HEAD­QUAR­TERS: Chicago FOUNDERS: Nick Cur­rier, Kasey Gand­ham, Mike Shan­non (CEO), Jessica Tenuta EM­PLOY­EES: 75

Four friends at Illi­nois State started Packback as a dorm-room busi­ness. They pitched their idea, to rent dig­i­tal text­books, on Shark Tank in 2014; Mark Cuban in­vested $250,000. But that ven­ture flopped and al­most went bank­rupt. In 2016 they changed course and in­tro­duced an ar­ti­fi­cial­in­tel­li­gence tool that helps stu­dents ask more thought­ful ques­tions and post sharper com­ments in on­line dis­cus­sions. When col­leges shut down in March, the team laid off more than a dozen peo­ple and later landed an $890,000 PPP loan. Busi­ness picked up this sum­mer as schools looked for ways to im­prove their on­line cour­ses. Stu­dents can buy Packback’s tool for $25 a pop. For the fall se­mes­ter, 250,000 stu­dents signed up, more than dou­ble the num­ber this time last year; Packback should bring in nearly twice its 2019 rev­enue of $4 mil­lion.

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