Disruption North goes back to school with online training platform Synap
Learning is part of life. But as anyone who has ever taken a school, university or professional development qualification knows, it can be hard work. As with many of the more arduous aspects of modern life, technology is there to alleviate the pain. Online learning not only widens access to education and reskilling, it can also makes it more dynamic, enjoyable and effective. These factors have contributed to a booming global online education market, that is set to be worth a massive $287bn by 2023.
One person who has enjoyed both the personal benefits of online learning and its lucrative business potential is Dr James Gupta, CEO of Leeds-based Synap – an intelligent online training platform. D/SRUPTION caught him for a chat to learn more…
From textbook to tablet
Gupta’s founding of Synap was based on a very real educational need – having to study for his exams at Leeds medical school. Like many entrepreneurs, he found a gap in the market through personal experience.
“We got fed up of carrying massive textbooks around with us everywhere,” he says, “or having ten minutes in the hospital when you were free to study but you didn’t have any of your materials on you.”
“So my co founder and I built a really basic version of an app that let us create practice questions for each other, and we would then share them out with our colleagues and get feedback. Suddenly, we had a really good resource that anyone could use, which you could put in your pocket, was available all the time, and which enabled you to fit in really high quality learning wherever you were.”
Over the next couple of years, Gupta continued to add content to the app, and to rely on it for his exams. By the end of his medical degree, it featured licensed peer reviewed content from a major publisher, and around 25 per cent of all UK medical students had adopted it as a learning tool.
An intelligent online training platform
Synap – as the business is today – is a cloud based online training platform, accessible via the web and as an app. It takes personalised learning content and breaks it down into easily manageable sessions, offering engaging education and training to the user any time, anywhere.
“We take the normal training topics the user has to do and break them down into a five or ten minute chunk that they can practice when they’re on the tube, having a coffee, or waiting for a friend,” says Gupta.
“Then over time we look at their strengths and weaknesses, and we use that to create a personalised learning journey just for them. We do this in line with the concept of Spaced Learning, which suggests that there are optimal times to revisit information in order to commit it to the long term memory. Students will see the information they most need to practice more frequently, and they will be challenged on the things they are good at as they will see them at longer time intervals apart.”
Now taken up by a range of universities and businesses, Synap can help its clients to develop and create their learning content. However, many choose to blend their own materials with content sourced from the web, to create a varied and mixed media learning experience.
“There’s so many good materials online,” says Gupta, “so a lot of our clients might find the best things available on Youtube, then merge that in with some of their company specific notes or presentations.”
“We’ve also got an increasing number of clients who are trying to promote internal experts in their own company. So whoever it is that’s the best person at handling difficult conversations with clients – or whatever it might be – they’ll get them to spend 30 minutes putting their knowledge and their experiences onto a video or a presentation on Synap so that everyone else can benefit from it.”
This peer learning aspect is an important part of many CPD strategies, as employees often engage with – and learn best from – their colleagues. The interest Synap received from corporate clients encouraged the company to diversify from a quiz based learning platform, to feature wider functionalities.
“When we started off Synap was purely quiz based,” says Gupta. “Quizzes are a really good way of learning because you can test a wide range of knowledge, from basic factual recall to much more difficult case study type questions about what you would do in a certain situation.”
“We’ve since added a broader range of learning modalities, so people can study with videos and presentations. Some of our clients use Synap for CPD so they’ll have to book in meetings with a mentor and they’ll have their work reviewed as they are going through. A lot of clients want the broader functionality that you’d expect in an online training tool.”
Major Synap clients now include the likes of the Medical Defence Union and The University of Law, who offer the platform as a new way of preparing for exams. Also on board in the corporate sector is Free Now – the mobility provider – who are using it to train taxi drivers in area knowledge.
Working in Leeds
Gupta’s decision to found Synap in Leeds grew organically – with the business – from his time at the city’s medical school. So what’s it like to run a company in Leeds a few years down the line?
“I think it’s great,” he says. “The ecosystem is obviously not as developed as in other parts of the country – I’m thinking obviously London, or some of the more specialist areas like Reading and Cambridge where there are large university outputs and a lot of spinout businesses off the back of that.”
“However there is a good and thriving ecosystem here and it’s growing really quickly. It’s been exciting to be part of the first or second wave of that, so helping to put Leeds on the map as a place that can incubate and scale startups, and that as a graduate you can come and find one of these sorts of companies to work for.”
Regional cities are often accused of a lack of available talent, but this is not something Gupta has encountered, with the Synap team doubling in size in 2019 including a growth in technical roles.
“We’ve not run into any issues so far with access to talent,” he says. “We’ve actually found that it’s great, there’s graduates coming out every year, there are people moving to Leeds looking for a change of pace.”
“What you get to offer people – in Leeds specifically – is a combination of a modern, metropolitan city with all the startups, corporates, the NHS and all these other employers, with something like the Yorkshire Dales on your doorstep. That’s a reason for people to stick around in Leeds after they’ve graduated or to move up here. I think that’s really compelling.”
With a growing team, an expanding client base, and further developments on the horizon, Synap is the perfect example of a Leeds startup with big ambitions. For anyone looking to do business in the North of England, that’s a valuable lesson learned.
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