Executives from New England’s premier organization supporting edtech activity talk expansion, talent and what it takes to launch a success.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
With over 200 education technology and learning-oriented startups currently based in the Boston area, edtech is alive and well in New England, drawing from an existing network of universities, learning companies, innovation economy, and technical talent. Such startups have sprung up to solve challenges and take advantage of opportunities to support the growth and adoption of new products and methodologies within the education sector, which represents nearly 9% of the GDP. These entrepreneurs are creating solutions to a diverse
It is an exciting time to be in the industry right now because it is going through rapid change and there are a lot of opportunities to take part in this transformation.
array of challenges that educators, students and parents currently face, including introduction of new technology in schools (i.e. tablets, personal computers, etc.), curriculum sharing among teachers, personalized learning, collection and dissemination of data, as well as college persistence and completion. As many of these entrepreneurs have expressed interest in ramping up efforts to grow the Boston-area learning and education technology ecosystem, a new, leading organization is supporting them along the way. The mission of LearnLaunch is to increase learning by providing support for the creation and growth of education technology and learning companies in New England. LearnLaunch offers classes, peer group learning, conferences, networking opportunities and other educational services to individuals and organizations seeking to work with educators, students and families to enable the growth and success of the learning ecosystem. They bring together innovators, educators, investors, students, school leaders, buyers and distribution channels and they are headed up by three talented individuals with a passion for the sector: Marissa Lowman, co-founder and Executive Director; Jean Hammond, co-founder; and Eileen Rudden, co-founder.
Victor: There’s a lot of energy emanating from Cambridge! Congrats on your recent conference. Could you capture some of the highlights, numbers, overheard comments and excitement of that – and where does that leave you in thinking about the future – what’s next?
Marissa: The conference brought together over 500 entrepreneurs, educators, strategic partners, investors, and others interested in the edtech industry to discuss how edtech can scale student success. We had 6 keynote speakers and 15 panel discussion on a wide range of topics, from blended learning to how MOOCs have changed since their launch. This year, we also added a pre-conference investor summit to discuss the state of the industry. We also had a formal pitch competition in which the finalists pitched to the entire audience and the winner was selected by audience vote. We were excited to work with Harvard Graduate School of Education to co-organize the conference because the conference provided an intersection between educational research and edtech products that are currently being developed for the market. It also allowed students to learn more about the industry from a variety of insider perspectives.
Attendees frequently mention that they enjoy participating in our conference because of the diversity of voices that we bring together. They also enjoy networking with others in the industry, especially because conference attendees are generally more accessible to one another than they are at other, larger events.
We plan to have another Across Boundaries conference next year, which will be our 3rd year. We hope to expand what we offer to attendees, in terms of both the depth and breadth of topics as well as continue to recruit industry leaders as keynote speakers and panelists.
Victor: Marissa, you have a background in sales and marketing, taught on a Fulbright, and have worked to improve education access – how are these all perfectly relevant to your current work?
Marissa: Despite how much LearnLaunch has expanded in the past year and a half, it is still very much a startup. Because of my diverse background, which includes experience working for educational non-profits as well as tech startups, I have been able to gain the skills I need to manage a wide variety of projects, from a weekly newsletter to helping to build new partnerships. Throughout my career, I have been exposed to people who work in a wide variety of roles related to education, which has helped me understand and strengthen the edtech ecosystem in the Boston area.
Victor: Jean, as a serial entrepreneur, you must be pretty excited by all the edtech activity of late – in fact, didn’t edtech just have a highest ever billion dollar Q1? What are some of your thoughts and insights here?
Jean: As a serial entrepreneur, I know how hard it is to get a company off the ground. As an angel investor for the past 15 years, I can spot innovative ideas and the teams that can transform them into successful companies. I was an early investor in ZipCar, for example. I always wanted to invest in companies that would improve our educational system. I got that opportunity with TenMarks, which was recently acquired by Amazon.
Although more investment has flowed into edtech in the past several years, education still represents 9% of the US economy and less than .4% of the angel, venture, and private equity markets. The demand for great education is strong — it is linked to good job outcomes and to a healthy economy.
We have over 250 edtech startups in the Boston area, which represent a lot of potential. Many of these companies need mentorship and cultivation to become the stars of the next generation of education companies. It is exciting to see the growth of companies like Panorama Education, Testive, eduCanon, and Socrative.
