FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

MasterClass co-founder’s Outlier.org raises $30M for affordable, virtual college courses

By Anthony Ha

Outlier.org — a startup offering intro-level college courses online and at a relatively affordable price — is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

The startup was founded by CEO Aaron Rasmussen, previously co-founder at MasterClass (which Axios reports is raising new funding at a $2.5 billion valuation). Like Rasmussen’s old company, Outlier offers beautifully shot online courses; unlike MasterClass, students can actually earn college credit.

When Outlier launched in the fall of 2019, Rasmussen said his goal was to make a college education more affordable and accessible — though he also told me that Outlier is only focused on bringing intro-level classes online, not the entire curriculum.

This idea seems even more appealing during a pandemic, when a completely “normal” college experience isn’t really available to anyone. In fact, Rasmussen said there’s been a surge in interest from universities that want to partner with Outlier, especially since some colleges are struggling to attract students — so with difficult financial choices ahead, they can use Outlier to supplement their offerings.

“We’ve learned that many universities love the idea of high-quality intro classes for students,” he said. “That was a question mark for us, [but] many say, ‘We want to focus on upper level courses, so this a great way to keep people on track.'”

To that end, Outlier has hired Anjuli Gupta as its head of partnerships. Gupta previously led university partnerships at Coursera, and Rasmussen suggested the company could work with high schools and employers, not just universities.

Of course, the pandemic has created some challenges for Outlier as well. Initially, in order to produce its classes, Rasmussen said the company was shipping its instructors “literally 500 pounds of cinematography equipment.” Now it has developed a production method where a small crew sets everything up, then the instructor teaches on the set alone.

“It’s just you, a motion-controlled dolly and little pieces of tape telling you where to push all the buttons,” he said. “Then [the crew] remotely runs the cameras, you’re hitting record and they can see everything coming in through the feeds, so you’re remotely directed.”

Outlier currently offers six classes, including Calculus I, Microeconomics, Astronomy and Philosophy, with a goal of expanding to 14 by the end of 2022. Rasmussen said the company is now allowing students to join courses in new cohorts every two weeks — so even though the lectures are pre-recorded, you’re still moving through the class with a group of fellow students. And Outlier has built a variety of custom student support tools — for example, the company can identify when a student is “falling behind” and reach out.

The startup has also expanded its partnership with the University of Pittsburgh into a five-year agreement, with students receiving credit from the school and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown providing academic oversight. (Though it seems that some faculty members are unhappy about the arrangement.) They’ve also partnered to offer $3.8 million worth of scholarships to 1,000 frontline workers.

Each Outlier course costs $400, which the company says is approximately one-sixth the cost of a traditional college class. Still, Rasmussen said, “I couldn’t have afforded it when I was growing up,” so he’s trying to find ways to make the program even more affordable — hence the scholarships, as well as monthly payment plans with Klarna (Outlier covers the interest on student payments).

The new funding was led by GV (formerly known Google Ventures), with participation from Unusual Ventures, GSV, Harrison Metal and Gaingels, bringing Outlier’s total funding to $46 million.

“We’re inspired by Outlier.org’s mission to increase educational access and equity, and to reduce student debt,” said GV’s John Lyman in a statement. “We strongly believe in Aaron Rasmussen and the founding team’s vision to provide better access to more affordable education for hundreds of millions of students around the globe.”

Ornikar raises $120M as its driving school marketplace goes up a gear with car insurance

By Ingrid Lunden

A French startup that set out to bring a new approach to driver education and road safety, and then used that foothold to expand into the related area of car insurance, is today announcing a big round of funding to continue building its service across Europe.

Ornikar, which prepares people for driving tests by providing online drivers education courses, lets those users organize in-person lessons with driving instructors, provides a booking system for taking their written and practical examinations, and finally provides them with competitive rates for getting car insurance as new drivers, has raised €100 million ($120 million).

The company intends to use the funding to expand its business. Drivers education services are live today in France and Spain, while insurance is offered today only in France: the plan will be to expand both of those to more markets.

The Series C is being led by KKR, with previous investors Idinvest, BPI, Elaia, Brighteye, and H14 also participating. Benjamin Gaignault, Ornikar’s CEO who co-founded the company with Flavien LeRendu (who also jointly holds the title of CEO), said the startup is not disclosing its valuation, but we understand from a source that it is around $750 million. The company has raised $175 million to date.

