Cozad winner FlipWord makes language learning as simple as browsing the web

Blake Herrman

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2015 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development, and more as well as and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Winners were announced at the competition finals on April 24.

Thomas Reese, whose startup FlipWord claimed first place at the recent Cozad New Venture competition, is revolutionizing language learning.
Thomas Reese, whose startup FlipWord claimed first place at the recent Cozad New Venture competition, is revolutionizing language learning.
Whatever the motivation, many people have an interest in learning a new language. In addition to being useful to a career, it makes it easier to travel abroad and have unique experiences with people from diverse backgrounds. For many, it’s just fun.

The many language-learning products currently on the market all rely on the user taking time out of his or her day to sit down and focus solely on learning the new language.  Thomas Reese has set out to change that.  A graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Reese studies computer science and established the need to easily learn a second language after living abroad in Hong Kong during his undergraduate career. 

Reese says the idea for a better way to learn a second language came to him while browsing the web.  He thought to himself, “I could be using this time better.”  And, thus, FlipWord was born.

As a computer science major, Reese has participated in many hackathons — competitions where college students gather to collaborate on computer coding projects under a short time constraint.  During April of last year, University of Illinois hosted its own hackathon called HackIllinois.  For this event, Reese had 36 hours to develop his project with the help of three teammates. It was also a great opportunity for feedback from others. A year later, FlipWord claimed first prize in the non-university funded category at Cozad New Venture Competition sponsored by the University's Technology Entrepreneur Center.

FlipWord works by helping the user passively learn a language by incorporating the learning into the user’s day-to-day routine.  When in use, FlipWord changes selected words in a web browser to that of a different language.  FlipWord determines which words are most important at that time based on the content of the current web page.  As the user reads the web page, as he or she normally would, selected words will appear highlighted and be written in the chosen second language.

As the user comes across the highlighted word, he or she can hover over the word, which causes a small, non-intrusive pop-up box to appear with the word in both the user’s native language and chosen second language.  Additional features of the program allow the word to be spoken to the user or for a related picture to appear with the translation.  As time progresses, new words will automatically begin to appear in the chosen second language.

Reese’s goal for this program is for users to learn a language passively with no need to devote extra time to a dedicated language-learning program or to studying flash cards. With FlipWord, learning a new language becomes completely integrated into the user’s day-to-day routine.

Currently, there are approximately 150 people using FlipWord worldwide while many others are anxiously awaiting the time when they can start using the program.  According to Reese, reactions from users have been overwhelmingly positive.  Current users are reporting that they are successfully learning the chosen second language, which helps fuel interest from others—even if they did not previously think they were interested in learning a second language.

For Reese, the beauty of FlipWord is that anyone can use the program and there does not necessarily have to be a target audience.  “If you’re 80 years old and using a web browser, you can use FlipWord,” says Reese. 

Reese has brought on a second team member, Joseph Milla, to help hammer out the final details of the program and hopes that by marketing through social networks, the program can catch on and start to spread by word-of-mouth.

As FlipWord grows, Reese has ideas about how to advance the program and expand the client base.  For now, Reese and Milla, are working diligently to ensure FlipWord is ready to release within the next few months.