooni could reduce the student drop-out rate in Irish colleges, writes Trish Dromey.

With an innovative technology-led platform designed to help second level students find the course which suits them best, Cork start-up Yooni believes it can reduce the high drop-out level from college courses.

“Our solution uses artificial intelligence and data analytics to compile a list of personalised, best-fit college courses unique to each student,” said Yooni co-founder Nathan Mayes, further explaining that its technology, currently being tested in a few Cork schools, is the first Irish-based course recommendation solution to use AI.

Set up in 2018, Yooni plans to launch its platform in March for Leaving Certificate students interested in attending UCC and CIT.

“In September, we plan to launch nationwide and make our technology available to all 180,000 senior cycle students,” said Mr Mayes, adding that in the longer term the aim is to develop Yooni internationally, selling to Europe, the US and Asia.

For co-founders Mr Mayes and Darragh Lucey, the idea for the company was sparked by the high drop-out rate on their own engineering course at UCC. “On graduation day, we realised that a quarter of the friends we made in first year were not graduating alongside us. The number of drop-outs was staggering,” said Mr Lucey.

Taking off on a backpacking trip after graduation, they came across an article about the global student drop-out issue while travelling in Cambodia and began thinking about ways to use technology to solve the problem.

By the time they reached South America, they had decided that a technology-led guidance platform, using artificial intelligence, could work. “We pitched the idea to UCCIgnite graduate programme via Skype from Peru. We got accepted, returned home and went into the world of business as two engineering graduates with no business experience,” said Mr Lucey.

Work began in 2018 with researching the extent of the problem and also talking to students, guidance counsellors, parents and colleges.

“The drop-out rate in the first year is 14% while a total of 25% of students drop-out before graduation,” said Mr Mayes, adding that studies show that 60% of these drop-outs are due to students choosing the wrong course.

Working out that the drop-out rate involves losses of €17.2m for Irish parents every year, the two young entrepreneurs decided there was space in the market for a company with an effective course recommendation tool.

While still working out the concept for the platform they happened on a means of generating revenue for the software development which also allowed them establish a presence in the education space.

“We came up with a concept called Carpool College Courses — which involves a series of fun but in-depth interviews with graduates which take place in Darragh’s car,” said Mr Mayes, explaining that this came about following a chance meeting with a former lecturer who was looking for a way to showcase the engineering course.

Since starting with one video in January 2019, Yooni has gone on to develop 12 of them for a variety of courses at CIT and UCC, which they post online and which they also showed at a Yooni Open Day which the founders organised in November.

Yooni has since been using the revenue generated from the videos to develop its software platform. Now being trialled at a few schools in Cork this will be further tweaked in preparation for the Cork launch in March.

Mr Mayes said the platform is an advancement on the technology for selecting courses currently in use and provides more specific recommendations.

Thus far, Mr Mayes and Mr Lucey have bootstrapped the development of the company, using revenues from making videos and prize money they won in the Ireland’s Best YoungEntrepreneur Competition.

Starting off 2020 by taking on its first employee, Yooni is now seeking Angel funding in order to grow the business and develop its platform for use in all Irish universities and colleges by September.

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