Education Dealmakers Seek Investors, Partners at Conference

Managing Editor

Scottsdale, Ariz.

One of the most obvious differences between education and business conferences, by my observation, is that at the latter it’s assumed that a lot of the action is playing out behind the scenes and out of sight. That was certainly the case at the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, which ended yesterday, where investors and education companies met privately to kick around ideas and potential deals that made sense for them.

Venture capitalists and others came looking to invest in startup education companies and fledgling or otherwise promising businesses. Startups and other operations were trying to woo investors.

And companies of all sizes were weighing the value of forging partnerships, while also looking for talented developers and employees at other businesses who they might consider hiring down the road.

For some perspective on how that networking and dealmaking played out, I talked with a few different ASU/GSV attendees who came to the event with very different needs and perspectives.

• Eitan Geft came to the conference with specific goals in mind.

He’s the co-founder of Nūlū, a San Diego-based company that’s been around for a few years, but which he classifies as a startup. Nūlū operates a web site that seeks to deliver foreign language lessons through engaging materials, such as new stories and other means.

Geft, who on Wednesday was wearing a sport coat over a t-shirt asking, “Do you Nūlū?” said his company was not looking for investment funds at the moment, though it may be in the future. It’s instead looking for partners who can help it distribute its content to more schools.

The Nūlū official reviewed the conference agenda and identified attendees he was determined to meet. In some cases, he attended presentations they gave at the summit and introduced himself. Other meetings happened informally, over coffee, or were impromptu, when he plopped into an empty chair and met an attendee whose interests intersected with his. He estimated he’s had “meaningful conversations” with about 20 people.

“The biggest challenge at an event like this is getting two minutes to talk,” Geft said. “Once you get that meeting, I don’t have any trouble explaining how [our company is] different.”

• Mark Grovic, a general partner with New Markets Venture Partners, in Maryland, came looking for investment opportunities—specifically promising early-stage education companies, as he put it.

He said he was most interested in companies that are trying to address major problems in education in bold ways and also have “data showing improved student outcomes.”

Grovic said the conference allows him and his partners to review a multitude of high-quality pitches at once, the kind of innovative ideas that don’t come their way as often when they’re working from their home offices.

He said he’d been in about 15 scheduled meetings with companies at ASU/GSV, along with at least 25 informal get-togethers.

For Grovic, the event’s central appeal is the long list of attendees from the world of education investment and entrepreneurship, and the ability to gather ideas from them.

“I can count on one hand the people who didn’t come,” he said.

• Heather Gilchrist, of Socratic Labs, was another attendee who came looking for companies worthy of an investment.

The amounts Socratic invests in education are relatively small, by the standards of some of conference’s attendees. But Socratic Labs doesn’t just support those efforts with money; it offers them mentoring, access to schools, and other services to help companies succeed in the K-12 market.

Socratic Labs looks to invest in companies with “battle-tested knowledge of schools” and “real experience with the problems [they’re] solving,” said Gilchrist, who said those entrepreneurs could be former educators.

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