In this article, Andrew Cohen, founder & CEO of Brainscape, tells the story of how Brainscape began as a simple hack to learn French better and ultimately developed into the most efficient flashcard learning platform out there today.

Today, Brainscape is a multi-user web and mobile learning application—but it definitely didn't start out that way. In fact, it started out as a simple Excel macro for learning French words and verb conjugations that I developed to teach myself French while living in Martinique several years ago.

Yes, you read that right. We started from an Excel sheet ... and now we're here.

It was only by recruiting a strong team, testing a series of prototypes, and acquiring a solid body of supporting research that we've been able to grow Brainscape into the game-changing education company you see today.

Here's the story of how Brainscape was born.

Solving the frustrations of learning

In my past life, I was a former economist and statistical modeler for the U.N. and World Bank. While based in Martinique for a project, I grew frustrated with the painfully slow process of learning French. My solution was to develop a software algorithm in Microsoft Excel that should help me and my colleagues learn French faster than anyone thought possible. Did it work?

I learned French to near-fluency in just 3 months. It was so effective that I later used the program to improve my Spanish during an anti-corruption project with the Panamanian government. Mind you, it was just an adaptive “quiz-like” Excel-based “app” back then.

Andrew Cohen giving a speech about Brainscape
Brainscape founder Andrew Cohen, presenting his anti-corruption research in Panama in 2007. Because of how controversial this work was, it was critical that his Spanish become impeccable. So he created the Brainscape prototype in Excel in order to study more effectively.

It was so useful to me that other masters students at the University of Panama began using the Excel file to study for subjects like Biology and Political Science. And that's when the wind changed and word began to spread over email. People were repurposing the sheet by simply inputting their own study content, in a simple two-column Question/Answer format.

Thus, a successful prototype of Brainscape was born.

Spanish poster about a conference and speech by Andrew Cohen
To create this large body of research, Cohen needed to interview dozens of government officials and business leaders in Spanish. All unfamiliar Spanish and legal terms and phrases were added into his early Brainscape prototype to be reviewed with Cohen's unique spaced repetition algorithm.

Transforming an Excel sheet into an app

The successful prototype was dubbed Study A.I.D (assessment interval determination) and led me to get a Masters in Education Technology at Columbia University. I wanted to refine the cognitive science principles behind the new learning method and develop my meager Excel sheet into a web application. (This also contributed to my famous advice on applying to grad school.)

The first early lab experiment was better than successful. The Brainscape experimental group performed more than twice as well on a post-test than the control group who using paper flashcards, after 30 minutes of studying. Even better, it turned out that the learning benefits only increased when there was more content to study over a longer period of time.

Memory retention experiment with Brainscape's prototype
Cohen's initial experiments in a lab at Columbia University resulted in even stronger learning benefits than he had ever imagined possible, and after just a 30-minute period of studying. This gave him the confidence to turn Brainscape into a more publicly accessible "app" whose learning benefits could accrue over a longer period of time.

After the successful experiment, I decided to upgrade the name in order to make it more company-friendly. (Let's be honest, choosing the initial name 'Study A.I.D.' wasn't my best contribution.) So, I ran a "company naming contest" among all my friends and family for several months and ... my mother was the one who came up with the name "Brainscape"!

Doubling the learning speed of any user

I realized that the learning method of Brainscape, which I called “Confidence-Based Repetition”, could help so many people learn more while studying less. There are countless people out there bending over backward to cram information. Knowing that there was a better solution, I became obsessed with making it available for every subject on the planet.

Using determination and enthusiasm, I raised venture capital from friends, family, and fools, and began building a world-class team. Funnily enough, I found my co-founding engineer, Jay Stramel, on CraigsList of all places. And I met my cofounding product lead, Andy Lutz, through aggressive networking.

Brainscape co-founders Andrew Cohen and Andy Lutz, at Cohen's wedding in 2019, over 10 years after they initially met.

The growth journey wasn't easy. It rarely is.

For the first several years, we were rejected by almost every investor, either because I had no startup experience myself, or because they said: "flashcards are just a feature, not a business." The right talent was also hard to find, and the fast-evolving world of mobile learning created unforeseen challenges.

Despite the many bumps in the road, we persevered and kept fighting. After learning thousands of small lessons about learners’ and educators’ needs, we built the right team and business model to sustain our growth long into the future.

Where is Brainscape now?

Brainscape is now a profitable company and maintains a dual purpose of educating the world efficiently while providing significant returns for our investors.

Most importantly, we doubled down on the science and spent years perfecting our adaptive learning algorithm, to ensure that any user can double their learning speed and improve memory retention.

If you'd like to learn more, here are my favorite topics on Brainscape:

The story of Brainscape ends and begins anew with you. What are you waiting for? Start learning today faster today.