Sector Focus: EdTech market

“COVID has pulled the transition to digital learning forward by at least 5 years.” These were the words of David Sherwood, CEO and co-founder of EdTech startup BibliU, commenting on the remarkable development of the sector. With a series of lockdowns over the past year, there has been huge demand for technology to solve the challenge of learning shifting from the classroom to the home setting. AIN’s Sam Louis takes a closer look at the EdTech sector and why it is getting top marks from investors.

AIN’s Sam Louis

THE NUMBERS

Size of Ed Tech market: The global education technology market size is anticipated to reach USD 285.2 billion by 2027 (Source: Grand View Research, Inc. Technology)

Number of companies: 3,250 companies globally according to Crunchbase

On the platform: Education and Training is the 17th most popular category for angel investors

Description
EdTech (a combination of “education” and “technology”) refers to hardware and software designed to enhance teacher-led learning in classrooms and improve students’ education outcomes. It also incorporates the wider sphere of adult education and learning.

WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR ITS RISE TO PROMINENCE IN THE PAST YEAR?

Necessity
There’s been no shortage of great EdTech companies over the years, but lockdowns and social distancing have changed the game. It’s forced the hand of consumers because the usual in-person learning option was no longer available. Necessity is often the mother of change as well as invention.

The reason it’s taken a global pandemic to speed up adoption is that most consumers weren’t prepared to go through the hassle and the teething problems of full implementation. This is especially true of academic institutions and businesses and they aren’t unfounded concerns. It takes real time, energy and capital to bring step changes in how you deliver or receive education, and getting it wrong can have a very real cost. Until the potential benefits significantly outperform the current system (and it does have to be significantly for most consumers), the change is a genuine risk.


A new climate for innovation
What this period has done is moved the market five years into the future in a matter of months. In time, EdTech offerings would have improved to the point that they did provide significant improvements for consumers and major adoption would have occurred. Instead the existing system has been hamstrung to the extent that the tipping point was reached early. I think this will be to the benefit of the education system long term. When in-person education returns, the best educators will be able to take the most valuable parts of the old and blend it with the new, and hopefully retain a more open view on future innovations to improve further.

WHAT CHALLENGES HAs EDTECH NEEDED TO HAVE OVERCOME?

For Individual learners
The challenge with individual learners is user experience, course completion and efficacy. People either struggle to engage with the tool, they struggle to stay motivated, or they don’t see the results they want. In all cases, they drop off. People are very used to traditional learning so it’s been a big point to overcome.

For B2B products
For B2B products there needs to be a strong enough case for change that the business commits to the risk. Beyond that, all of the points about individuals also apply. 

For Academic institutions
Lastly you have academic institutions. These have all of the hurdles of the other two, and then the added complication of being influenced by broader regulation or controls, such as the school board or government. Many EdTech ventures manage to capture a large number of individual teachers but never get the official adoption at school or national curriculum level. This is where budget allocation and curriculum is dictated and without that it is hard to secure wider market share. Not dissimilarly to the medical space, this is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the education sector a tough one to crack, but for those who do and are given the green light, the growth curve from there is very exciting.

Investor Challenges

Investors have been aware of all of these issues and that’s led to less investment. You can have the best concept in the world but the influence of top down decision making across the market creates a variable that’s very hard to predict or control for. As a result, despite many EdTech businesses more than holding their own in idea, innovation, team and execution, the investment has been far more restrained than other sectors.

The pandemic has arguably been a Black Swan event in that regard. Institutions have realised the need to adapt and change which has forced educators to engage with these new opportunities. This change in consumer sentiment has been recognised by the investors, which in turn has given them the confidence that startups can find a significant and willing market.

What types of companies are we seeing developing solutions in the EdTech sector?

a) Those digitally enabling existing learning
This has probably been where we’ve seen the biggest change to demand – companies providing technology to enable learning that was already taking place. This has understandably been pandemic-driven growth, with the market responding to a particular crisis, but it’s also one of the areas with the least need to stimulate new consumer behaviours. This gives it a strong chance of adoption and investors know that, shown by the capital deployed this year. For example, BibilU, who digitise print text books and provide them seamlessly across all your devices, had to do an extension to their funding round due to the incredible demand for their product. People were already at universities, the courses and textbooks were already set, you are just changing one component. They’re enabling an action people are already doing in an easier, cheaper and more effective way. You can see why the pitch resonates.

b) Adult education

There has also been an on-going rise to prominence in digital solutions for adult learning. The pace of change in the world and evolution of job roles has created a need for lifelong learning. Time pressed adult learners are now able to get the same learning, sometimes even better learning, than available to them in traditional face to face institutions. This ranges from post-graduate degrees to language learning to brain training, with a new generation of smart apps able to offer them a tailored pathway.

People like DuoLingo have shown the heights possible with self motivated learners, while Coursera has done the same in the B2B market. Student motivation is still a concern, with course completion rates often low, but in comparison to younger learners, many adults actively engage with the digital structure and find that it opens up a world of opportunity. 

c) Tech to boost efficiency
With increased reporting and accountability, many educators are struggling with the added workload that comes on top of teaching time.There is a lot of work being done on technology to enable teachers to streamline their tasks and work more efficiently, giving them back the time to really focus on the important part, the students. Pango for example is a tool for planning lessons, sharing resources and managing curriculum. Whole schools can share and collaborate on lesson plans, keeping consistency while allowing teachers to design and plan lessons in a fraction of the time.

