By guest blogger Danielle Wilson
Baltimore and Boston are cities with their own distinct economic identities, but they share something in common: They have organizations working to establish their metro regions as hubs for supporting educational technology companies and nurturing entrepreneurs.
The efforts in Baltimore are being led by an ed-tech advisory group focused on working in the city and across Maryland. In Boston, a nonprofit that began by creating a networking group across the city has now launched an accelerator program to help young businesses.
The Greater Baltimore EdTech Advisory Task Force was created a year ago to bring together professionals from the education, technology, and business fields. Led by a 10-person executive committee, it began with the goal of evaluating and supporting the ed-tech community in Baltimore, and it later expanded its reach.
One of the Baltimore organization’s projects is EdTechMD, a taskforce launched in February to create networking opportunities, development tools and a formal mentoring network to help entrepreneurs and others looking to enter the ed-tech space.
“Maryland has the key features that make it a great place for ed-tech startups,” said Andrew Coy, chair of the ed-tech advisory taskforce and executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that focuses on improving students’ technology skills and innovation.
Coy told Education Week that the EdTechMD project is looking to create “organic” interactions among those in the education, technology and business fields. It plans to offer financial support to the startups by raising $3 million dollars by early fall to invest in new companies and entrepreneurs.
According to the Baltimore Business Journal, the EdTechMD investment fund would make $50,000 to $100,000 small, seed investments primarily to ed-tech companies in Maryland with the option to invest in a few companies outside the state. Frank Bonsal III and Vince Talbert, Maryland investors, will lead the fundraising efforts.
Meanwhile in Boston, an organization called LearnLaunch is attempting to help ed-tech startups in the city and the greater New England area by creating stronger links between educators and the technology community.
The founders of LearnLaunch created the nonprofit after co-founder Marissa Lowman hosted a series of successful meetups and networking events in 2011 with her previous organization, EdTechUp, which is now a part of LearnLaunch. LearnLaunch offers classes, conferences, and networking events for anyone in the community with an interest in the ed-tech startup industry.
In 2013, the organization began the LearnLaunchX Accelerator program to provide a centralized workspace that offers mentorship and funding to companies. The highly competitive, residential program gives seed funding of $18,000 to early-stage companies in return for 6 percent stake in their businesses. The accelerator also hosts “demo days,” in which the founders of the companies make presentations to other potential investors.
LearnLaunch co-founder Eileen Rudden said that Boston’s legacy as a city with a lot of venture capitalists and investors make it an ideal setting for new companies in need of financial backing. (For a look at the challenges new K-12 companies face in trying to find their footing, see Michelle Davis’ EdWeek article, “Ed. Startups Navigate the Hard Market Realities for Sustaining Success.”)
Many startup companies see networking and building business relationships as an important strategy for helping them grow. Both Baltimore and Boston are located in regions that provide a large ecosystem of technology and education resources.
One ed-tech company that said it was drawn to Boston by the opportunity to be close to like-minded businesses was Cengage Learning, an educational publishing company that just announced it’s making their Boston office head of central operations.
“We believe that Boston is one of the key centers for future growth of education technology,” Cengage Learning CEO Michael Hansen said in a press release.
Cengage Learning’s headquarters will be in Boston’s Innovation District, the waterfront neighborhood that is home to an estimated 200 companies primarily in the technology and creative design industry. The district was created by former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino with the goal of establishing an urban environment where established companies and entrepreneurs could collaborate.
Getting access to established companies and mentors is crucial to startups, said Jennifer Carolan, managing director of the NewSchools Seed Fund, a part of the NewSchools Venture Fund, based in Palo Alto, Calif. NewSchools makes investments in early-stage ed-tech companies, and the organization has worked with both the Baltimore EdTech Advisory Task Force and LearnLaunch by co-investing in startups.
“Connections and networks are vital to the education market,” said Carolan in an interview with Education Week. “Education is a local endeavor, they [local ed-tech investment groups] are familiar with the local and state laws and can align financial capital, support and [provide a base of] knowledge to startups.”
Working With Schools
Organizations supporting ed-tech entrepreneurs in Baltimore and Boston also say the two cities offer other advantages, including a socioeconomically diverse landscape of traditional public, charter, and private schools for businesses hoping to test products in schools. Developers of education products often complain about their inability to gain access to schools willing to put their products through the paces.
“Baltimore has an amazingly diverse school population, within a small distance, with wide ranges of performance levels,” said Coy. “Innovators want to solve problems and the schools are willing to take part in implementing the new technology,” he said. “It’s an entrepreneur-friendly school system.”
Ed-tech startups participating in the EdTechMD program benefit from the existing relationships the organization has established with schools, which allows them to test their goods and services in classrooms faster than if they tried to forge alliances on their own, Coy argued.
Whether the Baltimore efforts will pay off in the long run remains to be seen, but a number of education entrepreneurs have chosen the city recently, in some cases with support from EdTechMD.
Ed-tech startup Citelighter, a bibliography program that allows students to store, organize and share research, moved to Baltimore from its New York office in 2013. According to the Baltimore Business Journal, Three Ring, which allows teachers and students to capture photos, videos and audio of student work with a mobile app, announced in February it was moving its main office from New York to Baltimore. Education startups StraighterLine, Moodlerooms and Allovue already call Baltimore home.
Yet both the Boston and Baltimore efforts are also likely to have to overcome challenges associated with focusing on developing ed-tech within a specific region, a number of observers say.
Rudden, of LearnLaunch, said the relatively strong achievement of Boston’s schools may not make the city the right one for all companies, particularly ed-tech startups that are looking to show that they can make major improvements in schools’ performance.
Carolan, of the NewSchools Venture Fund, said she didn’t see a downside to the geographic focus of the Boston and Baltimore efforts, but she said both programs would need to remain flexible in trying to help new education companies grow.
“It’s really important to focus on the scale of the business,” Carolan said. “You can’t constrain yourself or limit the potential of a business by putting too much focus on its location.”