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Test prep in app form

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Pamela O’Loughlin is returning to school to fulfill her dream of seeing art therapists recognized as full-fledged professionals who can bill for their hours.

“I want to get art-therapy registration recognized in every state,” said O’Loughlin, 40, who received her bachelor’s of fine arts in advertising design and her graduate certificate in art therapy.

When O’Loughlin started studying for the graduate-school test called the GRE, she discovered an online application that included preparatory tests for both the math and the vocabulary sections. The app is called GRE Connect by Watermelon Express.

“This app encompassed everything that the GRE encompasses,” she said. “It explains what to expect and what to spend your time on, as well as prep tests. I can use it either on my laptop or on my desktop computer, and you can see how you’re doing compared with others using the app.”

The app also lets users who live near each other get in touch to form study groups. O’Loughlin is one of 100,000 students who have downloaded a Watermelon Express app to help them study for one of nine tests, ranging from the college-entry SAT to the law-school entry LSAT to the MBA-entry GMAT. The apps cost $24.99 each.

The apps are the creation of a Chicago startup called Watermelon Express. The startup, with six employees here and 12 contract software developers in India, is the brainchild of Ashish Rangnekar and Ujjwal Gupta. The two men, both 30, have been friends since their college days in Bombay, India, and have achieved rapid and high-profile backing in the company’s first two years.

“We are trying to displace the book model [of test prep],” Rangnekar said, explaining that Watermelon Express’ apps are designed for self-study. The company has no intention of using tutors.

Watermelon Express won the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School New Venture Challenge and caught the eye of the two Chicago-based serial entrepreneurs who gave life to Groupon.

Indeed, Watermelon Express is one of at least 10 ventures being supported by Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell’s investment group, called Lightbank. Nine of the 10, including Watermelon Express, are headquartered in the same building as Groupon — the former Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog house at 600 W. Chicago.

Rangnekar realized the need to have some fun — playing problem-solving games and even taking a break to watch a goofy or outrageous YouTube video — when he started studying for the GMAT in late 2008.

“I bought a GMAT practice book for $35, and my experience of carrying the book around and not being able to interact with it was not fun,” Rangnekar said. “On the other hand, I loved carrying my iPhone. I realized that I was hooked on the iPhone and always waiting for a message or playing a game on it.”

“So I asked myself, ‘Why can’t preparing for the GMAT be just as convenient? Why can’t I enjoy doing it?’ ”

Rangnekar, who left a job as a strategy analyst at Capital One Financial Corp. to return to school, relied on his work experience and his education in applied math and mechanical engineering to come up with the Watermelon Express idea.

He hired a college student to develop the self-study app, and wrote sample math problems for a GMAT program. To write the samples, Rangnekar relied on his own 97th-percentile score on the GMAT and his work as an adjunct math teacher at the City University of New York. He hired a Ph.D. student to write the English problems.

Rangnekar and Gupta together invested less than $10,000 to ready the app, which went live in December 2008. They named it “Watermelon Express” to connote an enjoyable, youthful summertime treat and one that is easily accessible. The app, then at $10 per download, sold 2,000 copies in eight countries in its first few months.

By the time Rangnekar was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Booth School to get his MBA in August 2009, the app covered five tests and had attracted 7,000 users. Rangnekar is slated to complete his MBA in June.

Rangnekar received plenty of attention and support at Booth, where students and professors encourage each other’s entrepreneurial creativity.

Linda Darragh, director of entrepreneurship programs at Booth, said Watermelon Express’ approach is unique because students can use the study apps on a mobile device, a laptop or any other computer without having to do separate downloads.

The company’s challenge will be to grab market share in a competitive field, Darragh said.

The apps are evolving to attract more users. Watermelon Express is using licensed content from small test-prep publishers, and plans are under way for a partnership with McGraw-Hill to create test-prep apps for the ACT and exams for students seeking nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy degrees.

Said Rangnekar, “We want to get content from every book and test publisher out there, whether the subject is high school algebra or undergrad physics or continuing education programs.”

To do so, the Watermelon Express co-founders are touting the apps at conferences such as “Venture Capital in Education” in New York and “the Education Innovation Summit” in Phoenix. Watermelon Express won the most innovative company award in the test-prep, tutoring and assessment category at the Phoenix summit, sponsored by Arizona State University.

The next phase? Introducing social features that let students interact in real time, helping each other solve problems and challenging one another.

“If I am an undergrad at the University of Chicago, using the app to study economics, my score of 15 isn’t relevant until I know how everyone else is scoring,” Rangnekar said. “Is 15 good or bad?”

The interactive element, due at the end of March, would let students create their own peer groups and compare their scores in real time, much like videogame players compare their skills on leader boards.

Another new feature, slated for March or April, will let students share ideas on how to better solve the problems in the tests.

“As soon as this collaborative power starts — coming from the student community and not just the publisher — the learning experience becomes much richer,” Rangnekar said.

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