Over the past few years, we have seen many educational technology incubators and accelerators, with the most notable of these being LearnLaunch, Milken-Penn GSE, Jefferson Education Accelerator, and the partnership that gave rise to the ASU-GSV Summit. In mid-2016, a new player entered the ring—a partnership between New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and StartEd Companies that provides access to NYU’s faculty and students, funding, mentorship, legal services, sales consulting, and business development to up to 10 startups.
Before the holidays, we attended their conference, NY EdTech Week, kicked off by a reception in a former location of one of Andy Warhol’s “factories.” The whirlwind stream of events consisted of TED-style talks by luminaries in the education and business space; smaller sessions (“think tanks”) on corporate learning, K-12, higher education, and prekindergarten; and pitches (“shark tanks”) by startup founders to heads of venture capital funds and other audience members.
Overall, the event presented a mix of companies seeking funding and policymakers discussing education, like those hosted by ASU-GSV. Where it differed, however, was in the sense that attendees gathered to innovate education through a collective and supporting working atmosphere, much in the way that Warhol himself thought his Factory would do. Also, the event demonstrated the hectic and heady quality that New York City brings to anything located there. In opening the conference, Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor of New York City, made the case that the city is unique in its ability to incubate edtech given the (sometimes literal) collisions between people representing both the supply and demand relationships for jobs and skills in high-growth industries.
From the event sessions and conversations, two major themes came to light:
- Higher education is broken. In a session moderated by Doug Lederman from Inside Higher Ed, panelists addressed the question of whether higher education was broken and, if so, how and why. Panelists discussed key areas of concern in higher education, especially cost, marketing, and improving student outcomes. When discussing what exactly “broken” meant, however, panelists differed. Some argued that higher education no longer met the needs of students and employers, while others stated that higher education has always fallen short in this area, namely for low-income students.
- Startups need more than just funding to be successful. Many startup executives spoke about the overall set of wraparound support they required, which includes office space, mentorship, marketing advice, and business model review. While these things are necessary, however, they are not sufficient to ensure that startups can be successful. Andrew Ackerman, a managing partner of DreamIt, an accelerator that focuses on mature (post-seed funding) startups, called our attention to some potential pitfalls facing startups, such as not having a clear understanding of how they will scale to meet potential demand. Startups, therefore, need careful handholding to gather detailed knowledge of their customers and to understand what resources they need to ensure that they can grow in a scalable way to meet market demands.
Essentially, of course, this event was about the technology companies. From our conversations, the following companies stood out:
- Lynda.com: While Lynda.com, acquired by LinkedIn last year, is clearly in no need of funding, its director of content for LinkedIn Learning, Morty Golding, attended the event and kindly agreed to speak with us. We discussed his vision for Lynda to become the central place where users go to learn. His team’s current focus is integrating the 350,000 hours of video and 9,000 courses into the LinkedIn user experience while trying to avoid being perceived as a place where users go to obtain credentials. Lynda’s long-term goal is to utilize Microsoft’s keen interest in education, and expertise in areas such as virtual reality and machine learning, to develop richer delivery mechanisms for the learning of “soft skills“—management, communication, etc.
- Trovvit: If you needed proof that there is a viable market for the expanding role of ePortfolios in college admissions, look no further than Trovvit. Built as a platform to showcase extracurricular activities, talents, and skills to admissions offices, Trovvit is going head-to-head with products from the Common App, SlideRoom, and the Coalition Application. It is also calling the tools provided in learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard and Canvas, woefully insufficient for purposes of college admissions.While other platforms are being subsidized by participating colleges, Trovvit is launching with a freemium, direct-to-consumer model. The free offering gets you a basic profile, portfolio template, and limited space, but upgrading to a more capable account will cost between $3 and $10 per month, depending on whether you need the extensive curation and sharing abilities that a “Premium Plus” account will provide. Most families will need that higher-level account, however, to get the same capabilities that are available in multi-purpose portfolios such as Portfolium and Pathbrite. We believe that Trovvit is worth a look, given its clear focus on the tools needed by student applicants and its unique ability to involve mentors, coaches, and friends in the development of a killer portfolio for colleges and employers.
- FutureFuel: Of the companies that delivered their pitches on the final day of the event, FutureFuel was especially intriguing. Its goal is to lessen student debt by adding student loan repayment to the employer recruitment process. Companies agree to make monthly payments to their employees’ student loans without decreasing their salaries. Why would they do that? Well, FutureFuel is partly a recruitment platform for employers where it can find highly talented employees. Also, FutureFuel serves as the platform for the payments, transferring money from businesses to the loan providers. The result, then, is that companies can quickly fill positions with talented people and employees can lessen their student loan debt without a salary reduction.
Time will tell if the leaders of these new companies will heed the warnings of both the keynote presenters and those entrepreneurs who have gone before:
“Have you examined the historical record before jumping in with a new idea that may not be new at all?”
“How and when will we know that your product is successful based on measurable changes in student outcomes?”
“Will your product scale to impact large numbers of students, families, and educators, or will you only have small pockets of success with individual cohorts?”
As we get to work on our 2017 research agenda, Eduventures will be focusing on helping our edtech clients answer these questions and many more through our advisory relationships and published research.