Winners of Education Startup Competition Reflect Urgent K-12 Needs

Staff Writer

Better data, stronger skills, and more social-emotional support.

The ed-tech startups that competed in the latest Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition are focused on solving a range of students’ and educators most pressing needs, from helping students accelerate literacy skills to using data to drive decision-making in the classroom.

The competition, hosted by the Catalyst center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and supported by the Michael and Lori Milken Family Foundation, concluded during an on-stage prize ceremony at EdTech Week in New York City earlier this month.

“[The finalists] are bringing promising practices and solutions to the persistent, seminal issues in education,” said Michael Golden, executive director of Catalyst, which helps promote entrepreneurship and innovation in education.

After participating in the competition, education companies often go on to raise venture capital, secure philanthropic funding, or be acquired by large players in the space, Golden said in an interview.

Finalists in the competition, which is now in its 14th year, have gone on to raise more than $200 million in total funding to support their startups.

“Some go on to be acquired by other companies — large companies like Instructure or Lego,” said Golden. “Some have big investments by venture capitalists, private equity.  Some have gone public, and some have merged into other organizations.”

Others, he added, have grown steadily without major investments or outside capital.

Demand for Data, and Social-Emotional Support

Unlocked Labs, a startup that helps incarcerated individuals build tech skills, took home the top cash prize of $40,000 as well as the $5,000 audience choice award at the event.

Kenyan ed-tech company Skizaa won a $25,000 prize to help grow its product, which aims to help schools in remote regions collect and analyze data in real time, in an effort to provide NGOs, curriculum providers, and policymakers with better decision-making tools.

Storyshares, the winner of the $10,000 prize, offers a library of books and reading materials that are designed to be relevant and interesting to students of different ages and reading levels.

“If you’re in 11th grade, but you’re reading at a second-grade reading level, you’re not interested in second-grade content. It’s not relevant to you,” Golden said. “[Storyshares] is creating both ebooks and physical books that are much more focused on addressing the individual interests and identities of the readers.”

Other finalists in the K-12 space included College Guidance Network, a platform that offers resources and programming for high school counselors, and ThinkHumanTV, which uses content on streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+ to teach students social-emotional skills.

The competition drew hundreds of applicants from 38 countries and 35 states in the U.S., Golden said, and many included a similar focus on addressing students’ mental health needs, another top concern for many districts.

School officials and students are under enormous pressure created by everything from political polarization to K-12 staffing turnover, and there’s a desire by companies to “focus more on the wellness of both the young people and the adults in schools and universities,” Golden said.

Pakistan-based Taleemabad, another finalist, offers schools in the country a digital curriculum platform, including lesson plans, teacher supports, assessments, and a video library.

Finalist EdVisorly, which is working to build a platform to make it easier for community college students to transfer to four-year universities, also secured a $100,000 investment from Conscious Venture Partners at the culminating event in New York.

In addition to a $1,500 cash prize, all finalists won $50,000 in Amazon Web Services credits.

Nurturing Promising Companies

The end of the competition also marked the end of the companies’ participation in the Catalyst center’s virtual ed-tech accelerator, Catapult.

The accelerator, which is in its second year, and the competition were combined for the first time during this cohort, as the program sought to give the finalists additional support in building their companies.

Catapult’s programming aims to help founders work on four different aspects of venture development: leadership, product, market, and funding. Each startup was assigned and advisor that is an expert in the companies’ respective focus areas, Golden said.

Moving forward, Golden expects to see the competition program and accelerator grow, with tentative plans to hold another cohort in the spring that’s not connected to the competition. He’d also like to see Catalyst build out additional supports for companies after they complete the competition or accelerator and help strengthen its alumni network as well.

The Catalyst is focused on building a “continuum of supports” for ed-tech startups through its bootcamps, programming, competition, and accelerator, said Golden.

The center has been able to reach and support a greater number of companies led by underrepresented founders as well, he said, with six of the seven companies in this year’s competition’s cohort having been founded by a woman or person of color.

Company leaders with different life experiences, backgrounds, and identities are often coming up with solutions to problems they’re seeing in the K-12 market because they’re closest to the problems they’re looking to solve, he said.

“We love that that,” he said. “We’re giving opportunities to a more broad, diverse [range of] founders.”

Image by Getty.

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