Making sense of math

With Knowledgehook, Arthur Lui and Travis Ratnam, both MBA’11, are helping teachers (and students) make arithmetic add up.
Kristen Sears
Travis Ratnam (left) and  Arthur Lui at Knowledgehook's office in Toronto.

Growing up, Travis Ratnam struggled in school. In fact, Ratnam says he learned at an early age that he was the “dumbest” kid in class. He still recalls a day in Grade 4 when his classmates compared report cards. “I had the lowest grades,” he recalls. That night, Ratnam told his father what happened. His father wasn’t surprised. Nor was he overly concerned. Turns out, his father knew what to do. “My dad was a tutor in Sri Lanka,” Ratnam explains. By the time his father was 11, he was a professional tutor. Many children, including those of his teachers, came to his home for instruction. 

When Ratnam was three years old, his family moved to Canada. An engineer, Ratnam’s father didn’t take up tutoring once the family settled in Toronto. “He put all his energy in me,” Ratnam says. Math, in particular, became a priority. Soon, Ratnam’s lowly Grade 4 marks were a thing of the past. “I ended up doing really well in high school…and went on to do engineering at the University of Waterloo.” Later, he earned his MBA at Smith.

Today, Ratnam is the co-founder and CEO of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.-based Knowledgehook. The company’s instructional guidance system provides targeted professional development for Grade 3 to Grade 12 math teachers. The goal: to improve arithmetic education. Surprisingly, Ratnam’s personal struggles in school were not the inspiration for Knowledgehook.

The entrepreneurial itch 

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Ratnam accepted a role as a program manager with Microsoft in Seattle. While there, he solved what he says was the No. 1 Microsoft Office issue that plagued the customer support team (the ability to recover unsaved changes to a document). Through this achievement, a seed of an idea was planted. Perhaps Ratnam had what it took to come up with additional solutions to pain points – beyond Microsoft – that others hadn’t thought of (precisely which pain points, he wasn’t sure).

It wasn’t until he read “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie that Ratnam began to think about starting his own company. Carnegie was the Bill Gates of his day – a wealthy American industrialist during the late 1800s who became a philanthropist, giving away vast sums of his wealth. “The Gospel of Wealth”, published in a London newspaper in 1889, put forth a then-radical idea – that the rich should use their fortunes to improve society. Ratnam says it led him to understand that “you can use capitalism to create change.”

 It wasn’t the first time Ratnam had wanted to find a way to make a positive social impact. During his undergraduate days, he and a classmate tried to launch several non-profits. But sustaining them proved a struggle. Carnegie’s essay revealed another way – doing good through businesses. “I thought ‘OK, maybe I'm using the wrong instrument.”

It was then that Sal Khan opened Ratnam’s eyes to the possibilities in education technology. Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a non-profit that offers free education on a variety of subjects online. First launched on YouTube in 2006, the Khan Academy channel now has over 4.8 million subscribers. “I decided to pursue something in [educational] tech, which also had that social impact element, and would give me a sense of purpose and meaning in my life.”

Ratnam applied to the full-time MBA program at Smith with the intent of launching a business in the education technology space. As luck would have it, the day of his interview with the school’s program director, he met Arthur Lui. “His interview followed mine, so we sat there, introduced ourselves and coincidentally, he became my housemate as well,” Ratnam recalls. Today, Lui is Knowledgehook’s product manager. 

A graduate of Ryerson University, with a degree in computer science, Lui oversees the company’s product design and user experience. Lui also brings some entrepreneurial experience to the Knowledgehook team. He founded and ran an online table-tennis equipment store for five years before selling the business. An avid table-tennis player – he tries to make it to the U.S. Open every year – Lui also created, a table-tennis equipment review site.

Finding the sweet spot

When Knowledgehook was formed, its focus was online test preparation. That initial idea earned Ratnam and Lui a Dare to Dream internship and $15,000 worth of support from the Centre for Business Venturing at Smith. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the company changed focus several times – from test prep to university courses to K-12 instruction – with the help of angel investors such as John Abele, co-founder of Boston Scientific; a grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence; and a few accolades – Google’s Game Changer Award and BNN’s Top Disruptor – which opened the door to potential investors. 

The company found its sweet spot with Grades 3-10 math. That’s when it all clicked for Ratnam. “It was then that I realized, looking back, ‘oh my gosh, this is actually tied to my own personal struggle,’ ” he says. That emotional connection to his past has added another layer of drive and determination that he believes is invaluable when navigating the challenges of growing a new venture.

Two years ago, Knowledgehook took its product to market, and today the company has about 2.2 million users. Clients include 14 school boards in Ontario that represent 46 per cent of the Ontario market. “After all these years, I can tell you proudly that we did come up with something that is actually quite novel and doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Ratnam says. “It’s essentially software that helps support teachers based on needs that we identify in the classroom.”

Next for Ratnam and Knowledgehook is expanding to other markets. “This was an interesting sort of dilemma. For any company, once you established product-market fit, even if you're a software company, how do you get to other markets? We experimented with a whole host of ideas and the one that really took off was the idea of channel partners.” Last fall, Nelson, a top Canadian education publisher, came on board as a strategic investor and is helping Knowledgehook expand across the country. “I’m really excited to say that by September we’ll have clients across Canada, in almost every province.”

Going back to the words of Andrew Carnegie, who argued that surplus wealth is best put to use when administered carefully for the common good to elevate others, last December Ratnam signed on as a founding pledge member of the Smith Founders’ Pledge. The pledge is a way for alumni of the business school to pay it forward and support the next generation of entrepreneurs at Smith. 

“You have to find ways to use that wealth and give back to society, be it through sustainable not-for-profits or giving back to Smith to accelerate future entrepreneurs exploring new ideas. It’s the natural thing to do,” Ratnam says. “As soon as I heard about the pledge, it was a no-brainer.”

How Knowledgehook works

When do you look at your car manual? “When a light on the instrument panel goes off,” says Knowledgehook’s Travis Ratnam. That’s essentially the idea behind his company. “We identify an issue and then we provide targeted guidance to teachers.” Here's how Knowledgehook works:

  1. Teachers select from a number of free, ready-made activities – such as a game-show-style quiz or mission-style assignments – to check to see whether students understand certain math concepts. “The tools are highly engaging so kids love them,” Ratnam says.
  2. Real-time monitoring lets teachers assess a student’s understanding. Using results of assessment tools, Knowledgehook identifies gaps. “For every topic – from adding fractions to multiplying two-digit numbers versus three-digit numbers – it turns out that there are three or four different reasons why students might struggle,” Ratnam says.
  3. Schools can unlock instructional guidance for their teachers. There are more than 230 options, and these include expert teaching strategies to help close student gaps, professional learning activities to address top needs across grade levels, and assessment benchmarking tools to track progress. This is the value-added service the company offers, and how Knowledgehook makes money.