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Immigration Policy Splits the Startup That’s Making a Wildly Popular History Teaching Platform

Thomas Ketchell hopes to transform America’s education system through a simple digital platform. The Belgian native is the CEO and co-founder of Sutori, a tool that allows students and educators to create free interactive timelines — similar to those on Facebook or Twitter — to document historical events. Ketchell first came up with the concept in 2012, when he and his co-founder, Steven Chiu, were living in Beijing. To bring attention to the city’s severe air pollution, they created a fictional character who “live tweeted” the 1952 Great Smog of London, a period during which 12,000 Londoners died from toxic smog exposure.

The event was picked up widely in the British press and Ketchell and Chiu realized they could use the idea to build a powerful educational tool that would help students better understand historical events. In 2013, the pair returned to Belgium and founded Sutori. Despite the company’s immediate success in Belgium, Ketchell believed there would be even more opportunities in the United States. “America’s schools are home to 10 million tablet computers, compared to just 1,200 in Belgium,” Ketchell says, adding that there is “far more funding available for innovative education startups in America.”

For a new company like ours, it’s so important for the team to be in one place. And travel between continents is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.

Since Sutori’s official U.S. launch in March 2015, the company has enjoyed great success, and today more than 150,000 people use it in 5,000 schools across the country. Through its social-media style design, Sutori allows the 21st century student to explore — and present — historical content in a familiar format. In doing so, the tool helps make history education more interesting by engaging students in a way that traditional methods do not.

The company’s success is all the more exceptional given the obstacles Ketchell and his team have faced — and continue to face — because of the U.S. immigration system. Although Ketchell was able to secure an H-1B visa for high-skilled workers through the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (GEIR) program, his two co-founders have not been as fortunate and are currently working from Chile and Belgium. “This has been a huge obstacle,” Ketchell says, “For a new company like ours, it’s so important for the team to be in one place. And travel between continents is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.”

Despite these obstacles, Ketchell and his co-founders have big plans for the future: “We already have educators using our platform in 136 countries, but we want to keep growing and eventually reach millions of educators and students across the world,” he says. “Our vision is to help students collaborate and interact in solving problems and, in the process, become better global citizens.”

This post was produced by NAE in partnership with the Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program at the University of Massachusetts. It may be cross-posted at the university’s Venture Development Center’s blog.

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