“As long as you have a brain, we can show you how you think and learn,” laughs Michael Hall, the strategic chief financial officer of Cognassist, the Newcastle-based business that is shaking up the adult education sector with its groundbreaking approach to identifying learning difficulties, providing an alternative to expensive, paper-based processes in the form of a specially designed 30-minute online assessment.

The firm, which has secured funding of £1m from BOOST&Co to help sustain its impressive growth, has assessed more than 70,000 people – and by enabling prospective students to access bespoke learning programmes, it is making a significant difference to people’s lives. “Cognassist provides valuable opportunities for learners who may experience difficulties, helping them to realise their potential through skills training and development that is tailored to their needs,” says Ryan Sorby, the head of BOOST&Co’s Manchester office, who led the deal.

Cognassist is one of only a handful of companies worldwide that enable colleges and independent training providers to cognitively assess their learners through digital means, producing results far more swiftly and efficiently than competitors’ traditional methods. Its software helps organisations not only to identify hidden needs in students, but to create tailored programmes to support them. What’s more, its process is aligned with the government’s criteria for adult learning difficulties, so training providers can apply for additional funding to support each learner when this process is complete.

The company, which won the education category at the 2020 Digital Impact Awards and the UK semi-finals of last year’s Global EdTech Start-Up Awards, was founded in 2017 by its chief executive, Chris Quickfall, an entrepreneur who has advised the government on cognitive assessment in relation to disability. “Chris was diagnosed with dyslexia at university; he had always known that he thought differently to others, but he didn’t know why,” says Hall, explaining how Quickfall’s experience led him to establish four successful businesses in this field.

How difficult getting a diagnosis can be

Hall describes his own difficulties in getting an assessment for one of his children, to illustrate the difference between traditional processes and Cognassist’s approach. Having encountered some resistance from his high-achieving son’s school, he paid around £500 for a private assessment.

His son “sat in front of a stranger for three hours and was exhausted by the end. Three weeks later, we got a massive – and inconclusive – report that I couldn’t interpret, and nor could my wife, who’s a primary school teacher. I had to give it to our head of science and say ‘please tell me what this means’. And that’s how we assess people in the UK,” Hall says.

In addition to the discomfort of this lengthy process, the outcome is not always a helpful diagnosis: typically, a learner’s results are simply compared with three or four established patterns. Hall also notes that a lot of significant data, such as reaction times, cannot be captured on paper. So what does Cognassist do differently?

The business has digitised the entire process, transforming it into a 30-minute online assessment that was developed by neuropsychologists and mapped against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the gold standard for psychometric testing in the US). Because the results do not need to be processed manually, they can be sent to each learner’s tutor immediately – and, unlike major competitors such as Pearson, which charge for each assessment on a licenced basis, “we can do a million for a penny, instead of charging £500 each time”, Hall says.

Another key difference is that the company’s software “doesn’t just identify people with needs and say, ‘OK, you have a need’; we wrap specific learning strategies around each learner, based on their cognitive profile”, Hall says. “Everything is tailored to the individual, so they gain their own unique coping strategies. We want them to achieve better outcomes, too – and the data tells us that our clients do just that.”

Expanding the team and making inroads overseas

Cognassist has increased its revenues from zero to £3.5m in four years, and aims to double this every year; Sorby describes the firm’s growth as “very exciting”, particularly given the adverse effects of Covid-19 on the UK economy. “We saw the strength of the product when the business made some significant new wins in the second half of 2020 – not only in the UK, but in the large US market as well,” he says. 

Much of the funding will be used to expand Cognassist’s team. As part of a drive to refine and develop the product, the company plans to hire at least ten new employees, including a head of people and a head of IT, as well as staff in areas as wide-ranging as operations, psychological research, data science, marketing and graphic design.

There are also plans to apply the firm’s expertise to areas beyond its core service of identifying learners with hidden needs. “Soon, we’ll be expanding into general education, as well as B2B settings and the workplace, because everyone would benefit from having a cognitive profile and understanding more about themselves and the brain,” Hall says. He believes that Cognassist, having assessed 70,000 people so far, has already created one of the largest cognitive data sets in the world.

This expansion is part of Cognassist’s ambitious plans for further growth. “We’re looking for more investment this year, so the funding from BOOST&Co will help us on a practical level and also give us the confidence to continue investing,” Hall says. “We don’t have a long history and we’re growing fast, so there was an element of complexity for Ryan and the team to get their heads around, but they got comfortable very quickly with both the product and our team.”

“Cognassist is a really good business with really good people behind it, so we’re delighted to support its targets for growth,” Sorby says. “This is a company that is genuinely making a difference, by enabling people to access learning opportunities that can change their lives. Amid a pandemic that is affecting everyone in the UK, this is the type of good-news story we all need.”

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