The Internet has always been touted as the great academic information resource but finding a business model that can make real money from this has eluded most wannabe entrepreneurs.
Logically, academic institutions should be at the forefront of any such development but none have succeeded in taking the lead and turning their intellectual property into revenue. So along comes Boxmind, an online education consultancy that is going to do it instead.
"It provides the world's best academic lecturing on the internet," says Boxmind's chief executive Richard Halkett.
"There are three rungs to what we do," he continues, "one is content and as we have to build our own internal software for the content we make that available to academic institutions that want to build their own e-lectures and the third is that we provide production services to anyone who wants to do this kind of thing".
The content that Boxmind provides is key to its future success. "The lectures are chosen on the basis that they are done by prestigious names with ground breaking theory, "says Halkett, "you are put in the e-lecture archive if you are a superstar in your subject".
Appearing on the site are big names from Oxford University such as Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson both of whom are on Boxmind's advisory board. Boxmind pays an up-front fee for each lecture that is used.
By Autumn the e-lecture archive will consist of 40-50 lectures and this will probably double in the next year. "We aren't looking to expand this massively as there just aren't enough big names out there."
Lectures are presented through filmed material. The screen is divided into four components with the talking head of the lecturer in the top left of the screen. To the right are synchronised slides and below is the transcript with relevant web links to the left. As the lectures are not live the e-students can stop them at any time to explore one aspect in further detail or to simply take a break.
The e-lectures are available to academic institutions on a subscription basis. The series was launched on 5 March 2001 and this will be the main revenue stream.
"Our model works on institutions subscribing so it is effectively business-to-business," says Hallett. We are currently working on a pilot project with major UK universities and sixth form colleges."
If the universities are satisfied with the pilot (which costs £5,000) they can then go on to sign up for a yearly subscription. "They will get access to our archive and to our software so the idea is that they can build up their own e-lectures and slot ours into them and effectively build courses internally."
It is up to the universities whether or not they pass on the cost to their students but the established model is that it is free to the end-user. There are also plans for an individual subscription model. "The final cost for this has not yet been decided but we are looking at doing a major partnership with a national newspaper."
Expansion plans are not limited to the national market. "Boxmind is targeted at universities worldwide not just in the UK - the idea of aiming it at the top of the academic pyramid is that it is of world-wide relevance."
Halkett has already been involved in talks with a university in France and with companies in SE Asia. "There are also strong possibilities with US universities and individuals as they are already very up on e-Learning."
The company is rapidly growing from the original three who all met when studying at Oxford University and is now recruiting new members of staff including a sales director.
Halkett is however keen to emphasise that Boxmind will grow organically. Financial backing has not been provided by rounds of funding but on a rolling basis and to date only £800,000 of the money provided by Eurovestech, and others, has been spent.
This cautious approach should pay off as Boxmind expects to be profitable in the first quarter of next year.
Company CV: Boxmind
Born: March 5 launched pilot for universities
Directors: David Auckland and Richard Halkett
Funding: In March 2000 lead investors Eurovestech committed £1/2m. Further funding is also coming from E-Technology VCT and Scottish Value Management
Elevator pitch: Boxmind is an online education consultancy that, through a combination of expert advice, outstanding rich media content and proprietary software, assists academic institutions & corporations to exploit the full potential of the electronic delivery of educational material.