Education Opinion

A Short Guide to EdTech Investing

By Tom Vander Ark — April 03, 2013 3 min read
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A foundation officer called last week to discuss investing in edtech. After a decade of neglect, it’s a growth category reflecting the mobile inflection
and the transition to digital learning.

The impact investors at City Light and I wrote a paper on this topic last year suggesting that
education-focused foundations should:

  • engage private enterprise with grants, contracts and program related investments (PRI), and

  • invest endowment funds in edtech startups or funds (often called mission related investments, or MRI).

has been making MRIs for several years with the guidance of Imprint Capital. Lumina invested in New Market Venture Fund. The

Dell Family Foundation recently invested in MasteryConnect

. It’s good to see more foundations think about investing in innovation.

What to invest in?
Or, edupreneurs might ask, what categories are attractive? Or, what teacher problems should we solve? Here’s a list of twenty trending K-12 edtech
categories and company examples (mostly Learn Capital portfolio companies where I’m partner):

What’s new?
At SXSWedu, Alex Hernandez and I discussed Investing in Education Innovation and suggested that, aligned
with the shift to Common Core, we see a near term innovation in content delivery-flat & sequential to adaptive & engaging-and a longer term shift
to competency-based systems-new rules and new schools. We noted that learning outside of school is exploding with mobile apps and power shifting from
schools to families.

The biggest challenge for startups is gaining early users and demonstrating some level of efficacy before burning through seed cash. Some conference (ASU,
EDUCAUSE, Sloan-c, SXSW) have a startup alley to showcase startups at low cost.

There are a growing number of incubators and accelerators
including Socratic Labs (NYC), 4.0 Schools (NOLA), ImagineK12 (Palo Alto), and LearnLaunch (Boston). They are doing a good job of
supporting the development of new companies that work pressing problems. The growing question is how to support work on bigger problems--how to add
resources and runway for scaled solutions?

Foundations have the opportunity (investing either from the endowment or the grantmaking side of the house) to help startups work on bigger opportunities.
A couple examples include supporting:

  • aggregate demand by supporting League of Innovative Schools.

  • development of a toolset for competency-based environments competency tracking, achievement recognition) on a big social platform like Edmodo and/or on
    a big data platform like inBloom.

  • development of comprehensive learner profiles and recommendation engines.

  • student, teacher, and school support services around a big learning platform.

Philanthropy Roundtable
does a good job supporting these developing conversations. But because this space is dynamic, the most important work happens on the phone or in the
hallway at a conference like ASU Education Innovation Summit.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.