Innovation unConference, unConference

unConference Session: Clustering Educational Startups

Session Leaders: Jean Howard, Eileen Rudden, Marissa Lowman, learnlaunch.org
Eric Braun, 30Hands Learning

Hot talk on the future of ed tech in Boston and the US. Photo Credit: Chris Nahil
The session drew more than forty attendees who represented a wealth of diversity in terms of their approach, niche, expertise and point of view on the future of education-related innovation in New England.  Session attendees included founders, investors, teachers, developers, administrators, students and information seekers.  Highlights and info bullets from the session included:
-The session leaders – three of whom are building a nonprofit organization to help connect and grow education technology start-ups called learnlaunch.org — have identified 150 education-related start-up companies in the New England region.  Of these perhaps 10-20 have received early funding and 10 could be considered in serious growth mode.
-Spending in the K-12 market on technology and other educational support products and services represent 9% of the U.S. GDP, but only .1% of venture investments over the last ten years. There is a clear capital gap here.
-The notion behind clustering, nurturing, accelerating education startups is to make them eventually “investable.”
-A close look at the market reveals that there are ample opportunities for back office-like innovation dedicated to education (administration, reporting, evaluation, assessment, HR, finance etc.) in addition to the student- and teacher-facing products and services  that most people think of when they think of “ed tech.”
-The group began by floating a variety of topics and themes that could be addressed in the session. In a wide-ranging conversation, some of these were more fully addressed than others and talk flowed freely.
o   How to overcome the “noise” in a market by widely divergent companies and offerings
o   How to more efficiently reach prospects by working on cooperative marketing and selling
o   The need for an Industry Map that  identified the players and experts in the ed tech industry both regionally and nationally
o   How to better connect ed tech “vendors” with the research community in order to provide data and a comfort-level to academic purchasers who thrive on research validation before buying.
-Marketing approaches: A healthy conversation took place around various beta-testing and go-to-market approaches. Interestingly, one session attendee was a strong advocate of testing and building early adopters in markets outside of Boston (or other major metro areas) because of the entrenchment  and politicization of education in these markets. The idea of going “elsewhere” to prove your concept and build a base of early champions first, then re-entering major markets with a proven commodity and community of users was seen as likely more effective.
-The diverse geography approach above creates time and staff-management issues for bootstrapped startups but it was offered that by pre-selecting your markets outside of Boston and then closely focusing and managing around those, go-to-market efficiencies could be gained.  This clearly speaks to the need for robust market research before beta or launch.
-Similarly, several participants (including a representative from Union Square Ventures, investor in several ed tech startups)  advocated circumventing the many gatekeepers found in educational institutions and districts and selling directly to early adopter or “digital native” teachers who will do exciting things with good products and become champions within their schools and across the country (thanks to teacher and education Web forums, conferences and social media).  With enough internal pressure from advocates, gatekeepers will be forced to look at ed tech innovation with more open minds.
-A general discussion on the utility of incubators developed. Some cautioned that putting too many like companies under one roof could cause them to become trapped in their own feedback loop. Other felt the collaboration and friction between the startups would be healthy.
-Generally, most agreed that because so many ed tech start ups begin with a sense of mission and high-minded goals of “fixing” a broken education systems, these companies often have a hard time translating their emotion and passion into a story that would be compelling to investors.  The goal, after all, is to get the best companies funded and flourishing and, while passion is part of that, business sense, planning and expertise are equally valuable.
-Big Data will find its way into education, especially given the demands created by Common Core frameworks and other federal and state school improvement initiatives. There may be a huge business opportunity here.
-Ultimately, though clustering educational startups in Boston and New England makes sense, it is equally important that the individual companies and regional organization have strong ties to national counterparts as a means of sharing data, improving communications, and expanding market reach quickly and efficiently.
The EdTech Ecosystem Flipchart. Photo Credit: Chris Nahil
The increased focus by government and business on the need for better education at all levels, academically and commercially, ensures that this market will see increased innovation, development and investment in both the short and long term. The approaches and issues here are legion and today’s session spawned a host of ideas for future conversations and underscored the need to continue to build networks among ed tech innovators and supporters in Boston and across the nation. 
Christopher M. Nahil
Message & Medium – Marketing and Communications Consulting
Twitter: @cnahil

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