Venture Capital Firm, Standards-Setting Group Forge Partnership Around Interoperability

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An organization that promotes “interoperability” in school districts–the seamless sharing of data across ed-tech products and systems–is partnering with a venture capital firm in trying to bring fledgling education companies on board with the concept.

The IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit that crafts interoperability standards, announced it will work with New Markets Venture Partners, which invests in early- and growth-stage education, information technology and business-service companies.

Companies pay to belong to IMS, generally anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. The partnership will give companies in New Markets Venture Partners’ portfolio a break on their membership costs while those businesses are growing, in exchange for working to meet interoperability standards. 

By joining the IMS consortium, companies will enter a network of school districts and other companies, and gain insights about the direction of interoperability in K-12 systems, and how it will affect them, said Rob Abel, the CEO of the consortium.

“It’s one of the biggest hurdles you have: How do you work with partners? How do you get your product to work with other products in the marketplace?” Abel said in an interview. “If you’re a startup and you adopt these standards, you get in the middle of a pretty big ecosystem, very fast.”

The IMS consortium has about 500 members, many of them K-12 vendors, and it is adding nearly 50 per year, he said. At least 60 of its members are school districts, which collectively serve about 13 million students.

The partnership is IMS Global’s first with a VC firm, added Abel, though the organization may seek out similar arrangements with other investment groups in the future.

Bringing New Players Into the Fold

Interoperability is the goal of making it easier for schools to manage the array of different proprietary ed-tech tools and platforms by requiring those system to allow for the easy exchange and transfer of information. Other groups besides IMS Global promote interoperability, including Ed-Fi.

For students and teachers, that can mean finding a way around a maze of separate log-ins, passwords, and proprietary roadblocks that trip them up throughout the school day. For educators and administrators, it can mean ensuring easier transfer of both managerial and classroom data, from grading to attendance to learning analytics.

By paying to participate in the IMS consortium, companies get the right to help define interoperability standards and begin implementing them, said Abel.They also go through various tests to prove they are implementing the standards correctly–which gives them “certification” from the consortium, Abel explained.

His organization should be judged in part by its ability to set clear standards for districts and companies trying to get a foothold in K-12, said Abel. Good standards ultimately “make it easier for new entrants to come into the marketplace and create innovation.”

New Markets Venture Partners has about 20 education companies in its portfolio, half of them working in the K-12 market, said Jason Palmer, the general partner of the firm. Future companies that his firm invests in will be eligible for the IMS partnership too.

The typical company receiving support from New Markets Venture Partners has less than $10 million in revenue and between 10-50 employees. The partnership will save those vendors money on IMS membership costs, and will benefit the standards consortium by bringing new, smaller businesses into the organization, adding to the lineup of established players, he predicted.

IMS Global offers many interoperability standards; the organization and venture firm will help the startup education companies focus on meeting the ones that matter most to their school districts, the buyers of their products, said Palmer.

Palmer formerly worked as a deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed funding to IMS Global. He has also served as an observer on IMS Global’s board.

“Standards have been helpful in every industry on the planet, and they can be helpful in education, too,” Palmer said in an interview.

Many districts are telling companies they expect their various tech applications to work together, even if they define interoperability in different ways, he said. IMS Global’s standards lend clarity to vendors’ work, because they are “preexisting, widely adopted” and “robust.”

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