Ornikar has been around since 2013 and was founded, in Gaignault’s words, “to disrupt driving education.”

Coming into the market at a time when most of the process of organizing, learning and booking your driving education was not only very fragmented but completely offline, Ornikar’s internet-based offering represented a step change in how French people learned to drive: the process not only became easier, but on average about 40% cheaper to arrange.

Ornikar’s driving education business today includes not just online course materials and booking services, but a network of instructors across 1,000 towns and cities in France, and a business that launched last year in Spain, under the Onroad brand. Some 1.5 million people have taken Ornikar’s driving education courses to date, with another 2 million using its driving school, with growth accelerating: 420,000 new customers signed up with Ornikar in the last year alone.

Last year was a tricky one for companies in the business of transportation. People were generally staying put and not traveling anywhere, but when they were getting around, they wanted plenty of their own space to do so.

Translating that to markets like France and Spain where many towns will have solid public transportation and taxi services, people might have opted to use these less, looking instead to private vehicles in their place. And translating that to Ornikar, Gaignault said that people being at home more, and looking to use the time productively with a view to driving more in the future, the startup saw business growing by 30% each month last year.

Interestingly, it was in the middle of the pandemic that Ornikar launched its car insurance product, which came out of the same impetus as the driver education services: it was built to fill a hole in the market rethought with Ornikar’s users in mind.

Car insurance in France — a €17 billion ($20 billion) market annually — is dominated by big players, and when it comes to first-time drivers and looking for competitive rates, “the bigger companies are not comfortable with user experience,” said Gaignault. “It’s pretty poor and not aligned with expectations of the customers.”

The car insurance product — sold as Ornikar Assurance — is now on track to hit some 20,000 users by August (when it will have been in the market for a year).

While it accounts today for a small fraction of Ornikar’s revenues compared to its driver education platform, that take up — not just from alums of Ornikar’s drivers ed, but from those who had never used an Ornikar service before — is a good sign that it’s on to something big, Gaignault said.

“In October we noticed that 80% of our new insurance customers were not coming from Ornikar but from social media, Google ads and other outside sources,” he said. “That’s why we decided to create a new business unit and explore a business as an insuretech.”

But, he added, that will not be at the expense of the driving education: the two go hand in hand for a common goal of improving how people drive and improving road safety. Indeed, Gaignault said he envisions a time when one will feed into the other: not only will the driving school serve as a way of bringing in new insurance customers, but insurance rates can be impacted by how many driving courses a person takes to keep their knowledge of the driving code and best practices fresh.

“Ornikar has done a tremendous job creating a great experience for students and driving instructors through engaging online education courses and a well-designed marketplace,” said Patrick Devine, director at KKR and member of the Next Generation Technology Growth investment team. “We are thrilled to invest behind Benjamin, Flavien, and their talented team as they expand internationally and accelerate their insurance offering following the successful launches of Onroad in Spain and Ornikar Assurance.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Garry Kasparov launches a community-first chess platform

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Four years ago, MasterClass, a platform that sells celebrity-taught classes, invited chess legend Garry Kasparov to teach a class. He said yes, but soon realized that creating a message that could satisfy a majority of players was a “struggle throughout the process.”

While the class did pretty well, Kasparov found it “a little bit annoying” that he had to downplay concepts and stick to a specific structure. So, now, Kasparov is launching a platform he says has been several years in the making: Kasparovchess.

Kasparovchess will be a platform in which legendary chess players will have free reign to share tips and tricks with players from various levels. Financed by private investors, and media conglomerate Vivendi, the company declined to disclose its total capital raised to date.

The platform, produced by Vivendi, includes documentaries, podcasts, articles and interviews between experts and known players in the chess community. Moe than 1,000 videos have been recorded to date, Kasparov said. Beyond content, Kasparovchess will have an exclusive Discord server attached to it and playing zones.

In many ways, it’s a vertical-specific version of the chess MasterClass he did years ago, with a big focus on community and variety. MasterClass, which is reportedly raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, has been a leader in the “edutainment” space, which monetizes off of documentary-style entertainment. One of the unicorn’s biggest characteristics, as Kasparov alluded to earlier, is that it has to appeal to a wide audience so subscribers can hop from one class to another. Within the same month, a user could go from a Kasparovchess class to general pontifications from RuPaul on self expression. The more classes that MasterClass can get you to take, the longer you’ll keep your subscription.