Victor: Eileen, your work in education, in Chicago, as a Broad fellow, as a corporate tech exec, all of this is a unique perspective and a robust experience – how has this informed your current work and approach?
Eileen: As a Broad fellow and in my work as Chief of College and Career Preparation in the Chicago Public Schools, I saw hundreds of ways that technology could improve student achievement, save teachers and administrators time, allow counselors to focus on student needs rather than administrativia, enable better connections with parents, and speed up administrative processes. I saw that school designs had been created in the industrial age for the industrial economy, not for a services and information age in which lifelong learning is essential. I believe digital technologies have a powerful role to play in enabling teachers and leaders to deliver personalized instruction and active learning to students today, and that they are eager for those tools. Students are very eager to use digital technologies for learning.
As a technology leader, I have worked with many industries as they have adopted digital technologies. Usually, early adopters will champion the first uses of new technology to get better results or create new offerings which couldn’t be delivered before. Success breeds success. When others see the results of better outcomes or lower costs, technology adoption moves forward. Both of these experiences have shaped my current work at LearnLaunch to drive innovation in education and transform learning.
Victor: What are some of the most common issues and challenges you see with edtech startups? What’s your top 5 list here?
- Entrepreneur Focus on a product rather than a student or educator need (demonstrating product-market fit)
- Entrepreneur Focus on “polishing the product” rather than getting it into the hands of educators and students (defining and executing a go to market strategy)
- Investor reticence to fund companies focused on selling to school districts, as government entities with complex procurement processes, even if demand has been demonstrated (funds to scale)
- Entrepreneurs’ ability to customize for 50 different sets of state regulations (Common Core adoption will help mitigate this one )
- Entrepreneurs managing through a highly seasonal sales and adoption cycle in education (new solutions rolled out at the beginning of the school year and purchase in April-August)
- Entrepreneurs moving from a “freemium” model (to demonstrate product-market fit) to a sustainable revenue model
6. Got a specific example (you can but don’t need to name names) of a company that started small but rose up quickly, that you’ve been somewhat in touch with – a sort of early success story? What key values did they hold to keep them successful?
Marissa: What has made growth companies successful early on is their focus on solving a very specific problem. For example, Socrative has focused on formative assessments and exit tickets. Ellevation has focused on the needs of English Language Learners. Both of the these companies saw high growth within their first year.
Victor: Any words of wisdom for companies in the edtech space, big or small, hoping to expand from wherever they currently are?
Marissa: Stay focused on improving student achievement! Educators can benefit from the use of digital tools to improve student achievement by measuring learning outcomes and using this data to assess how their students can increase comprehension.
Victor: A broad question now: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?
Eileen: I am very excited about the edupreneurs who are creating new school models using technology to personalize learning for students, such as Summit Schools in California. I also support educators who are moving to student-centered learning. Patrick Larkin, who is the Assistant Superintendent for the Burlington, MA public school system, has students vet new technologies and then has educators experiment with them. I believe the Common Core’s emphasis on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills will create opportunities for students, educators, and entrepreneurs.
Victor: Any interesting tidbits about lessons learned at your conferences, meetings, sessions, that would make for an interesting take-away for our readers?
Marissa: One of the biggest obstacles to starting an edtech company today is that the edtech industry still remains very fragmented. We organize 50 events a year on a wide variety of topics, but it is challenging to cover everything going on in the market today. I would encourage those with an interest in starting an edtech company to learn as much as they can about the specific part of the education industry they want to disrupt, which could be anything from 7th grade math to helping recent college grads find their dream job. Although it can be daunting to enter a new market, the good news is that we have found the community to be very welcoming and willing to share what they have learned, especially since everyone wants to improve education. People who have attended our events have met their co-founder, found a new job, and formed key partnerships. It is an exciting time to be in the industry right now because it is going through rapid change and there are a lot of opportunities to take part in this transformation.
Victor: Anything you hoped I’d cover here but didn’t and that you’d like to get the message out about?
Marissa: Digital tools will enable education to change significantly over the next 10 years. Investors (foundations, philanthropists, strategic and financial) should be planning their approaches now.
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]