Category Archives: Interviews

Education startup interviews

Interview: Filling the Tech Skills Gap – Raffaela Rein CareerFoundry

One of the biggest challenges startups and established companies in the digital and tech sector face today is finding skilled workers to fill open positions. The so called “skills gap” has lead to over 1 million open positions in Europe alone.

Berlin-based CareerFoundry offers three-to-six-months online courses which teach tech skills, like web and user experience design. A fresh round of venture capital will now allow CareerFoundry to expand into new verticals including marketing and mobile design.

We took the opportunity and sat down with CareerFoundry co-founder Raffaela Rein to talk about the skills gap, coding classes for kids and minorities in tech.

Continue reading Interview: Filling the Tech Skills Gap – Raffaela Rein CareerFoundry

European MOOCs focus on Quality, US MOOCs on Cost – Interview with iversity’s Hannes Klöpper

iversity which had started as a “collaboration network for academia” back in 2008 soon pivoted to become one of the emerging European MOOCs. And though the German startup cannot compete with the massive funding rounds of US-based platforms like Coursera, Udacity or edX, iversity’s co-founder and CMO Hannes Klöpper sees some distinct differences that give European MOOCs advantages in their local markets.

As iversity is currently working on the launch of its 10 MOOC Fellowship courses, I wanted to catch up with Hannes and see where iversity is headed in the coming months.

How does the creation of the 10 MOOC Fellowship courses advance? Is there anything in particular you and the teams have already learned from the experience?

The ten courses are at different stages in their creation process. Some will launch earlier, in mid-October of this year, whereas others will launch in spring 2014. The fellows starting this autumn are pretty advanced in conceptionalising their MOOC and have already begun to produce the first units of video material.

We definitely learn a lot from their experiences, especially in terms of adapting the structure and methods of teaching to the format of a MOOC to fully exploit the format. It definitely has proven to be an asset that we communicate very closely with our fellows and make sure we stay on track.

What are iversity’s ambitions in terms of market coverage? Do you rather see yourself as a pan-European MOOC platform or are you planning to take on the world?

The sky is the limit. We certainly provide European-style higher education in that our course offerings reflect a great deal of diversity. Our courses differ in terms of disciplines, languages, but also in terms of the level of academic rigour and openness. That being said our market is global. We are looking forward to welcoming students from all continents this autumn.

Do you see significant similarities or differences between the different MOOC creators based on their national education systems or can MOOCs be easily internationalized?

We do see differences between the MOOC creators. But these are rather due to the variety of disciplinary backgrounds than education systems. In any case MOOCs require a different method and style of teaching than classroom instruction. This is a much bigger differentiator than the specific teaching culture that is characteristic of a certain education system.

With regard to the MOOC-students, certain aspects regarding their cultural diversity have to be taken into account when producing a MOOC. So for example the instructor shouldn’t use examples and analogies that are not universally known e.g. a cricket metaphor. But with a certain sensitivity to such issues, we believe that MOOCs can be produced in such a way that they speak to students Bangalore as well as in Berlin.

With Coursera adding another $43 million in funding, do you feel that Koller and Ng are shutting off the supply for the others, or is there still enough room to grow for iversity and other players in the space?

We don’t see Coursera, or any other MOOC platform, shutting off the supply for us. We believe that MOOCs for the time being will be a more local play. There are 4000 institutions of higher education in Europe. Coursera cannot possibly partner with all of them. There is, however, much less of a concentration of talent at a handful of institutions in Europe than there is in the US. Moreover in the US-context, where ever-rising tuition fees regularly make the headlines, MOOCs are seen as a solution to a cost-crisis in higher education. In Europe MOOCs will be more about improving quality. Technology solutions have to be adapted to their local context.

We don’t see this as a Facebook-market, where there are very strong network effects that result from the fact that “everyone” is using one platform. There will be horizontal – for example in terms of disciplines – as well as vertical – for example in terms of local markets and languages – differentiation. The MOOC-marketplace will reflect the diversity of higher education as a whole.

Which of the other platforms are you watching closely? Any personal favorites besides iversity?

Personally I would love to spend more time on dabbling with the existing MOOCs platforms, but I’m afraid that this will have to wait. Right now we are fully focussed on developing our own platform. I think Udacity has done a great job at producing a quality course experience and edX has build a good-looking and feature rich platform. Of course, we take a look at all of that and try to learn a lesson here and there.

One thing I can tell you already is that in terms of design the new iversity platform will be upping the ante.

What comes next for iversity? For example, Orange plans to set up a MOOC platform for North Africa, also an interesting market for you?

The big next step for us will be our go-live on 15 October. Expect to hear from us about a few additional MOOCs until then. In principle the MOOC market is a global market. Right now we are still in a phase of experimentation and I believe it is too early in the game to put on the blinders and focus on a narrowly defined niche-market.

But then again certain courses or platforms will surely be targeting local audiences For example, one of our MOOCs, International Agricultural Management, will be offered in German and Russian. I don’t think this is a winner-takes-all market like Facebook because of the strong B2B component on the supply side.

