Matthew Ramirez was teaching writing classes to students at the University of California at Berkeley when he started to get frustrated. He was spending the majority of his time giving repetitive feedback to students, and there wasn’t enough time to provide truly constructive, in-depth feedback to each individual before the next essay was due.
“Given the time constraints of a semester and the number of students in a class, it wasn’t humanly possible to respond to everything I wanted to,” Ramirez said in an interview. “Nor was it possible to work through multiple drafts with individual students.”
Ramirez took it upon himself to build a solution. Mixing his experience as a teacher with some advanced learning technology, he and his business partner started WriteLab – a Berkeley, California-based software company that helps students strengthen their writing skills by providing quick, customized feedback. WriteLab uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to analyze text and provide prompt, specific and actionable feedback to help students review and revise their work.
Instead of focusing on misspellings and punctuation, the software actually improves students’ writing decisions by using linguistic and other tools to analyze a text. If a sentence doesn’t seem right, the program will explain the error to students and actually offer a suggestion for how to rewrite it. WriteLab can even adapt its feedback over time to students’ individual writing styles.
Ramirez, who grew up in southern Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border, attended a local community college before graduating from the University of Texas at Austin and eventually becoming an educator. Noting his background, he emphasizes that the goal of WriteLab is not to replace teachers. Rather, the software is meant to be a tool that can help teachers, allowing them to give more meaningful feedback to students.
Investors apparently recognized the potential benefits of a program like WriteLab, as the startup has secured more than $2.5 million in funding since its founding in 2013. It has already been employed in more than 50 colleges and universities, and it has been integrated with several online course management systems.
Now 27 years old, Ramirez was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for 2016. He says he has loved being on the cutting edge and being able to solve a problem through his company. He also has some important advice for other would-be entrepreneurs.
“Focus on problems that eliminate waste – wasted time, wasted energy, or wasted space,” Ramirez advises. “If you eliminate waste at scale, you know you’re innovating.”