This summer, two high-profile ed-tech accelerator programs are launching their second year of mentoring and supporting ed-tech startups—Pearson’s Catalyst for Education, and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator, powered by Techstars.
Pearson, a global education company, recently announced its second accelerator “class” of startups from the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia. The companies were chosen for their ability to respond to key learning challenges identified by executives from various Pearson business units, including their search for a new performance-based assessment (Sesame), data visualization solution (GlassLab), and a way to teach computer science in schools (CodeMonkey).
Teams from these companies will work virtually with Pearson product experts, innovators and industry veterans to help them develop and grow their platforms. The startups receive $15,000 for travel and expenses to meet with the sponsors, but most of the program will be virtual. Pearson also funds an in-person kick-off meeting, and a final “demo day” with decisionmakers at the end of the three-month program.
This year, Kaplan, a provider of test preparation and other services, will offer a $150,000 convertible debt note and, Techstars, an organization that runs accelerator programs around the world and is backed by more than 75 venture capital firms, will invest $20,000 in each selected company, as well as providing office space and facilities.
Last fall, Education Week took a close-up look at the emergence of these accelerators and incubators, and Tom Vander Ark recently pointed out in his “On Innovation” blog that these programs designed to support ed-tech companies are proliferating.
Generally, an incubator provides mentorship to help a startup grow, but it is not structured as a class or program. Accelerators provide direct financial or operational support or guidance to school-focused startups.
The Kaplan EdTech Accelerator will announce its 2014 class later this month. The nearly 500 applications from startups represented a 50 percent increase over last year’s pool of 350 applicants, according to Ken Brown, Kaplan’s executive director of corporate communications. Kaplan conducts its accelerator in conjunction with Techstars, which will invest $20,000, and Kaplan will offer a $150,000 convertible debt note, to each selected company, as well as office space and facilities.
From the 2013 Kaplan EdTEch Accelerator, the 10 alumni startups have raised more than $15 million collectively, Brown said. Among the graduates are Newsela, which provides news stories at different reading levels to boost student reading comprehension, and Ranku, an online resource to help people identify and choose the best online degree program. Newsela received $1.2 million in seed funding in October, and Ranku secured Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who also appears on the TV show “Shark Tank,” as an investor.
From the 2013 Catalyst graduating class, two—ClassOwl and Ace Learning Company—were chosen to become Pearson Technology Partners, which means they are given some level of entree into the part of the education market that has been paved by Pearson. On its website, Pearson states that its student information system products reach more than 14 million students in thousands of schools and districts every day.
Becoming a technology partner, which is just one of the partnership possibilities for graduates of the Catalyst program, does not involve Pearson taking an equity position in the startups, according to Diana Stepner, the vice president of innovation partnerships and developer relations at the company.
Pearson looks for a number of characteristics in the startups it chooses for partnerships, Stepner said. But one that stands out is the people behind the fledgling organizations. “We’ve found that even when a product is brilliant, if there’s not a person you can envision working with day-to-day, it’s not likely to work,” she said.
Beyond that, Pearson determines whether the company “truly understands the market they’re trying to go after,” she said, and are they aligned with Pearson’s vision, which includes the company’s efficacy program that it announced last year. As part of Pearson Catalyst, the selected startups are shown how to define and measure the outcomes that their solutions have on students.