Globalization has had its impact on many verticals, from manufacturing to tech support and the freelancing industry. In its tailwind students are increasingly open to doing at least a part of their studies abroad.
There is a growing number of edtech startups that offer services and advice for students who are looking for opportunities abroad, including vertical search engines and application training.
UK-based BridgeU takes it a step further by offering an adaptive university platform, catering to local as well as foreign students who want to study in the USA.
Introduce your startup and give a short description of what you are doing.
At BridgeU, we have built the first adaptive university preparation platform for students applying to university. Our platform grants students access to a series of gamified, expert tools that assist students with university selection, research, strategy/brand building, essay writing and more. Our software-driven service uses intelligent algorithms and machine learning techniques to empower students and secondary schools with both the knowledge and data-driven support tools to improve higher education decision making.
Who are the founders, how did you meet, what are your different roles in the startup.
The founders are Lucy Stonehill and Hywel Carver.
Lucy is BridgeU’s CEO. A Dartmouth College graduate, Lucy has built two companies in the field of international education, and is often asked to speak about her experiences, both as an entrepreneur and as an expert in the fields of education technology and international education. In 2014, Lucy was selected for the Tech City Insider’s 100 list – the top 100 people in 2014 creating the most interesting technical businesses in London and wider Europe. She was also nominated as a finalist for the European Commission sponsored Europioneers award, Female Web Entrepreneur of the year (2014).
Hywel is BridgeU’s CTO. He’s been writing software for 19 years and working in startups for 4 years. He has a top-class degree in Information Engineering from Cambridge University, specialising in Machine Learning. He’s also a PhD drop-out (like all the best entrepreneurs) from UCL. Before BridgeU, Hywel worked with ~15 different startups as a startup consultant, advising them on the early stages of their business, and building their products.
What is the main problem in education that you aim to solve.
We’re trying to fix the broken educational transition between secondary and higher education. This means lowering dropout rates by curating better student-institution matches, providing students with actionable ways to discover and take advantage of appropriate higher education opportunities, helping students build compelling student brands so that they can gain admission to their desired institutions, and making the process of preparing for and applying to university generally less laborious and painful so that students really engage early in the university preparation process.
In which markets / regions are you active. What markets / regions are next.
Last year, we had ~4,000 students on the platform from 100+ countries. The majority of our paying users were from the UK, India, South Korea and Brazil.
Initially, we’re focusing on the globally-mobile or international student segment, as it’s one of the fastest growing, and more underserved (from a support perspective) student groups. Our current product reflects this positioning, as it’s geared toward supporting foreign students who want to apply to U.S and/or U.K universities. We’re currently closing sales and/or in partnership discussions with schools and education companies in 12 countries and three continents (Africa, Asia, Europe).
Within Europe, specifically, we intend to expand our university destinations to include all EU universities by the end of 2015 so that students within Europe can discover, compare, and research university offerings in multiple countries, and (importantly) take the steps necessary toward building competitive applications for those programs, using BridgeU’s platform.
Who is your target audience.
We sell both direct to consumer (B2C) and we also license our software to institutions (B2B). On the consumer side, our target audience is students aged 15-17 interested in studying in the US and/or the UK (launching March 1st) or parents of these teens.
On the institutional side, our audience is globally-minded secondary schools around the world, and education companies that sell complimentary educational support services (for example, test prep companies).
How do you engage with your target audience. How do you convert them into users of your product.
We attract student users by creating high quality content (distributed via our social media channels and blog). And, we attract students through local partnerships. We offer students a limited free trial before demanding that they upgrade to the paid version. This serves to showcase the quality and comprehensiveness of our platform, and it establishes us as a trusted source of support in the eyes of the student.
We engage secondary schools in discussions about how BridgeU can support their needs by speaking at and attending international education conferences, by incentivizing word-of-mouth referrals, and by partnering with school groups. We’ve also had a large number of our early adopter schools principals become evangelists for our Secondary School Program, phoning other principals and speaking at conferences on our behalf. We’re able to convert schools into clients by offering them a demo of our product and by offering premium level customer service. Given this is our first active year (2015) licensing to schools, we are working very closely with school partners to customize features, and ensure that we’re building additional support mechanisms to improve the experience for both university counselors and students.
What is your business model. How much does your product / service cost.
Students who want to access BridgeU “Guide” – our university preparation SaaS platform—via our website pay a monthly subscription fee of between $25-50, depending on when in the calendar year they sign up.
We charge secondary schools an annual licensing fee of between $3,000 and 10,000/year depending on the comprehensiveness of the package they sign up for, and also when in the academic year they sign up. We’re currently offering schools a pretty sizeable discount for signing up before March!
Who are your competitors? What sets you apart from them?
Most companies within the global higher education preparation industry fall into one of two categories: they’re either bespoke and offline (consulting, tutoring, test-prep) or they are impersonal and online (course listings, education agencies). With BridgeU, we’re adopting an entirely different model. Our platform combines the expertise and handholding of offline education support services with the affordability and accessibility of online products. We are offering a software-driven service. And as such, we get paid by secondary schools and students/parents directly, which means that we are entirely impartial in our support of and advice given to students, as we’re not being paid by universities, like agents are.
If you raised funding, how much did you raise. Who are your investors. If not, are you planning to raise funding.
To date, we’ve raised ~$400k from Seedcamp (Europe’s top accelerator program for tech startups) and from a series of strategic angels, including the managing partner of a large Silicon Valley VC fund that actively invests in edtech and founder of a top tier Education Technology conference.
We plan to raise a new round to fuel growth in spring, 2015.
Are there milestones you are especially proud of and would like to share.
1) Whilst in beta (from June-December 2014), we ran a trial in October to test our hypothesis that students and/or parents would pay for what we’d built. We were really pleased when more than 3% of students paid for access to our software tools. It gave us renewed enthusiasm, so we expanded our tech team, and revamped the product, interweaving extensive feedback from students to re-launch an improved version in January, 2015.
2) In January, we successfully won a ‘pitch-off’ against the only entrenched institutional competitor selling to schools–Naviance, owned by Hobsons. We’re still a very young company, and so it was particularly exciting to have a school respond so positively, highlighting various of the features we’ve built as an improvement on this existing service.
3) We’ve recently had our first inbound inquiries—requests from both schools and education companies to demo our product, and discuss partnership opportunities. This is hugely validating for a team as small as us (6 people) and really proves that we’re creating products that meet existing needs.
What are the next steps in growing your startup.
Throughout 2015, we’re expanding BridgeU by building on our existing product- both by globalizing the university destinations and by building additional features to extend the lifetime of current users and customers. We also have a few additional products we plan to release.
Within Europe, specifically, we intend to expand our university destinations to include all EU-universities by the end of 2015 so that students within Europe can discover, compare, and research university offerings in multiple countries, and (importantly) take the steps necessary toward building competitive applications for those programs, using BridgeU’s platform.