Image Credits: Kasparovchess

MasterClass might consider its broad view as a differentiator, but it’s clear that Kasparov views it as an opportunity.

Kasparovchess has a monthly or yearly subscription of $13.99 or $119.99, respectively. The majority of lessons from experts and retrospective analysis on games you’ve played sit behind the paywall. The premium product also grants users access to a database of 50,000 manually created puzzles that allows players to train certain skills. The product will be available to the public by the end of month.

A popular competitor already exists: Chess.com. It’s a chess server, forum and networking site that launched in 2005, with premium subscription that ranges between $5 a month or $29 a year. Kasparovchess is significantly more expensive.

Kasparov says his biggest differentiator will be a focus on community. The long-term goal of Kasparovchess is to connect global chess communities with each other, unearth prodigies that might not have access otherwise and give others access to his experiences. He thinks that remote education during the pandemic has shown the need to have more interactive solutions, beyond buzzy promises.

“It’s time to actually switch from what we’re teaching to how students can apply it,” he said. “And that helps us indirectly because chess has been recognized for centuries as a nexus for intelligence and creativity.”

Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion in 1985. He retired from public chess in 2005, and has since launched a foundation to help children have access to chess worldwide. Most recently, he helped advise for “Queen’s Gambit,” a show about a chess prodigy that became Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date on the platform. The show was so ubiquitously popular that sales for chess boards soon skyrocketed.

“I was so happy because it was the first time where we could see chess as a positive factor,” he said. “We had so many years with chess being seen as potential destruction and something that could push kids to the dark area of psychological instability.”

The freshness of this message mixed with an uptick in remote education has given Kasparov confidence that his years-long project is finally ready to launch.

“It’s not just about teaching the game, or playing the game, or debating the game,” he said. Instead, he hopes people who come to the platform focus on the culture of chess, its survival and its seemingly timeless power.

Yak Tack is a super simple app to boost vocabulary

By Natasha Lomas

Word nerds with a love for linguistic curiosities and novel nomenclature that’s more fulsome than their ability to make interesting new terms stick will be thrilled by Yak Tack: A neat little aidemémoire (in Android and iOS app form) designed for expanding (English) vocabulary, either as a native speaker or language learner.

Yak Tack uses adaptive spaced repetition to help users remember new words — drawing on a system devised in the 1970s by German scientist Sebastian Leitner.

The app’s core mechanic is a process it calls ‘tacking’. Here’s how it works: A user comes across a new word and inputs it into Yak Tack to look up what it means (definition content for words and concepts is sourced from Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Wikpedia via their API, per the developer).

Now they can choose to ‘tack’ the word to help them remember it.

This means the app will instigate its system of space repetition to combat the routine problem of memory decay/forgetting, as new information tends to be jettisoned by our brains unless we make a dedicated effort to remember it (and/or events conspire to make it memorable for other, not necessarily very pleasant reasons).

Tacked words are shown to Yak Tack users via push notification at spaced intervals (after 1 day, 2,3,5,8, and 13; following the fibonacci sequence).

Tapping on the notification takes the user to their in-app Tack Board where they get to re-read the definition. It also displays all the words they’ve tacked and their progress in the learning sequence for each one.

After the second repeat of a word there’s a gamified twist as the user must select the correct definition or synonym — depending on how far along in the learning sequence they are — from a multiple-choice list.

Picking the right answer means the learning proceeds to the next fibonacci interval. An incorrect answer moves the user back to the previous interval — meaning they must repeat that step, retightening (instead of expanding) the information-exposure period; hence adaptive space repetition.

It’s a simple and neat use of digital prompts to help make new words stick.

[gallery ids="2139025,2139022,2139023,2139024,2139026"]

The app also has a simple and neat user interface. It actually started as an email-only reminder system, says developer Jeremy Thomas, who made the tool for himself, wanting to expand his own vocabulary — and was (intentionally) the sole user for the first six months after it launched in 2019. (He was also behind an earlier (now discontinued) vocabulary app called Ink Paste.)

For now Yak Tack is a side/passion project so he can keep coding (and indulge his “entrepreneurial proclivities”, as he wordily puts it), his day job being head of product engineering at Gusto. But he sees business potential in bootstrapping the learning tool — and has incorporated it as an LLC.

“We have just over 500 users spread across the world (17 different timezones). We’re biggest in Japan, Germany, and the U.S.,” he tells TechCrunch.

