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A Short Guide to EdTech Investing

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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).

Kellogg 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?

Scaffolding. 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.

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