Published January 5, 2017
In 2007, Don Jacobs, Michael Horning Jr. and Robert Daunce left their jobs at UB to embark on a new journey: founding a startup to digitize K-12 education, enabling teachers from different school districts to share curriculum plans online.
Nearly 10 years later, their company, PLS 3rd Learning, is thriving.
The firm employs about 60 full-time staff members, with about 40 working at its newly renovated headquarters on Main Street in downtown Buffalo.
Clients include about 100 school districts in New York State, over 800 in Texas, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The company also works internationally, with one project in Turkey providing curriculum resources in English and Turkish to teachers across the country.
Discovery Education, created by the Discovery Channel, engages the firm in another capacity: building and delivering online professional development courses for teachers. Colleges and universities nationwide also hire the company to perform this service.
PLS 3rd Learning has its roots in technology developed at UB.
Before making the jump into entrepreneurship, Jacobs, CEO of PLS 3rd Learning, served as director of the Center for Applied Technologies in Education, part of UB’s Graduate School of Education, from 1999 to 2007.
In the mid-2000s, he and colleagues designed a web platform called NYLearns that enabled K-12 teachers statewide to access curriculum plans for every grade level. Using the portal, a seventh-grade science teacher in Western New York could view a listing of concepts students should know by the end of the school year, along with peer-reviewed plans uploaded by other New York State teachers for teaching those ideas.
“If you Google how to teach a student the circumference of a circle, you will come up with hundreds of thousands of results, but the value of that content is zero without context,” Jacobs says. “What we do is provide context. Using our platform, you can find resources for teaching students at a specific grade level in a way that meets state standards. If you have a student who learns better through kinesthetic learning, which is very tactile, you can find resources for that.”
With encouragement from UB’s Technology Transfer team, Jacobs left the university in 2007 to commercialize the curriculum-sharing platform.
His startup began as a subsidiary of another firm — Performance Learning Systems (PLS) — before the two merged in 2012 to become PLS 3rd Learning with Jacobs as CEO. Horning is executive vice president and Daunce is chief information officer.
As the partners’ company approaches its 10th anniversary, the UB spinoff is posting sales of about $10 million this year. The company licenses its curriculum-sharing technology from UB, which receives royalties in return.
“I feel a deep connection to UB,” Jacobs says. “The Technology Transfer operation there is impressive. I can say for a fact that I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the support and guidance they offered from the very start.”
Teachers who use the curriculum platform say it has inspired the way they teach.
“If you’re an Advanced Placement teacher in rural Texas, without communication technologies, you’re working in isolation,” Jacobs says. “But once you are a part of this network where you can share what you’re doing and see other people’s resources, it opens up all kinds of opportunities you can provide for your kids.”
Mary Kolodziejczak, an instructional math coach and math coordinator with the Orchard Park Central School District, says PLS 3rd Learning enables her to access a plethora of useful tools. She uses NYLearns not only to access standards-based resources to teach mathematics, but also leverages an assessment tool within the portal to build tests whose questions mirror previous state exams.
“Whether you’re looking at it on a daily basis looking for resources or using it for long-term curriculum-planning, it has everything you possibly could want,” Kolodziejczak says. “They don’t just choose any type of resource. They look for top teaching resources.”
She adds that the customer service has been first-rate. “I have never worked with a company that is so responsive to the needs of the district. Any time I have had a question or suggestion, Bob Hartz, our main contact with the company, is right there to address my questions.”
Jacobs, a Niagara Falls native, says growing his business has been gratifying in part because of PLS 3rd Learning’s contributions to Buffalo.
“I’m a Western New York guy,” he says. “A company like ours could go anywhere, but we’re committed to this area. The 40 jobs we have here in Buffalo are all well-paying — we have web developers and highly credentialed educators on our staff.”
A few years ago, the company partnered with a local developer to buy and renovate its headquarters at 678 Main St., an abandoned building that now has polished wooden floors, open ceilings and quirky office spaces with huge windows that let in light.
In 2015, the firm expanded next door, completing a renovation that included the addition of a kitchen with a six-burner stove where employees cook breakfast or shared dinners.
“We’re creative people, so the architecture matters a lot — we wanted to be in a space that inspired inventive thinking,” says Jacobs, whose desk consists of a treadmill attached to a simple platform that holds his computer.
PLS 3rd Learning also supports other local businesses. The company purchases food for events from downtown restaurants, office supplies from a regional vendor and even had most of its furniture made locally at a furniture factory in Chaffee, New York.
Jacobs says that as the company continues to grow, Western New York will continue to be a priority. “We have a deep connection to this region, and we’re very proud of what we’re accomplishing here.”