“I’m funding it myself and have no plans to take on investment. I’ve learned to appreciate technology companies that have an actual business model underneath them,” he adds. “There’s an elegance to balancing growth and business fundamentals, and given the low cost of starting a SaaS business, I’m surprised more companies don’t bootstrap, frankly.”

The email-only version of Yak Tack still works (you send an email to word@yaktack.com with the word you’d like to learn as the subject and the spaced repeats happen in the same sequence — but over email). But the mobile app is much more popular, per Thomas.

It is also (inevitably) more social, showing users words tacked by other users who tacked the same word as them — so there’s a bit of word discovery serendipity thrown in. However the user who will get the most out of Yak Tack is definitely the voracious and active reader who’s ingesting a lot of text elsewhere and taking the time to look up (and tack) new and unfamiliar words as they find them.

The app itself doesn’t do major lifting on the word discovery front — but it will serve up random encounters by showing you lists of latest tacks, most-tacked this month and words from any other users you follow. (There’s also a ‘last week’s most tacked words’ notification sent weekly.)

Taking a step back, one of the cruel paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while it’s made education for kids harder, as schooling has often been forced to go remote, it’s given many stuck-at-home adults more time on their hands than usual to put their mind to learning new stuff — which explains why online language learning has seen an uplift over the past 12 months+.

And with the pandemic remaining the new dystopian ‘normal’ in most parts of the world, market conditions seem pretty conducive for a self-improvement tool like Yak Tack.

“We’ve seen a lot of good user growth during the pandemic, in large part because I think people are investing in themselves. I think that makes the timing right for an app like Yak Tack,” says Thomas.

Yak Tack is freemium, with free usage for five active tacks (and a queue system for any other words you add); or $5 a year for unlimited tacks and no queue.

“I figure the worldwide TAM [total addressable market] of English-learners is really big, and at that low price point Yak Tack is both accessible and is a huge business opportunity,” he adds.

Lingoda, an on-demand online language school with live instructors and Zoom classrooms, raises $68M

By Ingrid Lunden

A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.

Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $68 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.

The company currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Shangkuan said that its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.

“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”

The funding is being led by Summit Partners, with participation from existing investor Conny Boersch, founder of Mountain Partners. The valuation is not being disclosed.

Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient.

“We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.

A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent years has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments: technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.

So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online, and it’s keen to bring more analytics and other tech into the equation to improve learning between lessons, to help teachers get a better sense of students’ engagement and progress during class, and to more — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.

This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).

“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based learning around live teachers.

There are a number of reasons for why human teaching may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner.

Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.

On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner.

Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. Students meanwhile pay for courses along a sliding scale depending on various factors like whether you opt for group or one-to-one classes, how frequently you use the service, and which language you are learning, with per-classes prices typically ranging between $6.75 and $14.30 depending on what you choose.

Students can request a teaching level if they want it: there is always a wide selection yet with dozens of levels between basic A1 and advanced C1 proficiency, if you don’t find what you want and order it, it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class. But in any case, a teacher needs to set the class herself or himself. This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.

“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”

After students complete a course, Lingoda provides them with a certification. In English, you can take a recognized Cambridge assessment to verify your proficiency.

Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.

To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.

But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.

“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.

Updated with an additional investor and a slight change in funding amount due to conversion rates.

Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

By Devin Coldewey

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

Outschool is the newest edtech unicorn

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Outschool, a marketplace providing small-group, virtual after-school activities for children has raised a $75 million Series C led by Coatue and Tiger Global Management. TechCrunch first learned of the round from sources familiar with the transaction; the company confirmed the deal to TechCrunch later today.

The new funding values Outschool’s at $1.3 billion, around 4 times higher than its roughly $320 million valuation set less than a year ago.

To date, Outschool has raised $130 million in venture capital to date, inclusive of its new round.

The company’s valuation growth curve is steep for any startup, let alone an edtech concern that saw the majority of its growth during the pandemic. But while CEO and co-founder Amir Nathoo says his company’s new valuation is partially a reflection of today’s fundraising frenzy, he thinks revenue sustainability is a key factor in his company’s recent fundraise.

The new unicorn’s core product is after school classes for entertainment or supplemental studies, on an ongoing or one-off basis. As the company has grown, ongoing classes have grown from 10% of its business to 50% of its business, implying that the startup is generating more reliable revenue over time.

The change from one-off classes to enduring engagements could be good for the company and its students. On the former, recurring revenue is music to investor ears. On the latter, students need repetition to develop close relationships with a course and a group. Ongoing classes about debate or a weekly zombie dance class makes for a stickier experience.

