9 June 2021|Latest Posts, Meet the Successful Founder
Chris Quickfall is the Founder and CEO of Cognassist, the UK’s leading digital neurodiversity assessment and training provider, offering the only NCFE accredited qualification in neurodiversity. Founded in Newcastle upon Tyne, following Chris’ own experiences growing up with dyslexia, Cognassist works with over 100 organisations including Holland & Barrett, the YMCA and Lincoln College to help individuals identify hidden learning needs and arm them with the tools they need to reach their full potential. Chris is on a mission to champion neurodiversity and ensure that no learner is left behind, supporting over 100,000 people since founding the company. We caught up with him recently to discover more about his entrepreneurship journey.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I struggled in educational environments when I was growing up – for example, at school I was the last child to learn how to spell my name. This made sense once I was formally diagnosed as having dyslexia at university. One of the things that struck me was the lengthy process I had to go through to get my diagnosis and the cost of this for my university. Prior to higher education this type of assessment wasn’t readily available and this was something I found particularly disconcerting; had I known that I was dyslexic earlier on in life, I would’ve understood why I was struggling in some aspects and would’ve more easily received the support I needed to reach my full potential. I knew there would be others in the same boat – hitting barriers to learning simply because the assessment and diagnosis process is clunky and expensive. For that reason, my goal has been to create a better way of doing things – to create a more efficient system for cognitive assessment that can be cost-effectively rolled out to individuals within education and beyond. One of my earlier ventures was starting a company selling computer systems for people with dyslexia – it grew to become one of the largest disability services companies in Europe. Last year, I was able to take on some investors so that I could focus on Cognassist.
Now, Cognassist helps educational organisations and training providers to better identify hidden learning needs and provide support for those people. We do this primarily through digital cognitive assessments for learners to help identify any needs that they might have. We equip training providers with the tools and knowledge they need to offer better, more personalised support for those with hidden needs. The digital nature of the assessment is what makes it efficient and cost-effective for education and training providers.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
I have always thought that the UK’s education system tends to treat school-goers in a way that’s similar to ‘batch production’. Everyone is forced through the same intricate system regardless of whether they fit through it, and personalisation or individualism certainly isn’t encouraged. I founded Cognassist with this in mind, to create a tool that efficiently and cost-effectively assesses the way people think and learn, so that those who feel they don’t fit can understand why and take better steps to address any issues. I wanted to build a cognitive assessment solution that would help a huge number of people get the same insight into their brains that I felt I got when I was assessed.
By going through an assessment and receiving your cognitive profile report, individuals can get a better idea of which areas would benefit from support which can be as simple as asking for more time with certain tasks. It also helps to identify any potential hidden learning needs, from which individuals can then go on to get a proper diagnosis and access the support they need. We now have the technology and capabilities to research and identify neurodiversity and to create scalable, affordable tools to support those who are neurodiverse.
How did you achieve awareness?
We’ve worked with a wide range of different education providers and developed a positive reputation with each one, which has helped to build awareness of our work in bringing out the best in the learners we support. Educators really understand the importance of applying cognitive science and cognition to teaching and learning, and we have trained many of them to deploy frameworks to deal with hidden needs in their teaching environments. We’re now providing a solution that, before, teachers would have needed years of experience to implement.
Several of our relationships with learners have also grown further. For example, one of our current managers was originally a Cognassist learner – she was delighted and impressed with the work we had done to help her reach her potential. Our team very much believe in what we do because the impact we have on the people we work with is often tangibly undeniably positive.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time – I started my first business with a loan from The Prince’s Trust. Luckily, I was able to leverage the success of some of these earlier ventures to fund Cognassist, which has always been my ultimate goal and passion project. We’ve also been very fortunate to have secured a further £1 million in funding earlier this year to help sustain our growth and increase the roll out of our services across the education sector. This comes at a time when supporting people to achieve their qualifications and increasing access to work are more vital than ever.
What are the key successes?
