[Article originally published to the San Francisco Business Times November 7, 2019]

Paul Mumma wants to change how you learn.

He thinks learning any subject or skill can be faster and more efficient, and help you retain the material for even longer. And he’s confident that artificial intelligence will pave the way.

The CEO of San Francisco-based Cerego started at the AI-powered learning software company as a consultant in 2012. Cerego originally made software for learning Japanese, but its co-founders Andrew Smith Lewis and Eric Young soon realized that the underlying technology could be applied to learning a wide range of topics.

“The science of learning basically is the same whether you’re learning a new language, or you’re learning principles of chemistry, or you’re learning how to use complicated equipment in your job,” Mumma said. “It’s the same science for the brain.”

In 2013, the Cerego co-founders started transitioning the company to its current iteration as a platform for learning just about any subject or skill that customers feed into it. Mumma became chief operating officer in 2016 and CEO in July. Both co-founders remain on the company board.

Cerego combines cognitive science and machine learning, which Mumma describes as a powerful combination of “the science of how humans learn” and “the best of breed new technology available.”

The company’s wide range of customers who license its software seem to be a testament to its flexibility. Cerego users include the U.S. Army, the Peace Corps, the Smithsonian Institution, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and higher-education institutions such as New York University and Arizona State University.

And it seems to be catching on: Cerego sales increased 80% year-over-year in the first half of 2019.

Cerego uses machine learning to process what customers feed into it, from PDFs of textbook material to PowerPoint slides. The Cerego software then turns that material into quizzes and other learning material that it personalizes to each learner. Those lessons can range from teaching history or nursing skills to onboarding someone at a new job or training a soldier on how to use military equipment.

Because it automates turning source material into lessons, Cerego also reduces the amount of time required from the person teaching the material.

Customer feedback and Cerego’s studies have shown it can cut the learning cycle time by about 50%, Mumma said.  

In addition to using technology, Cerego applies two cognitive science principles to how it spins material into lessons. The first is the idea of distributed learning, which says the information that someone is learning should be distributed over time to help them absorb it. The second element is retrieval practice, which says that it is helpful to test someone on what they’ve learned rather than just showing them the information repeatedly over time.

By putting those two elements together, “you dramatically increase how much people remember … and it saves a lot of time along the way,” Mumma said.

Mumma ultimately wants to see Cerego keep expanding to accommodate every type of learning and ways for people to test and practice what they’re learning.

For people learning to code, for example, they can’t yet use Cerego to practice building software with the coding language they’ve learned.

“We recognize that for some fields, you can learn a lot of the early foundational stuff with Cerego, but you can’t do every part of your training right now in our platform, and we’re working on that,” Mumma said.

“It is bold,” he added. “We may never quite get there. where you could literally teach and practice everything, but that’s what we’re aiming for.”  

The biggest challenge ahead for Cerego is getting prospective customers to understand why they should even consider a new way of teaching and training people, Mumma said.

“Most people are not taught how to learn effectively when they are students,” he said. “So they may not intuitively know that they could save 50% of the time in training their staff or their students.”

Lessons learned

Patience and persistence pay off: “As an entrepreneur still relatively early in my career, I have learned firsthand persistence and patience, which are totally related, are really important traits if you want to build something meaningful for the long term,” Mumma said.

It’s OK to buck the standards: Many software companies gauge success by the level of engagement in their product. But since Cerego is trying to help people save time, they’ve had to get comfortable with breaking what other companies would consider best practices by decreasing rather than increasing the time users spend in the app, Mumma said. “We’re ready to do our own thing and buck a little bit of the conventional wisdom when it’s not the right thing for us to do for the business,” Mumma said.

Don’t believe the myths: There’s a myth that working at a startup isn’t compatible with growing a family or having a good personal life, Mumma said. But at Cerego, many employees have ended up starting families, all are still “very high performing,” and the company has a good culture.

— Alisha Green is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer.

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