Nathoo says everyone always asks what the most popular classes are, but said it continues to change since its main clientele – kids – have evolving favorites. One week it might be math, the other it might be minecraft and architecture.

Its changing revenue profile helped Outschool generate more than $100 million in bookings in 2020, compared to $6 million in 2019 and just $500,000 in 2017. Nathoo declined to share the company’s expectations for 2021 beyond “projecting to grow aggressively.”

Outschool reached brief positive cash flow last year as a result of massive growth in bookings, but Nathoo shared that that has since changed.

“My goal is to always stay within touching distance of profit,” he said. “But given the fast change in the market, it makes sense to invest aggressively into opportunities that will make sense in the long-term.”

What’s next

Nathoo expects to grow Outschool’s staff from 110 people to 200 by the end of the year, with a specific focus on international growth. In 2020, Outschool launched in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, so hiring will continue there and elsewhere.

On the flip side, Outschool isn’t  teachers at the same clip it was at the height of the pandemic in the United States. When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Within months, Outschool grew to host 10,000 teachers, a screening process that the founder explained was resource-heavy but vital. Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

Similar to how Airbnb created a host endowment fund to share its returns with the people who made its platform work, Outschool has dedicated 2% of its fundraise to creating a similar program to reward teachers on its platform in the event of liquidity.

One of Outschool’s most ambitious goals is, ironically, to go in school. While some startups have found success selling to schools amid the pandemic, district sales cycles and tight budgets continue to be a difficult challenge for scaling purposes. Still, the startup wants to make its way into students’ lives through contracts with schools and employers, which could help low income families access the platform. Nathoo says enterprise sales is a small part of its business, but the strategy began just last year as part of COVID-19 response. It is currently piloting its B2B offering with a number of schools.

Outschool will also consider acquiring early-stage startups focused on direct-to-consumer learning in international markets. While no acquisitions have been made by the startup to date, consolidation in the edtech sector broadly is heating up.

Nathoo stressed that Outschool’s continued growth, even as schools reopen, has de-risked the company from post-pandemic worries.

“There’s going to be a big spike of in-person activities because everyone is going to want to do that at once,” he said. “But then we’re going to settle at some more even distribution because the future of education is hybrid.”

He added that Outschool’s ethos around online learning hasn’t changed since conception. The company has never seen opportunity in the for-credit, subject-matter digital education sector, and instead has focused more on supplemental ways to support students after school.

“That’s the piece of the education system that is underserved and that was missing,” he said. “The advantages of online learning will remain in the convenience, the cost, and the variety of what you can get that isn’t always available locally.”

Discover how Duolingo started with CEO Luis von Ahn at Disrupt 2021

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Before Luis von Ahn co-founded Duolingo, a gamified language-learning app used by hundreds of millions around the world, he was fixated on squiggly letters. The entrepreneur was a co-inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, or those security prompts you get while browsing the web to verify if you are a human or if you are a robot.

And while von Ahn often jokes that his early inventions were considered annoying (it causes friction when consumers have to decipher letters before logging into their email) reCAPTCHA was impressive enough that Google scooped it up. Since then, von Ahn has moved on to creating another iconic company, this time, one that consumers are happy to see pop up on their screens: Duolingo.

Von Ahn is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this September 21-23 to talk about the making of a gamified edtech unicorn. The pre-IPO company started as a grad school project, and over the years has become a behemoth enjoyed by more than 500 million users.

We’ll get into how von Ahn leveraged crowdsourced translation to grow the app, its roller coaster route to monetization and, of course, the iconic — and often sassy — green owl, Duo. We’ll also discuss the broader edtech market for language learning, how the pandemic impacted business and why Duolingo sees opportunity in disrupting not just language, but the tests associated with it, as well.

While part of Duolingo fits into the edtech category, some see the startup as it currently stands as a consumer subscription product with a learning hook. Von Ahn can clear the air on what Duolingo is truly solving for — and what’s ahead for the business.

Von Ahn first presented Duolingo on the Disrupt stage nine years ago, with a website and goal to teach 100 million people a new language. Now, nearly a decade later, he’ll be coming back to explain what happened next. He doesn’t hold back — so you don’t want to miss this.

Disrupt 2021 runs September 21 -23 and will be 100% virtual this year. Get your front-row seat to see von Ahn and many, many more for less than $100! Secure your seat now.

