From Richmond Times-Dispatch By

The co-founders of Blue Ocean Brain are (from left to right) Laura Howard, Gemma Brooks and Claire Herring. Photo credit: Josh Muir

Claire Herring, Gemma Brooks and Laura Howard had an idea in 2010 to create engaging online professional development tools for employees.

It took the three female founders of Henrico County-based Blue Ocean Brain three years to finalize and begin marketing their digital professional skills development technology. The business has grown ever since, now offering more than 1,000 courses to midsize and Fortune 500 companies across the world to provide as a training tool for their employees.

Last month, the trio sold their company to Texas-based e-learning company HSI. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The sale should provide Blue Ocean Brain with the financial backing to grow the business, said Herring, who had been the company’s CEO and remains its chief learning officer.

“We just felt like they would be a great partner because they’re backed by substantial private equity, but they’re also strategic and they’re in our space,” she said about HSI.

“This is an important moment for each of us. This is a huge win and it feels great, but even though it was our baby and we’ve put everything into it, we also want to be a good steward for its growth trajectory,” Herring said. “We feel like Blue Ocean Brain has the potential to be a $200 million business and part of helping it do that means bringing on partners for growth. We did not go out and raise venture capital money early on, so we were a self-funded organization. At this moment, it just makes sense to really power and fuel the business because there’s so much demand in the digital learning space, particularly around professional skills.”

The co-founders began receiving a lot of interest in their business beginning about 18 months ago — largely because the digital learning space was flourishing coupled with the pandemic-induced shift in the working world as companies began having a hybrid work or work-from-home schedule, she said.

In June, they began working with Transact Capital Partners, a Henrico-based mergers and acquisitions advisory firm, to seek potential buyers.

They received interest from more than 50 companies or private equity firms and took meetings with eight of those businesses who were bidding on Blue Ocean Brain, Herring said. “We included people from Silicon Valley and the West Coast, so to be a software company here in Richmond and see those folks taking an interest was pretty, pretty cool,” she said.

The co-founders selected HSI. The deal closed Nov. 19.

HSI provides e-learning content, training solutions, and cloud-based software for businesses to train and develop employees. The company, which is majority-owned by private equity firm Waud Capital Partners, has acquired three other companies focused on employee professional development and training.

Blue Ocean Brain’s business model fits in with HSI’s growth goals, Herring said.

Blue Ocean Brain offers thousands of microlearning lessons on workplace topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion, leadership, handling change and communication. The company’s e-learning tools are used by businesses in all major industries in more than 50 countries around the world.

“Blue Ocean Brain brings an on-demand, daily engagement microlearning platform and content suite that enhances HSI’s position and offerings in the HR training and professional development marketplace,” said Chad Birckelbaw, CEO of HSI. “Their mission of helping employees learn and grow every day sits squarely in our value system as an enterprise that is committed to continuous improvement and our value proposition for being a sole-source provider for EHS, compliance, and professional development needs of customers.”

Blue Ocean Brain has 45 employees, and is adding more, Herring said.

The company’s offices in the Innsbrook Corporate Center are growing from about 8,000 square feet to about 12,000 square feet to handle the additional workers.

“We thought [the sale] would be great for people so Blue Ocean Brain as a brand will still be in the market, all our people are not only protected, I think they’ll have new opportunities for growth,” Herring said.

Howard, who had been the company’s chief revenue officer, continues in a role to drive its sales strategy. Brooks, who was the chief operating officer, remains in an operational leadership role.

In 2014, Blue Ocean Brain was in the first cohort group of Lighthouse Labs, a nonprofit business accelerator in Richmond that provides mentoring and equity-free funding to small, new companies.