Vadim Eelen knows quite a bit about making a lasting impression. In 1990, he was in Moscow directing a play about the year leading up to the 1980 Summer Olympics — a time when the Soviet Union displaced prostitutes and other undesirable people before athletes and visitors from all over the world descended upon the country.
Margaret Thatcher, then-England’s prime minister, and several other dignitaries were touring the country at the time of the play’s run. During that visit, a woman in charge of England’s cultural exchanges saw Eelen’s production and later invited him to teach at St. John’s College at Cambridge.
“She saw my show, but I never met her [at the time of the performance],” he recalls. “I got a letter that said they would like to meet with me and offered me this opportunity to teach at one of the most famous universities in the world. … I was 24 years old.”
More than two decades later, Eelen, who was born in Uzebekistan, is no longer a professor, but his time in academia and his interest in merging digital technology with the arts has influenced his work developing and selling software that allows teachers to reach students anywhere at any time.
The company, called Amvonet, recently received $250,000 in funding from JumpStart and is headquartered in the Technology Accelerator Alliance — a Stark County partnership between the city of Alliance and the University of Mount Union.
The software Amvonet makes isn’t the only product of its kind in the marketplace, but Eelen says it offers a distinct advantage in that the software allows for multimedia creation while also integrating with Moodle — an open-source software package for creating Internet-based courses and websites that makes the product far less expensive than its competitors.
“They’ve created a much broader toolkit for teachers,” explains Jerry Frantz, a managing venture partner at JumpStart. “They’ve made a better mousetrap.”
Eelen went from Cambridge to Aberdeen University in Scotland and from Scotland to the College of Wooster. The move to Wooster came in 1991 and involved a six-month stint that saw him teaching theater classes and helping with the renowned Ohio Light Opera, which is what originally brought him to the United States.
He later moved on to Bethany College in West Virginia, Coe College in Iowa and the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. He lived the life of a visiting professor before finally settling near Alliance on land in Paris Township that he had purchased during his time at the College of Wooster.
He also decided to leave academia in order to work on software he had been envisioning for some time. His idea aligned with what had been his main area of research for years: merging digital technology with the performing arts.
Despite his passion for the subject matter, Eelen says his research was routinely met with skepticism from his colleagues.
“When I published research on implementation of digital technology in the arts [at Coe College], it was not taken well by faculty,” he says. “They were like, ‘It’s never going to happen, it’s not your forte.’ ... They said I was crazy. I said, ‘OK, I’m leaving.’ ”
His idea was to help actors find jobs beyond the theater stage. The concept seems almost quaint now that YouTube and smartphones have democratized posting videos online. But Eelen saw potential in his idea of actors taking a camera into a quiet room, setting it up, reading lines, editing the video and putting it on the Web with his software.
But the concept changed over time, with the largest evolution in development coming in 2005, after Eelen formed his company with his son, Nikita.
The pair spent about five years developing their online-learning software and released Amvonet on Jan. 1, 2012. The company grew by 200 percent in its first two quarters and today has 17 employees, including workers at development centers in Russia and San Francisco as well as an office in Costa Rica.
Amvonet also now has about 100,000 users among 27 clients in nine countries. The company runs pilot programs in 41 countries, including the United States, which is home to most of its customers.
The father-and-son team are now in the process of moving from the product development phase to marketing, with the hopes of making a big jump in the number of K-12 and higher education institutions using Amvonet software.
“In the next three to five years, we will grow to become noticeable,” Eelen says. “We are around the world already, and that is why we get attention from organizations like JumpStart.”
On the left side of the computer screen is Vadim Eelen’s 26-year-old son and right-hand man, Nikita.
Just below his image is a chat window. If this presenation weren’t merely a simulation, students watching on the other end could send him questions about topics he mentions during his talk. Nikita could also pull up survey questions or a test (graded automatically upon completion) from a menu on the right side of the screen to instantly share with his students.
It’s all very impressive, but Amvonet’s biggest competitive edge is the glowing red light at the bottom right of the computer screen. Nikita is recording his entire presenation — the video, the tests, the audio, the chat, everything — which means he could use this entire class session again in the future as many times as he’d like.
It’s Amvonet’s ability to allow its user to be a content creator as much as a content manager that sets the software apart from competitors such as Blackboard and Angel.
Those systems also allow K-12 teachers and college professors to offer courses remotely. Users can upload PowerPoint presentations, tests and links to outside websites, but there’s no opportunity to create. Not like what Amvonet offers.
“None of our competitors can do this,” Nikita says.
Professors can record their classroom lectures and then post them online as a way for students to review before taking a test. Or, they can record fresh lectures to share students taking classes online. Once a recording is made, users have access to a comprehensive editing suite that allows content to be edited without the need for videos to be rendered and uploaded back to the server — a time-consuming process.
“You can save it instantly, and it’s available to the end-user immediately,” Nikita says.
What stands out most to a new user is the versatility, as well as how video is intregrated into what is relatively user-friendly software.
“There is a lot of functionality,” JumpStart’s Frantz says. “I’m really excited about how intuitive it is.”
The company currently has clients in four different industries: K-12 education, higher education, corporations and health care. One of the reasons JumpStart came on board is to help Amvonet decide what areas it should focus on, as well as help the young company develop its marketing and sales staff.
As colleges and universities throughout the country and around the world are working to offer more online-based courses, Eelen is sitting on a company that stands to benefit immensely from this tidal shift in how and where education happens.
“We’re planning to take center stage among the competition,” Eelen says. “We are around the world already. Our company can take off and get to the point where we make anywhere from $5 million to $25 million a year.”