Formation raises $4M led by Andreessen Horowitz to train truly ‘exceptional’ software engineers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Sophie Zhou Novati worked as a senior engineer at Facebook and then Nextdoor, where she struggled to hire great engineers for her team.

Frustrated, she decided to try training engineers to meet her team’s hiring standards by mentoring at a local coding bootcamp. After two and a half years of mentoring on nights and weekends, Novati decided to turn her passion into a career.

She and her husband, Michael, founded Formation with a couple of goals in mind. For one, they wanted to offer personalized training to help people not just learn to code, but to become “exceptional” software engineers. Sophie was also struck by the diversity of the people she witnessed going through coding bootcamps, but she realized that those graduates weren’t getting access to the same opportunities that students from traditional universities do.

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophia Zhou Navati

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophia Zhou Navati

With Formation, her goal is to personalize the training experience via a remote fellowship program that combines automated instruction with access to a “network of top tier mentors” from companies such as Facebook and Google. After one year in beta, Formation is unveiling its Engineering Fellowship, where every fellow gets a “personalized training plan tailored to their unique career ambitions.” So far, it’s placed just over 30 people in engineering roles at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Lyft with an average starting salary of $120,000.

Formation aims to offer an experience beyond bootcamps, which Sophie argues “have gotten too big, too fast, churning hundreds or thousands of students through fixed curriculums without individualized attention.”

The startup attracted the attention of Andreessen Horowitz, which just led its $4 million seed round. Designer Fund, Combine, Lachy Groom, Slow Ventures and engineers from Airbnb, Notion, Rippling and others also participated in the financing.

“The first thing that really struck me about this community is just how diverse it is. Forty-four percent of graduates are reporting that they identify as nonmale, and the percentage of Black and Latinx graduates is nearly double the national average at traditional universities,” Sophie told TechCrunch. “But the problem is that only about 55% of bootcamp grads are getting a job as a software engineer, and of the ones that do, their median salary is only about $65,000. At the same time, companies everywhere are just desperately looking for ways to diversify their talent pool.”

Instead of having students follow a fixed curriculum, Formation leverages adaptive learning technology to build a personalized training plan tailored to each student’s specific skillset and career goals. The platform continuously assesses their skills and adapts their roadmap, according to Sophie.

About half of the people participating in Formation’s program are current engineers already working in the industry in some capacity. 

Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said she’s been examining the edtech space for a while, including companies building new tools for teaching and upleveling coding skills. 

Formation stood out to her as the “only true tech-based and scalable solution that optimizes each student’s mastery of important skills.” Its ability to dynamically change based on a student’s performance in particular was compelling.

“The founder-product fit is also super clear — Sophie brings her own best-in-class engineering experience to Formation, as well as her long-time passion for mentoring,” Chan wrote via email.

Education nonprofit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

By Zack Whittaker

Edraak, an online education nonprofit, exposed the private information of thousands of students after uploading student data to an unprotected cloud storage server, apparently by mistake.

The non-profit, founded by Jordan’s Queen Rania and headquartered in the kingdom’s capital, was set up in 2013 to promote education across the Arab region. The organization works with several partners, including the British Council and edX, a consortium set up by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

In February, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm TurgenSec found one of Edraak’s cloud storage servers containing at least tens of thousands of students’ data, including spreadsheets with students’ names, email addresses, gender, birth year, country of nationality, and some class grades.

TurgenSec, which runs Breaches.UK, a site for disclosing security incidents, alerted Edraak to the security lapse. A week later, their email was acknowledged by the organization but the data continued to spill. Emails seen by TechCrunch show the researchers tried to alert others who worked at the organization via LinkedIn requests, and its partners, including the British Council.

Two months passed and the server remained open. At its request, TechCrunch contacted Edraak, which closed the servers a few hours later.

In an email this week, Edraak chief executive Sherif Halawa told TechCrunch that the storage server was “meant to be publicly accessible, and to host public course content assets, such as course images, videos, and educational files,” but that “student data is never intentionally placed in this bucket.”

“Due to an unfortunate configuration bug, however, some academic data and student information exports were accidentally placed in the bucket,” Halawa confirmed.

“Unfortunately our initial scan did not locate the misplaced data that made it there accidentally. We attributed the elements in the Breaches.UK email to regular student uploads. We have now located these misplaced reports today and addressed the issue,” Halawa said.

