Helping Students Succeed


Fadi George, Fadee Kannah, Luan Nguyen, Luke Sophinos, Ryan Vanshur, Michael Woo

Campus: San Diego State

Major/Program: Various

Company: CourseKey

Launched: 2014

Sales: $20 million in funding raised since starting at SDSU in 2014

Ryan Vanshur describes the convergence of the six San Diego State students as “dumb luck” mixed with an entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus. The result is CourseKey, a career education software company that has raised close to $20 million in funding since inception and saw annual recurring revenue grow 200 percent in 2020.

The company initially created a software tool that boosted class engagement and automated taking roll, but later pivoted to retention and attendance compliance in career education schools. One of CourseKey’s offerings is identifying at-risk students and executing proactive retention strategies.

“We’re making sure more students are crossing the finish​ line and keeping them from falling behind from missing too much class,” Vanshur says. “There are strict governmental regulations to confirm your students are meeting requirements to get their certification. We're developing products that have never existed in the market we're serving.”

And it all started at the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad at SDSU, a melting pot for students of different cultures and disciplines. “It attracts different specializations but like minds, which helped us make connections and grow to be a premier team,” he says.

Another aspect that led to CourseKey’s success was the ZIP Launchpad’s access to advisors. For example, Professor David DeBoskey, Ph.D., helped the team develop a five-year financial model. “We were kind of crawling along in the dark and then these experts would come and show us how to do it,” Vanshur says. “Once we got that momentum, SDSU did everything it could do to support us.”

CourseKey employees pose for a photo.

Coursekey staff members meet at the office, including Ryan Vanshur, fourth from right.​


Cathy Pucher, executive director of the ZIP Launchpad, says the center was designed to help people create their own careers from their ideas and also offer a transformational experience that will enhance their ability to land their next job. “The entrepreneur experience involves creative thinking and problem solving,” she says. “It's an important skill set to have, and you can add it, like a spice, to anything.”

The ZIP Launchpad accepts students from across the campus and asks participants to identify a significant problem. They must hypothesize how someone experiences that problem and then figure out how they would uniquely solve it.

Faculty pose for a photo.

Cathy Pucher, left, and Alex DeNoble, professor and executive director of the Lavin Center, show off SDSU's ZIP Launchpad.

Once students are accepted to the free, co-curricular program, they progress through three phases. The first phase is one semester and focuses on the problem side. The second phase focuses on the solution and typically takes two or three semesters. And the final stage, building their business, can range from one to several semesters. “We provide programming based on lean start-up methodology,” Pucher explains. “In the first phase, we guide them on how to demonstrate they have a problem worth solving. In the second phase, they're validating their solution concept through the eyes of their customer. In the final stage, they're building and gaining traction for their business, so that when they graduate from SDSU, they can operate autonomously with their business.”

The center has more th​an a dozen domain experts from the community who volunteer their time and offer students guidance in matters regarding legalities, insurance, accounting, marketing, fundraising, financial modeling, sales and more. Many of the domain experts are Aztec alumni who want to give back.

In addition, the ZIP Launchpad has a broad advisory board that donates their time and support. “Not only do they support our teams and the center, but many of our advisory board members are investors,” Pucher says. “Collectively, our teams have raised $30 million, and several million can be attributed to investments from advisory board members.”