The past year has highlighted the difficulties and stress teachers come under and this area is likely to grow strongly. As institutions and governing bodies welcome more digitisation, we will likely see the strongest supporting tools gain significant market share as the industry encourages consistency across teachers.

d) AI and personalised learning systems:
The most exciting and arguably the most controversial is AI and personalised learning. Companies like Atom Learning have developed high-quality, teacher-made content with sophisticated AI driven technology to keep students on individual, optimal learning paths. This can have a transformative impact on pupils’ progression and can arguably help to reduce educational inequalities. 

New methods of learning enabled by AI and machine learning have come up against some entrenched thinking in the education system, as it requires teachers to learn new systems. Another challenge in encouraging take up is that some of the gains can be incremental. This has meant it has been difficult to get wholesale buy in, particularly given the initial disruption and new learning required. However attitudes are changing, driven by a new generation of tech native teachers

what are investors saying about this category?

A lot more than they were before, and a lot of it is positive. EdTech has a strong altruistic component for passion-driven angel investors. Investors see it as a worthy place to be investing money. They are improving peoples’ ability to learn and better themselves, which has always held currency but more so now than ever. 

A lot of proponents are enjoying that this is a sector being given the opportunity to show what it can do. Many investors hadn’t considered education seriously before but it has come onto their radar due to the increased receptivity from the market. Many institutional investors now have EdTech proudly on their masthead of sectors they invest in, which was previously rare outside of very focused, and often government supported, funds. In this regard EdTech has arguably joined FinTech in capturing its own zeitgeist. 

The speed of change in attitudes and investment sentiment shows the extent to which EdTech has been pent up by a challenging growth environment. The innovation has continually evolved as with other sectors but the hurdles in place, and investors’ awareness of them, has held the industry back. Now that the consumer market’s attitudes are changing, there’s no shortage of innovative ventures ready to take on both the investment, and the opportunity. 

Hopefully this combination of attention, investment and market willingness will create a positive cycle of attracting the strongest talent to the sector and in turn drive yet more progress.

What are the fundamentals you look for in an ed tech business?

Traction
Unlike nascent markets, EdTech firms can build significant traction and product-market fit at an early stage, even when bootstrapped. We like to see strong uptake and engagement, that they’ve really tested the product or service with consumers and that the feedback has been encouraging. Not just they like the product, but that it delivers real value.

We’ve seen so many fantastic ideas but this shows when someone has really found something that has an impact for educators.


Core or ancillary
– An important consideration is are they doing something core or ancillary? Is it enabling the student’s core interaction with either a teacher or the subject material. The demand is still very much ‘core’. As the market evolves though, we expect the supporting technology, efficiency products for example, to really start to gain momentum and attention.

Passion of the founding team
– The passion, insight and drive of the founding team are key factors determining success in this industry. Despite new consumer willingness, there are still entrenched hurdles to overcome on the growth path within the sector. In B2B enterprise software, just having the best product might be enough to win a significant share of the market, but in education there is a trickier path to navigate and the leadership team is often the determining factor here. 

WHAT IS THE UNICORN POTENTIAL VERSUS OTHER SECTORS?

CB Insights expects 2 of the next 50 unicorns to be in the EdTech sector. To build a unicorn you need a large, willing market that’s growing fast, and this is certainly the environment evolving where education meets technology.

With vast numbers of people in education of one form or another, there’s the potential to become a unicorn while staying within just one country’s market. This isn’t the case for every sector and so when you then consider the global opportunity, things get really exciting. Many of these technologies have both real scalability and the market opportunity for significant size, so we may see EdTech start to make up more than just 4% of the new unicorns as time goes on.

CASE STUDIES

BibliU

BibliU is a digital education platform that provides students with digital access to their textbooks and libraries across all their devices.

Founded in 2014, the company now has over 100 university customers including Oxford, Imperial, University of Phoenix and Coventry University. The company has digitised content from more than 2,000 publishers including: Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press. The content is licensed directly to universities, who can then provide access to students and include the costs in their existing tuition fees. BibliU raised £600,000 on the AIN platform last year, this was an addition to its £6.5m Series A. The company saw a surge in demand due to COVID 19.  Completed in eight weeks, the funds will be used for new technical hires to support demand from Universities. The startup is scaling rapidly with 60+ new pilots across the globe. 

CoGrammar is an edtech startup that is dedicated to closing the global tech skills gap. The company achieves this by integrating human mentorship and code review into the world’s leading tech education brands. The company integrates quality and affordable review of developers and aspiring coders using the top 0.6% of African tech talent. It has been backed by Facebook, Google, Python and the University of Cambridge.

PSYT Technologies are specialists in wellbeing and technology. The startup
turns the advice of the world’s leading self-development authors into digital, action-based summaries to help individuals create real change. They work with leading academics at the forefront of research, providing innovative technology that allows them to use state-of-the-art research designs to capture data. The team is backed by advisors from Headspace, Masterclass and Audible.