Dr. Ian Hunt teaches two courses with about 200 students in each class. In the past, the University of Calgary chemistry instructor says, “there were one or two students who would be always asking questions or always answering questions.”

For the last two years Hunt has used Top Hat, student response software from Toronto-based Top Hat Inc. Students answer and ask questions using their own mobile devices. “We’re hearing from a bigger cross-section of the class,” he says.

Unlike dedicated clickers sometimes used in large lectures, Top Hat works on whatever mobile device a student already has – laptop, tablet or smartphone. In contrast to the clicker’s limited range of responses, Top Hat lets professors ask questions with any kind of answer, answer questions from their students and deliver varied content to the class electronically.

“It engages students,” says Elliott Currie, associate professor in the Department of Business at University of Guelph, “especially in large classes where they can hide.” Many students feel uncomfortable speaking up in class, says Currie, and Top Hat helps overcome that. And, he says, “I don’t know any 20-year-old that doesn’t have a smartphone, and so you’re using a technology that they’re familiar with.”

Top Hat also measures participation more reliably than clickers. Dr. Wendy Dustman, assistant professor of microbiology at University of Georgia, was considering using clickers in her large lectures when she sat in on a class where they were used. A student sat down beside her, took nine clickers out of his backpack, answered questions on all nine and left. Apparently students skipping classes give their clickers to classmates so they can appear to have attended. They aren’t as likely to do that with phones.

Mike Silagadze and Mohsen Shahini were students at the University of Waterloo when they launched Top Hat late in 2009. The idea came from their own experience in large classes. They tested the product at Waterloo, and began marketing it in fall 2010.

Meanwhile Andrew D’Souza had left a Silicon Valley startup hoping to start his own venture focusing on educational technology, an area he says has been a lifelong interest partly because his mother and grandfather both taught. While talking to people in the field he met Silagadze, who was looking for someone to launch a Silicon Valley office for Top Hat. D’Souza took the job, and is now Top Hat’s chief operating officer. Silagadze is chief executive and Shahini is chief administrative officer.

Seeing that marketing to university administrations is a slow and bureaucratic process, Top Hat decided to focus on approaching individual professors. That has worked well, D’Souza says. Top Hat gets a foot in the door with a couple of professors, and typically a year or so later administrators looking for better classroom technology realize some of their faculty are already using the product and contact Top Hat to talk about site licences.

Meanwhile, word of mouth among academics has helped spread Top Hat from campus to campus. Today, the software is used on Canadian campuses from University of Victoria to Memorial as well as at Harvard, University of California, Cornell and a number of others. Altogether, D’Souza says, 350 universities worldwide use it.

Silagadze and Shahini raised an initial $1.5 million angel funding in Waterloo and Toronto in 2011. The company completed its first venture capital round last year, led by Emergence Capital and iNovia Capital and bringing in $8 million. Felicis Ventures put in another $1.1 million at the beginning of 2013. D’Souza says Top Hat will probably do another funding round late this year or in 2014.

Initially named Top Hat Monocle, the company recently changed its name to just Top Hat. “Monocle is actually fairly hard to spell,” D’Souza explains, and the shortened name is easier to type on mobile devices.

Top Hat now has 80 employees and its revenues are “in the single-digit millions,” D’Souza says.

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