Web exclusive: an interview with AreteLabs founder Mr. Timothy Kelley

AreteLabs’ founder Tim Kelley spoke to the upper school on November 18, 2019 – photo by Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

 Mr. Timothy Kelley is the CEO and Founder of AreteLabs, a medium for academic competitions on local and national levels. Starting in 2013 with the Math Madness competition, the company has grown throughout the United States, and most recently has worked with math teacher Mr. Nathan Bridge to create a local league. On November 18, Mr. Kelley followed up Mr. Bridge’s Monday reflection with a description of what AreteLabs does, as well as the concept of its founding. As a volunteer rowing coach, he observed the efficient nature of student’s athletic development when they had much more routine when it came to athletic testing and competition on the rowing machine. From there, he studied policy in education and the relationship between competition and academics, and used this as the basis for developing what is now known as AreteLabs.

Q: To what extent are you involved with the rowing community nowadays?

A: The only coaching I’ve ever done was at Loyola Academy, where I went to high school, in the suburbs just north of Chicago. A good friend of mine runs the rowing program there. I’ve been away from it for about three years, but I’m going to try to coach once a weekend, or something like that, in the spring.

Q: You’re involved with the St. Joseph’s volunteer services. Can you expand on your experience with that?

A: My main contribution to St. Joseph’s services was that I created a learn-to-row day that we host in the summer. St. Joe’s services has a summer camp for two groups of kids: one for the west side of Chicago, which is a very tough area of Chicago, and another group of kids not far north from there. There’s maybe thirty kids each summer that come to this camp, and they come to where Loyola Academy rows, and we teach them how to row. We get them all into a boat and actually rowing by themselves, and we do a barbecue afterwards. The parents of Loyola contribute all the food and the kids rate this as their favorite experience of the year, because they’re getting hamburgers and hotdogs, and rice crispy treats, and a lot of them have never been exposed to water, or ever been in a boat. It’s very new for them. A lot of them are scared, but we make sure they’re safe, with life preservers, etc, but it’s a new and very exciting experience for them. We’ve been doing this for ten years. 

Q: Moving into AreteLabs: What was the process of developing these leagues of competition, and how did you increase popularity and actually get people involved?

A: I first started Math Madness in 2013 at a highschool level. I met with the AMC, the main math competition at the High School and Middle School levels in the United States. I met with their president at the time, and because of their non-profit nature, they just wanted to promote math for the most part. I suggested this idea of Math Madness, an online math competition to support their traditional AMC testing, and he got right on board with it. We did a pilot event in the spring of 2013 and then a free event in the fall of 2013 for High Schools. Making it free was critical for getting this off the ground. We had 300-400 schools who tried it for free. The next year we started charging a fee, and we lost a lot of schools, but we had enough that came back, along with new ones, that a nucleus formed, and that was strong enough to keep fueling this event to the present day. In terms of leagues, like this Philly league, Haverford had been in this Math Madness event over the years, and Nate [Bridge] wanted to do something more local, and I said ‘Sure, let’s put it together’. So he spearheaded this Philly league culminating and he did almost all of the work for it. He reached out to other schools, got ten schools to play… I just created the league for him, but Nate did all the communicating and things like that and put this event together. He is largely responsible for this specific league.

Q: You spoke briefly about bringing AreteLabs to an international level. What specifically do you foresee in the future of AreteLabs?

A: A supreme court case in 2014 screwed up patents for years, including our own. This year, some changes in the law occurred, and I just got a patent in July, giving us protection from competitors going forward. Now we also have this National Science Foundation Grant. These are called SBIR Grants and are really worth noting. Most government programs offer these SBIR programs and are normally structured in two phases: Phase one is usually around 200-250 thousand dollars to explore an idea, which can be followed by a phase two grant, usually around a million dollars to really build out your idea. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is really the only way you’re going to get money given to you (if you’re a for-profit company). With our phase one grant, we want to build a platform that is basically a one comprehensive online competition platform. We want to create a new market for online academic competition. It’s pretty rare here in the US. There are debate teams and math teams, but it isn’t systematic in the way that sports and athletics, for example, are, and we want to change that. We want to see a world where kids are competing academically as often or more than kids are competing athletically, so we need to build a structure that attracts kids to do that. The model is to go from school district to school district, and create these inter-district competitions, and we’ve already been starting this. First, we want to build a platform to make it really scalable and efficient, then take our developed model and expand it to other districts, it can be in Math, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, any subject; it can also be any grade level. We then want to eventually take all of that and go international. This is a long cycle, not something that would grow as fast as facebook. For something like this, we have to actually coordinate with our users; I have to coordinate with Nate. That said, if it really motivates kids to learn and cooperate, it can end up being (not that it’s the only thing that matters) at a level of organization that generates a large amount of money. In order to prove the efficiency of this system and continue to grow, I want to do some high level research: Is it really working? Is it improving outcomes for students? Are kids getting better at math?

Q: What are some of your biggest obstacles in this process?

A: In education, there’s a lot of inertia, and a lot of resistance to change. This concept requires a lot of buy-in from teachers. Getting these teachers to try it and buy in is hard, because a lot of them don’t know technology, don’t use it, don’t want to learn about it, and overcoming that bias against new things in teachers is probably the biggest obstacle. With this phase two grant, I don’t think money is as much of an obstacle, I think I can build pretty much everything I envisioned. Money might be helpful in putting a sales team together quickly and expand quickly, but I don’t have as much urgency to do that due to this patent that protects us.

Q: Do you have any parting message for Haverford Students?

A: One thing to be aware of is the SBIR grant. I didn’t learn about it until several years into this process. That’s a very practical thing for anyone who might want to start their own business, and I would encourage everybody to at least try something entrepreneurial; try to start a business. The SBIR funding will be here forever, and it’s definitely something you would want to think about going forward in getting your idea brought to life. In terms of education, a lot of what you learn from wrestling through math problems translates into other areas of life in ways you don’t expect. The skills you pick up are very effective for pursuing a career, for example. It’s the problem solving, it’s the perseverance, and it’s the confidence that can really help you in life.

     Mr. Kelley spent the day having conversations with students and teachers alike, discussing his philosophy on education and more. The local Math Olympiad event was hosted at Haverford the next day, and despite the results of the competition, the event itself was a success and will hopefully set the bar for future academic competitions to come.