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Challenge Cup

No More Flashcards: Brings Personalized Language-Learning to Life

Jan Ihmels initially created as a resource for personal use. Little did he know, the product would eventually become a business serving hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

With a background in computational science, Ihmels has worked in physics and genomics most of his life, moving around quite a bit along the way. He grew up in Germany, but he has lived and worked in the U.S., the U.K., Russia and Israel.

“I had a very practical need to engage with language learning, and I always liked linguistics as a field,” the CEO and cofounder said. “For people with a passion for languages, the web represents the perfect playground—unlimited content in almost any language imaginable.”

Ihmels had been surfing the web in foreign languages for a while, but it was a demanding process—reading foreign materials to keep up language skills, looking up words he didn’t know, making flashcards and remembering to review them. Now many of these features are part of, which Ihmels cofounded in 2011.

“The obvious solution was to build a tool to make (language learning) more efficient,” Ihmels said. “It started as a tool for personal use. Only later did we think of this as a personal business.” exposes users to newspaper articles from the foreign press, and those articles are selected by algorithms which match them to a learner based on vocabulary. It’s all authentic content written for native speakers.

Ihmels’ inspiration for actually came from his Ph.D. project, which looked at proteins in the human genome and inspired Ihmels to adapt the algorithm for language. On a map of every word in a particular language, monitors the words with which the learner interacts. In August 2013, the team launched a Google Chrome browser extension that incorporated the algorithm.

But what makes different? According to Meredith Cicerchia, director of communications and e-learning, it is the way that personalizes content to the learner’s interests and needs.

“Duolingo, for example, is one of our competitors, and they teach identical sets of words to every user,” Cicerchia said. “But with, the idea is that if you work in shipping or hospitality, or let’s say you are learning English so you can get a technical degree at a foreign university, your vocabulary is and should be very different.”

Similarly, Cicerchia says that many classes and textbooks don’t offer efficient methods because the user is missing from the equation. When learning a language, it is important to study vocabulary that is relevant to you so you can interact with people and describe your everyday life.

With, users are building their own personal dictionary, and the program reminds them to review their words later so they can better retain the information. Learners should already know 90 percent of the words in any given article, and 10 percent of the words will be new. Cicerchia said users feel good when they read inside the program because they recognize a lot of words and they understand what they’re reading, but they’re being challenged without feeling overwhelmed.

“A lot of our users say that is like a breath of fresh air or a present that they can give themselves after they’ve spent some time studying grammar, because it’s fun,” Cicerchia said. “They’re reading about whatever happens to come into their feed based on the words they’re studying. So they’re getting a language workout, and yet it doesn’t feel like work.”

Before April 2014, when the company launched its Android app, had a fairly small user base. In one year, though, they have accumulated several hundred thousand users. Most users take advantage of all three platforms—mobile, Chrome browser extension and web app—because their vocabulary is cloud-synced.

Challenge Festival competed in last year’s Tel Aviv Challenge Cup and won in the education category. Cicerchia and Ihmels traveled to D.C. to pitch at the inaugural Challenge Festival.

During the week, the team members didn’t just sit in a room practicing their pitch—they went out and talked to people, which is what they recommend other participating entrepreneurs do this year. They attended as many events as they could—even ones unrelated to education. If attendees come prepared with a pitch, they can take advantage of the full schedule, learn a lot and have productive conversations.

“Every time Jan gave his pitch, it got less technical,” Cicerchia said. “Make sure that from the beginning, everyone can engage and understand. Start off with a problem that everyone can understand.”

Challenge Festival also offered a strategic opportunity: Because the Tel Aviv-based platform operates in almost every other country, the team did not focus on bringing it to the U.S. until their trip to D.C. Talking about funding education in the U.S. allowed some insight into what they needed to do to appeal to American teachers and school districts.

During the trip, 1776 helped make several connections that proved beneficial even after the Festival ended. One of those connections was with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Last November, went to an ACTFL conference to introduce their product to foreign language teachers from all across the nation.

“They were thrilled with the product and couldn’t believe it was free,” Cicerchia said. “So they all brought back information for other teachers, and we had a massive jump in signups from the event—all thanks to 1776.”

What’s next for

Helping teachers use more in the classroom is the next immediate goal for the team. Foreign language teachers spend a lot of time looking for the right reading material that their students can easily engage with on individual levels.

“Our algorithm does all that for them,” Cicerchia said. “It’s our goal to have a dashboard for teachers that keeps track of how the students are progressing and what kind of words they struggle with.”

Instead of pushing language on them, students are able to choose content that will cater to their interests and learning levels. Cicerchia said that keeping’s data doors open is important so students can bring words in and out of the program. aims to be one piece of the puzzle in a healthy learning ecosystem, rather than the one app that all language learners use. Because tracks users’ progress and reinforces words they are learning, Cicerchia says it is an essential part of the language learning toolkit for beginner, intermediate and fluent speakers.

“We are the kind of platform that grows with the learner,” she said. “You never hit the advanced level where we run out of lessons for you. Even if you’re fluent, you can use our platform to maintain your language skills.”

Want to hear more inspiring stories of international startups changing the world? Hear them in person at this year’s Challenge Festival! RSVP for the education semifinals, or buy a weeklong badge to get in on all of the action!

Danica Smithwick

As a member of 1776’s editorial team, Danica Smithwick spends her time telling stories and communicating with others. She is a Union University and Washington Journalism Center student who loves…