With a New Focus on Artificial Intelligence, Mark Cuban-Backed Packback Raises $1.5M

Chicago startup Packback looks a little different today than it did in 2014 when it went on Shark Tank and scored a $250,000 investment from Mark Cuban.

Back then, Packback was all about online textbooks, offering 24-hour e-textbook rentals for $5 a piece. Since then, the company has gone through a considerable pivot, and it’s now using artificial intelligence to help quantify difficult-to-measure student metrics like critical thinking and curiosity.

And as it has continued to scale its new software, Packback has brought in some new funding. It just announced a $1.5 million round on Tuesday from University Ventures, a well-know higher ed-focused venture firm, and ICG Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Ingram Content Group. Packback has raised $5 million to date, and says it expects to raise more funding through an upcoming Series A round.

The startup’s product, Packback Questions, is an online discussion platform that uses A.I. to analyze a student’s written questions and essay answers. Unlike multiple choice questions, Packback Questions measures a student’s ability to apply and analyze course concepts. This results in a more accurate measurement of a student’s ability to think critically, rather than just recite details from a textbook.

“A.I. will play a huge role in the future of education, and the future of education is developing independent critical thinkers,” Mark Cuban said in a news release announcing the new Packback funding. “Knowing how to think is the most valuable skill to succeed in jobs of the 21st century. I invested in the Packback team because of their resilience and relentless focus on student success outcomes—this is what it takes to win in education.”

Packback said it has doubled its user-base over the last 6 months, and it anticipates over 70,000 students at more than 50 universities will use its software this academic year.

Packback’s pivot may seem relatively new, but the company has been working on the shift since late 2014, about 7 months after its Shark Tank appearance, co-founder Jessica Tenuta told me via email. The original concept was to build social academic community layer on top of the eTextbook reading experience, she said. But realizing that A.I. could have a much greater impact than just a social network, the startup shifted to an A.I.-driven online discussion platform. Packback launched a minimum viable product in 2015, and has been growing the platform since.

“Our team is so excited to be working on the frontlines of critical thinking, as we believe that there is no industry more singly impactful than education,” Tenuta said. “Schools can only effectively teach what they can effectively measure. Packback is setting out to become the new assessment standard for the 21st-century student focused on measuring how students think, not just how well they can memorize.”

Originally featured on Chicago Inno