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Building to $10 Million in EdTech: Panopto CTO Eric Burns (Part 2)

Posted on Monday, Jun 16th 2014

Eric Burns: I got to work on some interesting things like building a search engine from scratch, designing a large-scale storage system, and building a UI—basically, building an entire system from the ground-up. One of the other projects that I got involved in, even as early as 1998, was capturing lectures in a classroom. CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] is a teaching institution where a lot of great presentations are given every day. Initially, e-commerce wanted to experiment with online class delivery.

For the other half of my time, which was divided between four projects, I was tasked to come up with a portable, low-cost, commodity hardware-based system that could be physically carried to a classroom, set up in the time between classes, and could capture a video. I always thought of this as a side project and not the thing that would go somewhere. What ended up happening was that it was a big hit with the students. The faculty liked it because it didn’t get in their way. It wasn’t intrusive. Once it started and people realized what it was able to do, it became a service that people wanted. Over time, we realized that there were some architectural problems with it.

Sramana Mitra: When and under what circumstances does Panopto get founded?

Eric Burns: It starts with the classroom capture project at CMU. Actually, if you wanted to tell the story right, it really starts with the unlikely combination of a large scale digital library with an ingestion system and a search pipeline and working on classroom capture. What we discovered in about 2002 was it looked like the classroom capture ran its course because it depended on, at that time, recording things to digital videotape and putting them on a shelf. It was difficult to manage because it was the equivalent of individual documents.

I was approached by the Director of the Software Engineering Institute at CMU and he said, “I need to teach a class in San Francisco and I don’t want to leave CMU. Raj said that you had some ideas here.” I said, “Yes. We’ve done this classroom capture thing, but to be honest, the right solution here is not to build a piece of software that captures a lecture and put the lecture online. It is to build a digital library of all lectures that we record partly because we have this incredible workflow problem where somebody doesn’t like their recording, we have to go back to the shelf, find the tape, put it through digital editing, and then produce something new.” The labor cost was enormous. He agreed to pick up half of my funding and I said, “We’re going to reboot this. We’re going to do it as a digital library using what we’ve learned from Universal Library.” That was when things started to pop a little bit—just through coincidence.

There were a couple of students at CMU who were extremely gifted but very disabled students. They were disabled to the extent that they couldn’t even attend class without being an extreme discomfort. Their names are Henry and Andrew and there are some articles written about them. The breakthrough was that there was growing recognition that there was this tool that had been developed at CMU that could capture classes. The Office of Disability Funding essentially made this call that these two students would be able to attend a full Carnegie-Melon CS degree where the majority of their classes were going to be recorded using this system and that they would attend virtually. This was radical back in 2002 to 2003. No one was really doing stuff like this. What that ended up doing was it gave a real shot in the arm funding-wise for the project. We hired a videographer to go to the classes and start recording things.

Other people found out about this and people who didn’t have these in their classes said, “Wait. We want in on this too.” This is very rare in a university. We actually wound up setting up what basically was a cost center within the Computer Science department and we started charging people for classroom recording service. At that point, once there was a model where people could just come and pay a certain amount and have their class recorded, it just exploded. Within a year, we had three full-time videographers, a part-time videographer, and a system admin who is doing programming with me. I was still doing the domain development. It was building its own steam.

Sramana Mitra: Did you then incorporate the entity as a business at that point to be able to charge these people?

Eric Burns: At that point, it was still just a department within CMU. It was a small team that could do intra-CMU funding transfers. I know you’re asking how you got founded. The answer is, thanks to the work that I did in Universal Library, Microsoft reached out to me to ask me if I wanted to be the first developer on what was unfortunately the short-lived Windows Live Book Search. I left CMU and oddly enough, the project not only continued moving but started to gather some more steam.

Carnegie-Melon actually made a sale of the software, not a sale of technology license, to the University of Pittsburgh. This happened right before I left for Microsoft. This attracted the attention of another Associate Professor at CMU who had a lot of experience in the venture capital space – Bill Guttman who is now Panopto’s chairman. He basically went to the Director and said, “This is insane. Somehow the university has managed to sell a product to another university. I don’t know how this evaded the university’s administration but this is a clear bit of evidence that this could turn into a real business.”

During the time I spent at Microsoft, not knowing if this would go anywhere, Bill worked with the university’s Tech Transfer Department to come up with a plan to license the technology to a new entity called Panopto that we incorporated in May 2007. I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of the new company that winked into existence already funded with an attractive valuation through Saturn Ventures. Unlike almost any other technology entrepreneur, I left a salaried full-time job and entered a salaried full-time job.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Building to $10 Million in EdTech: Panopto CTO Eric Burns
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