Learning, one on one


Pienkowski shows off his company's Web site, www.coolsourcetech.com.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

It started small, just a few lemonade stands here and there. Then it got a little bigger, with a lawn mowing/fund-raising effort at age 12 for a Boy Scout trip to New Mexico. And now, it’s full-blown—the entrepreneurial bug has bitten J. Christopher Pienkowski (W’03) hard. Good thing the Wharton School junior has his own company, CoolSource Technologies, to focus his energies.

CoolSource offers educational software and Web-based services to kids in the third through eighth grades. What’s special about it is its ability to assess, adapt to, and track an individual’s learning style, something which Pienkowski says has never been done before in the software industry.

CoolSource is also the first company sponsored by Penn’s Venture Initiation Program (VIP), which provides Penn students with entrepreneurial management support and facilities.

It began as one of several business plans submitted last year for VIP’s review by Pienkowski and Edgar Bacai, financial coordinator for Wharton’s Executive Education Program and CFO of CoolSource.

Although VIP initially supported 10 companies, five from Wharton’s MBA class and five from the school’s undergraduate program, CoolSource is the only remaining undergraduate company. Six of the companies left after failing to meet certain progress standards. As a result, Pienkowski has all to himself the office space supplied by P2B (Penn to Business) Ventures, an initiative that promotes economic development in the Philadelphia area.

Pienkowski says he isn’t intimidated by the failure of his peers’ businesses. “The fact that we’ve already beat one of the MBA teams makes me really proud, and it gives me more drive to succeed,” he said.

Perhaps Pienkowski’s confidence comes from his conviction that CoolSource fills a large gap in the educational software industry. He says existing software is overly focused on drills and neglects personalized learning. Pienkowski relies on his own experience as proof. “I had my own weakness in math, and I had to adapt my own learning style to overcome those weaknesses,” he said.

Subsequent focus groups said the same thing—kids want more control in how they learn. To answer those demands, Pienkowski said CoolSource is marketing an adventure-based product. Similar to a video game, the software will allow kids to choose from various characters and scenarios. In one situation, for example, the user is a spy who must get to an underground layer by solving a series of equations. “Essentially, they’re not going to know they’re doing math. They just think that they are in an adventure,” said Pienkowski.

But the interactive portion won’t end there. CoolSource will also have a presence on the Internet as a subscription-based service. Pienkowski says clients can visit online chat rooms and play adventures against other kids or collaborate in teams. Teachers and parents can also benefit by participating in a virtual parent teacher association.

While CoolSource seemingly has a limited audience, available only to those with computers, Pienkowski has a solution. He has applied for grants to help low-income schools purchase computers and/or receive the software at a discounted rate. Pienkowski says CoolSource’s social and financial objectives are complementary. “By having a social initiative, it really says we’re devoted to the community. That combination puts investors at ease [because] by having a social initiative it gives us more visibility on the market,” he said.

Now all Pienkowski must do is find what he calls “angel investors” — those individuals with deep pockets who will help CoolSource truly get on its feet.

Pienkowski may be reached at chris@coolsourcetech.com.

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Originally published on September 27, 2001