All aboard the GradTrain

At one of capital’s hottest start-ups, a platform caters to the needs of the prospective global grad student.

Dr. Lital Helman and Jacob Bacon of GradTrain (photo credit: ESTHER BACON KAUFFMAN)
Dr. Lital Helman and Jacob Bacon of GradTrain
Jerusalem has already caught the attention of the international tech community as one of the most promising emerging start-up hubs. The past few years have seen an increase in the number of start-ups, spurred by an influx of investors and a growing network of accelerators seeking local talent.
But a city blessed with technical savvy alone cannot turn into the vast technological ecosystem of Silicon Valley. Skill must be coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit that frees the creative energies of its populace.
It seems just such an atmosphere is materializing in Jerusalem, inspired by a generation of enthusiastic young Israelis all convinced that their ideas will prove to be the next billion-dollar exit, and each endowed with the necessary chutzpah to pursue it. Among them are Dr. Lital Helman and Jacob Bacon, spouses and co-founders of one of the capital’s hottest new start-ups.
The ability to recognize a business opportunity where others see only a nuisance or an obstacle is the mark of the entrepreneurial mind. When the innovative young couple returned to Israel after several years of working and studying in the US, they were possessed with an idea that would germinate into a thriving company.
The many challenges they had faced living abroad are common to thousands worldwide who choose to cross international borders on the road to higher education.
The pair realized that this collective body of knowledge and experience acquired by the multitude of students who had endured the trials of bureaucracy and academia could prove indispensable to millions of prospective students.
GradTrain was born on the couple’s kitchen table, upon which they researched, brainstormed and drew up their first few attempts at a business model. Ultimately, they realized that no serious platform existed that catered to the needs of the prospective international student, while the marketplace was crying out for such a service.
“‘Which universities should I apply to? How do I secure a scholarship or a student loan? How do I get a visa?’ Those were questions we had to figure out for ourselves when Lital was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania,” Bacon, now GradTrain CEO, recounts.
“Looking back, we realized that the best way to obtain this information was with the help of others who had been through the process. We made so many mistakes along the way, it would be senseless to let thousands of others repeat those mistakes. The knowledge must somehow be passed on.”
Putting their successful careers on hold – Helman as a lawyer and legal academician and Bacon as an organizational change management expert – the two resolved to dedicate themselves to realizing their vision: to create a web-based service that guides would-be international students through the jungle of the admissions process and the challenges of settling in a foreign country. With the help of the Siftech start-up accelerator, Jerusalem’s first, the pair began operating in 2014 from their small office near the German Colony.
As the first step in an applicant’s long journey to Harvard, GradTrain offers a free online Admissions Predictor that calculates the user’s chances of getting into a particular school before applying in the first place.
Unlike other generic predictors found on the Internet, theirs is based on an original algorithm that takes into account different facets of the applicant’s profile with respect to each university’s admissions criteria, thereby allowing users to concentrate their efforts on those institutions they stand a reasonable chance of being admitted to. To an applicant from rural India, saving hundreds of dollars in application fees is no small thing.
However, the bulk of the GradTrain team’s efforts is focused on building an extensive network of students and alumni that spans the globe, all offering their counsel as mentors to prospective applicants – usually for a modest fee after a free trial consultation. The ultimate goal is to connect each user with a coach from the same country of origin who is studying in the school he aspires to be accepted to. As Bacon puts it, their vision is “to connect every user with his/her ‘future self’” – that is, with someone who has successfully walked the path he/she wants to tread.
“We now have 400 mentors and over 45,000 unique entrees into our website monthly from over 140 countries,” says Danielle Neubauer, head of marketing at GradTrain. “It’s only been a year and a half since we went online, and we’ve barely spent a dollar on advertising.
The buzz surrounding GradTrain on the web this early on shows how much demand there is for such a platform.”
In many ways, GradTrain has created the long-sought forum for thousands of students and wannabes worldwide to meet and exchange information. As college applicants from Bangladesh, China and Nigeria flock to the site to find the mentors who will guide toward the Ivy League, a sizzling new community is taking shape that attracts scores of businesses, each vying for the attention of this bustling virtual marketplace.
The GradTrain team has forged partnerships with many companies, providing a range of services that covers the breadth of an international student’s life abroad. The site directs users to recommended GMAT courses, health insurance companies, real-estate agents, moving services and much more. The vision is to offer users a full package of services to fulfill their needs as students and help them find a job upon graduation through the guidance of the mentors.
GradTrain has also been working closely with the universities to which thousands of its users apply. The Admissions Predictor alone procures volumes of data these institutions find invaluable, which the team then analyzes to try to pinpoint applicants to whom certain schools might want to reach out. Some institutions choose to put up their own page on the GradTrain website, not only for the sake of advertisement but also to receive further data about user traffic and the profiles of prospective applicants who have shown an interest in the school.
What has driven the ambitious young couple to dedicate themselves to this project is largely the potential to effect a positive social impact on the world with very few resources.
“We are creating a broader access to international education,” Helman says. “GradTrain provides people, regardless of their background or financial situation, with the possibility of making their dreams come true.”
The prospect of opening the doors of academia to disadvantaged talents worldwide bodes well for humanity, which cannot afford to miss out on creative minds simply because they were born in the wrong place. As the number of users grows by an average of 5 to 7 percent a week, energies are sky-high at the GradTrain offices, and the team’s sights are now set on expanding with the support of more investors. Their vision for the future role of the company on the world stage is appropriately towering: “We want to become the hub, the go-to place for anyone looking for an education or a career abroad,” Bacon asserts.