Cognassist is now used by more than 100 training institutions across the UK, and has supported more than 100,000 people since it was founded. We have also won several awards: we were named UK winners of the Global EdTech Startup Awards 2020 and winners of the Digital Impact Award for Innovations in Education. We were also named one of the UK’s fastest scale-ups by tech group Silicon Valley Comes 2 the UK.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
At first, I faced huge challenges running the business. Due to my dyslexia, everyday occurrences that many people wouldn’t think twice about present an extra hurdle. Alongside these additional needs, I then had to manage the stress and pressures that come with founding a business. I found all of the spinning plates difficult to keep up with and I assumed that the only way to respond was just to work more and more hours, which affected my health and wellbeing and had the opposite effect on my productivity. To overcome this, I had to better understand my strengths and weaknesses – with my dyslexia in mind too – and put in place better strategies to manage my time. This has had a hugely positive impact on my general sense of focus and wellbeing, and the business has seen huge growth as a result.
What are your plans now/for the future?
I’d love to be able to apply the concept of personalisation at scale when it comes to training and education. We want everyone’s learning outcomes to remain equal, but the journey to reaching those objectives customised for individual needs. In an ideal world, this would extend all the way into working life, where onboarding programs would be customised to fit with the way each person thinks. For example, in my case, I wouldn’t need the same training in maths and problem-solving as I would in communication. This would make the onboarding process smarter and more efficient for any organisation.
Ultimately, Cognassist will really have succeeded in its mission when it’s recognised that, in a knowledge economy, it should be a basic human right to understand your own brain and know how to use that knowledge for your social and economic benefit. This is what we’re aiming for in everything we do.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Everybody has a unique experience that can form the basis for a great business. Cognassist was born out of the difficulty I faced in getting my dyslexia diagnosis and my desire to make sure everyone can reach their full potential with the correct help. Use your experience – whatever it may be – as a starting point. As a result of it, you will have insider knowledge into the issue that no one else does, giving you a unique angle to build an authentic, meaningful business purpose. Where you start with a deep sense of purpose, you’re far more likely to thrive as this will be the thing that pushes you onward and makes you stand out to the outside world.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
1. Success often comes down to knowing your own strengths and weaknesses: whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, getting to know how your brain works and learns can help you to adapt and play to your strengths, and also to look for support with your weaknesses.
2. It’s important to create an environment that is conducive to you as a founder: set up processes and systems to make sure the company continues to work for you as a founder, especially at the beginning when the success of the business is much more dependent on you as an individual.
3. Put in coping strategies to deal with this stress in an effective way: often, starting with small, incremental changes in how you plan your day can be the best way to achieve long term improvements and prevent stress having a serious effect on your life and work.
4. Reaching out for help and guidance when you need it: not only does this have a huge impact on your stress levels, but just as you have a unique perspective, others do too. Sometimes it only takes a quick discussion with someone to unlock a simpler solution to a tricky problem, whereas this may have taken hours of wracking your brains to uncover alone.
5. Stick to your vision and truly believe in it: if you need a physical or visual reminder of your end goal, use one. Not only that, as you look to build team around you, ensure they will share your vision and work towards it too – hire people for their values and think about how their perspective will help to grow the company.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
1. Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist. He was originally from Scotland but moved to Pittsburgh penniless as a child. A polarising character who became the world’s richest man and was the first person to aim to give away his fortune. A hundred years later his teachings influenced the Giving Pledge, established by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
2. Alex Chesterman, entrepreneur. He is a modern unstoppable British entrepreneur – from LoveFilm, to Zoopla, to Cazoo. He spots when a market is about to hit an inflection point and builds the solution needed to satisfy that inflection, scales it, and then hands it over to the team he’s built and goes to build the next one.
3. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, space scientist and science educator. She has immense enthusiasm that breathes life into a subject that a lot of people are interested in but find too complex. Less known is that she is also a chief problem solver, inventor and an entrepreneur. And she inspires my daughters to understand the world around them.
4. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet. I don’t think any other human will have propelled society forwards as much as Berners-Lee did. Every day we all stand on the shoulders of this giant.
5. Michael Acton-Smith (@acton), entrepreneur and founder of Mind Candy and Calm. I met Michael over dinner and he was open about the mistakes he made with Mind Candy and the lessons he learnt, and how his new-to-be-released Calm app was going to be big. I wasn’t sure about the business model for Calm. It’s now worth $2billion.
What are your favourite inspirational/motivational quotes?
1. “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be” – Maya Angelou
2. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” – Rob Siltanen
3. “There is no spoon” – boy in the Matrix
What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?
Twitter – @Cognassist
LinkedIn – Chris Quickfall, Cognassist