TWO University of Newcastle alumni are putting the finishing touches on a tertiary education tool they have dubbed "the Netflix of textbooks".
Web developer Chris Kimani and teacher Tayla Furey are in discussions with global publishers and venture capitalists with the aim of launching their platform Elimu in March, before the 2022 university year begins.
Born in Kenya and raised in the Hunter, Mr Kimani had the idea for Elimu, the Swahili word for education, when he was studying business and commerce at UoN.
"In first semester I spent $300 on a single textbook and as a broke teenager, I couldn't justify it," he said.
He spoke to Ms Furey, who moved from Port Macquarie to study teaching, and she was in the same position.
"Instead of buying textbooks, I'd borrow or photocopy them or go without. I felt like it was detrimental to my education, but I couldn't afford it," she says.
Mr Kimani dropped out of uni to set up his own web developing business and has spent most of the past three years doggedly learning how to build applications and researching, validating and conceptualising Elimu. More recently he's been fine-tuning the minimum viable product.
Elimu will allow students to access their textbooks 24-7 on demand at a low ongoing monthly cost or via an annual subscription. They can view, highlight, annotate and cite textbooks.
"Elimu reduces the amount students spend per year, decreases the toll on the environment, and solves the issue of availability," Mr Kimani says, adding that the average uni student spends $604 a year on course materials.
"Many students either go without and are risking their education or other students buy them and are financially unstable and worried afterwards."
Research by Mr Kimani and Ms Fuyer found about two thirds of students had not bought textbooks because of the cost, meaning they were not reaching their full potential.
Mr Kimani says the Elimu platform carries advantages for textbook publishers.
"Publishers are facing a huge problem with hardback textbooks as well because they only realise the profits from the initial sale of each textbook - it is then passed on to the second-hand market and re-used countless times," he said.
"Our platform will allow publishers to recoup the estimated 30 per cent of revenue lost to the second-hand textbook market, piracy and textbook sharing that are all methods used by students to reduce the cost of their university materials."
Mr Kimani said Elimu also cut publishers' costs in marketing, printing and other production costs, thus reducing emissions due to less paper use and machinery used for printing resources.
"We were very invested in finding a way for publishers to increase their current revenue, whilst creating an affordable and innovative solution in the market and we believe that Elimu is that solution," he said.
The Elimu founders are approaching publishers abroad (including those at Oxford and Cambridge universities) but hope they can secure an agreement with a local university and publisher to run a pilot program.
"We want to build our platform to be student focused first, that's why during our initial release, we will be testing it with a small group of students and working with them individually to refine the experience before it is released nation wide," Ms Furey said.
"We are working on building the platform and have been receiving mentoring as well as having accelerators and investment companies reach out to talk to us about our plans."
Mr Kimani says the functionality of Elimu will be customised to be inclusive for those with learning disabilities.
Last year, Elumi participated in the Catalyser Pre-Accelerator - an intensive "startup fundamentals" program for entrepreneurs with migrant and refugee backgrounds.
Mr Kimani and Ms Furey are now in touch with Dan Thurston Crow and Dave Moskovitz, both mentors at StartMate, created by Blackbird Ventures founder Niki Scevak and Atlassian's Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar.
Two main challenges remain to release their product: connecting and partnering with a university so they can streamline their minimum viable product, which they hope to take globally; and overcoming publishing and copyright issues.
They are in discussions with VC firms in the hope of securing seed funding to get their product to market by March.
"We are 90 per cent there, everyone we speak to is positive about it, but it's crossing the legal boundary of digital rights and publisher copyrights," Mr Kimani says.
"Every publisher has their own system of how to release e-books so we need to licence their IP to our platform, so whether they give us access to their websites or access to a single book."
The founders have launched a website (elimu.com.au) so those interested can register and learn more.
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