Most ed-tech companies attending the South by Southwest education conference here this week would probably love to grow at the rate the conference itself has experienced: 650 percent since it began four years ago.
"It's a reflection of the community's hunger for these kinds of conversations," said Ron Reed, SXSWedu executive producer, explaining why more than 6,000 participants are converging for the four-day conference and festival.
Businesses are here to find out what educators and students want, to demonstrate their products, discover new markets and partners, and learn how to access funding.
A LAUNCHedu competition gave 10 entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their businesses for the K-12 and college markets, receiving feedback from judges who included education practitioners, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.
RobotsLAB of San Francisco, which produces a teaching aid demonstrating core concepts of math and science using robots, won the competition. Interactive lessons bring the robots "to life," helping students understand why math is relevant to their lives. [This blog post was updated after the winner was announced.]
Last year's winner in the K-12 category was Clever, for its technology that helps schools sync learning software with student information systems. This year, Tyler Bosmeny, Clever's co-founder and CEO, shared his insights about getting funding in a "Show Me the Money" session. He advised entrepreneurs to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of working with startup incubators and accelerators carefully, to make sure any investment they receive is worth the percentage of the company they give up.
The venture capital industry, as a whole, is showing interest in ed tech, said Jennifer Carolan, the managing director of the nonprofit NewSchools Seed Fund, which was created to make investments in early-stage educational technology companies.
"The whole venture capital industry has seen a major contraction in the last 10 years," she said. "Yet the amount of money going into ed tech is growing." Last year, 59 seed investments were made in K-12 ed-tech, a significant increase over the previous year, she said, and "we're starting to see top-tier VC firms get interested in investing in ed tech."
But it's the schools that really need to invest in ed tech for the industry to see more growth. That's often an issue of "find me the money," said Richard Culatta, the director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, in his remarks during a session on learning management systems.
For schools that say they are too financially strapped to invest in technology, Culatta said his first questions to them are: "What are you willing to do differently? What are you willing to stop doing? Do you know what [you] spend on copiers, printers, and paper? Are you willing to stop buying textbooks?"
He also drew the audience's attention to a letter he issued in February explaining how schools can tap into federal funds—from Title I, Title II, Title III, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—to "leverage advances in technology to improve student learning and achievement."
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This blog post was updated to reflect the winner of the LAUNCHedu competition.