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.
What 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 ed-invent.com!
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 Scienceagogo.com 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).