Most companies are founded to solve problems. Raj Valli founded his company, Route 27-based PrazAs Learning, to help one of his daughters solve math problems.
Valli says his daughter was enrolled in extra math education while in school, but it wasn’t working out. “My oldest daughter used to go to Kumon, a Japanese-based provider,” Valli says. “It was all worksheet-based. I would take her to the Kumon center every week and hand off assignments, and they would already have another set of math assignments for her to do without understanding what she was doing or how she was doing.”
Valli says he thought the teachers there would be able to help his daughter more if they looked not just at the answers, but looked at how she arrived at answers. “Imagine if I could somehow magically lift up just the writing ink from your paper and see it appearing as you wrote. If I were your teacher, and needed to know how you were taking notes without looking over your shoulder, how could I asynchronously look at what you have done?”
Of course, any teacher worth his salt asks students to “show their work” on math problems so they can correct any mistakes. But that’s an imperfect solution, Valli says.
“Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re solving an algebra problem and you make a mistake. You would use an eraser to scrub it out and write on top of it. How do I know what mistake you made before you decided to erase it and overwrote the eraser mark? Today you can only see what you did after erasing something. As a teacher, I need to know the path that you were going on before you decided to erase. I still need to understand why you were going in a different direction than the direction I wanted you to go.”
The answer was to create iPad software. Kids could solve problems using an iPad and send the data to tutors who could later view replays of their work, scratches, hesitations, erasing, and all. Valli founded his company and its flagship product, Tabtor Math, in 2010. Today PrazAs is an educational company that combines tutors with its proprietary program to provide distance learning to thousands of students around the world.
Tabtor charges students based on levels of service, anywhere from $30 a month for basic K-5 math to a maximum of $120 a month for the most intensive program. Tutors based all over the world use the Tabtor platform to work remotely.
The software is also used to help lower-performing students in the South Brunswick school district, where Valli says the program has made a big improvement. It’s used in all nine of the South Brunswick district’s schools and given to kids who have challenges in math. The program revealed a gap in the education of the students who were falling behind. “They thought they didn’t know how to solve the problems, but the actual issue was they didn’t know their multiplication tables,” Valli says.
Valli believes Tabtor’s approach makes learning academic subjects a much more natural process, and more similar to the way kids learn other skills. When learning to swim, a child gets in the water, and an instructor watches their strokes and tells them how to move better. Guidance is given at every step of the way, rather than just at the end. Valli aims to make math instruction work the same way, with correction given where it is needed in the process, not just after the answer has been reached.
Valli grew up in Chennai, India, where his father owned a small scale chemical manufacturing business. He graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, and then earned an MBA at the University of Maryland College Park and a master’s in medical and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Virginia.
His corporate career began at Honeywell, where he was a financial analyst and later promoted to director of worldwide customer marketing for the company’s aerospace division in Phoenix. After leaving Honeywell in 2005 to become general manager of Invitrogen Bio in Buffalo, he had a series of positions at other companies, including Trane in Piscataway, WABCO in Belgium, and SIIA in New York.
Valli says he couldn’t stop himself from founding his own company. “Entrepreneurship is a disease. You can’t just walk away from it,” Valli says. “It’s something that takes over you.”
He says that the Tabtor platform could be used for all kinds of other subjects, including physics, chemistry, biology, reading, and anything else where “digital paper” would come in handy. He estimates the size of the market at “50 to 75 billion dollars” and gives himself good odds of capturing a large share of that market.
He chose to locate in the Route 1 corridor because of the high population density and rich cultural diversity of the area supported by great educational institutions that churn out talented people. “It’s got all the ingredients for being a huge ecosystem for entrepreneurship,” he says. “We just need to make it work.”
PrazAs Learning, 3228 Route 27, Second Floor, Kendall Park 08824; 6732-419-0142; Raj Valli, CEO. www.tabtor.com.