Interview: How ed-invent is putting Teachers at the Heart of Edtech

One of the fastest growing verticals in the education space besides MOOCs is probably the edtech incubator / accelerator. Those programs offer training and mentorship, sometimes office space and other perks, in return for some equity in the startup.

Lately, more and more of the established brands in the education space got into this space launching their own programs. Our supporter Macmillan Digital Education, a hybrid between incubator and investor, is one example, Pearson and Kaplan have both launched their initiatives just recently.

One major issue people involved in the space already noticed early on is the lack of educators taking part in these programs. Often they just join events the last day to judge the finished products, but only very few are actually part of startup teams.

When mentoring Startup Weekend London Edu early this year the other mentors and I once again noticed this very problem. Fellow mentor Richard Taylor, a seasoned edtech entrepreneur and angel investor, is now tackling the lack of educators’ involvement by creating a pre-incubator program called ed-invent.

Richard TaylorWhat is your elevator pitch?

We want teachers at the heart of developing successful edtech products & services. Too much stuff doesn’t get used because so many developers ignore the reality of the classroom and many try to plugin an educator at the end of their dev process and not at the start.

ed-invent isn’t trying to make every teacher into an edtech entrepreneur but we want more ‘at the heart of edtech’.

How did the idea come about and why do you think there is a need for the program?

I was looking to do an edtech incubator but raising the cash in the UK was proving problematic (I also think most incubators aside from Imagine K12 aren’t very helpful to edtech start-ups). I was impressed by 4.0 Schools in New Orleans and thought that a pre-incubator like this might be more deliverable.

The first step was helping one of my investments (Night Zookeeper) organise StartUp Weekend EDU London. On the back of the success of StartUp Weekend EDU, Cambridge Assessment (one of the sponsors) approached me about how to take this further and the result is!

Putting on your angel investor hat, how important is the involvement of educators in edtech products / startups in your mind?

There can be a big difference between successful investments (i.e a good exit) and a product that succeeds in helping teachers improve educational outcomes. For years I was totally focused on the money side and the outcomes wasn’t a metric I even considered.

But when I started focusing my experience on very early stage investing, it soon became apparent that teams with good ideas all had a teacher as part of the core team and ideas based around serious educational issues. As an early stage investor you can get more traction for your money, although perversely later investors who take less risk almost always ask for a bigger package of benefits (and get them).

ed-invent isn’t about building equity stakes in start-ups or building any sort of pipeline for MediaTaylor or Cambridge Assessment/OCR. We are doing this because we think it’s a really important piece of the edtech puzzle that’s missing and which no one else is prepared to fund.

In terms of the JV, it’s essentially my idea with the money coming from OCR (CA’s local exam board). Their motivation is straight forward, as OCR’s CEO Mark Dawe said,

‘As a not-for-profit organisation, we want to support schools as they explore new ways of working, encouraging them to be active not passive consumers of educational technology’.

In edtech there is a huge gap between being a product and a business, but many entrepreneurs confuse the two. A product might be interesting and fit a market need, but by itself is it a sustainable business? More often than not the answer is no.

From an investment perspective this creates a good opportunity to try and rollup products into a larger sustainable business. The sad reality is there are very few (if any) investors in the UK who are looking to do this and even if there were they would then face having to convince several start-ups to merge (an even bigger challenge).

If you compare the landscape when you launched your first venture in edtech to today, do you think it has become easier to create a viable product or service in education?

I fell into education accidentally having been a jackaroo (sort of apprentice cowboy in the Australian outback) and having worked in merchant banking. My first company was successful more by accident than by design and I spent quite a lot of the money from this on tech & edtech start-ups. Several failed and when you are burning your own money you learn a hell of a lot faster than when it belongs to someone else.

Arguably when we did things like and DaisyMaths (that was sponsored by Kraft in Australia) the field was more open, but equally there were far fewer users or interest in tech, so getting attention was a real slog. DaisyMaths showed just how strong the interest in education can be for a major FMCG brand but also how vital it is to have a media partner to help build your brand online (Kraft gave DaisyMaths A$300k in cash but also A$1m in co-op marketing).

Today the tools are better but the market is more crowded. While there are loads of opportunities in B2B & B2C edtech, I am constantly amazed that founders are terrible about competitive intelligence. Every month I get pitched ideas where I know (off the top of my head) there are several similar products in the market already.

Back to ed-invent; how and when should teachers apply?

Teachers need to apply soon as we only have 500 places in our 10×1 day events. These break down as Manchester (150 in Oct.), Birmingham (150 in Nov.) and 200 in London (Dec.).

While many teachers are now on holidays and not back until Sept. the biggest problem we are probably going to face is having more applicants than available spaces! There is no quotas on the types of teachers or schools and spaces will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis.

From each of the 10×1 day events we will select a team of 3 to attend the residential pre-incubators in Cambridge in Feb. & April 2014. These 30 teachers (15×2) will work with edtech entrepreneurs for a £2500 cash prize (plus other things inc. internships at edtech companies).