The server is now closed off to public access.

It’s not clear why Edraak ignored the researchers’ initial email, which disclosed the location of the unprotected server, or why the organization’s response was not to ask for more details. When reached, British Council spokesperson Catherine Bowden said the organization received an email from TurgenSec but mistook it for a phishing email.

Edraak’s CEO Halawa said that the organization had already begun notifying affected students about the incident, and put out a blog post on Thursday.

Last year, TurgenSec found an unencrypted customer database belonging to U.K. internet provider Virgin Media that was left online by mistake, containing records linking some customers to adult and explicit websites.

More from TechCrunch:


Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849. You can also send files or documents using our SecureDrop. Learn more

As working out goes virtual, Moxie raises $6.3M Seed+ round led by Resolute Ventures

By Mike Butcher

With the pandemic sending the planet indoors to workout, the at-home fitness market has boomed. It was only in October last year that three-year-old Future closed $24 million in Series B and Playbook (streaming for personal trainers) raised $9.3 million in a Series A. Into this market launched Moxie, a platform that allowed fitness instructors to broadcast live and recorded classes, access licensed music playlists and deploy a CRM and payment tools. Classes range from $5-$25 and various subscriptions and packages are offered.

Moxie has now raised a $6.3M ‘Seed+’ funding round led by Resolute Ventures with participation from Bessemer Ventures, Greycroft Ventures, Gokul Rajaram, and additional investors. With the $2.1M Seed round from last October, that means Moxie has now raised a total of $8.4M.

With the funding, Moxie now plans to better optimize the user experience with a curated selection of top Moxie classes; new tools that help connect users to instructors; and the ability to preview classes before attending.

The company claims to have experienced “exponential growth” because of its convenience in the pandemic era, with 8,000 classes and 1 million class-minutes completed in March. Moxie’s independent instructors set their own schedules and prices, and get to keep 85% of what they earn on the platform.

The company will also now launch ‘Moxie Benefits’ in partnership with Stride Health, provide instructors with access to health insurance, dental and vision plans, life insurance, and other benefits.

Also planned is ‘Moxie Teams’, enabling groups of instructors to join together to form small businesses on the platform, not unlike the way some Uber drivers form teams.

Jason Goldberg, CEO and founder said in a statement: “Moxie was born during the pandemic alongside thousands of independent fitness instructors who were forced out of gyms and studios and suddenly had to become entrepreneurs and navigate the new frontier of virtual fitness. Now we are seeing widespread adoption of online fitness into people’s lives, and Moxie’s growth proves that these shifts in consumer behavior have staying power. We know that 89% of Moxie users plan to continue virtual workouts post COVID — they love the convenience.”

Resolute Ventures Partner & Co-Founder Raanan Bar-Cohen said: “Our investment theory has always been to identify entrepreneurial founders solving for today’s problems. With Moxie, we saw an experienced operator in Jason, with a product that solved for the issues that instructors and consumers had experienced in the shift to online fitness, as well as a clear roadmap for continued success.”

So why has Moxie managed to cleave to the new virtual workout culture? Goldburg tells me it’s down to a range of factors.

For starters, it’s a two-sided fitness marketplace that has live interactive group fitness classes, unlike VOD apps, and, crucially, unlike Peloton. Additionally, any instructor can teach on Moxie, rather than wait to be picked as a ‘star’ by Peloton. Since 90% of classes are live group fitness classes, they are effectively replacing yoga studios and HIIT classes, rather than personal training. He says many top instructors are now earning $6-figures on the platform.

Certainly, Moxie has managed to capitalize on the fact that while gyms are closed, it’s easy to do virtual classes. Will they still stick around when the pandemic is over? Presumably many will find it more convenient than schlepping to the gym and less intimidating than joining classes in person. Additionally, users can switch classes as easily as switching TV channels.

As Goldberg told me via email: “Covid forced everyone to try virtual fitness for the first time. Guess what? People found it more convenient and more connected than going to offline gyms. And guess what? Peloton is not for everyone.”

Indian edtech giant Byju’s to expand to international markets

By Manish Singh

Byju’s said on Thursday it will expand to international markets in the second half of next month as the Indian edtech giant, valued at over $13 billion, looks to accelerate its growth.

The Indian edtech giant, which acquired 33-year-old Indian tutor Aakash for nearly $1 billion earlier this week, plans to launch in the U.S., UK, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico next month and explore other geographies later this year, it told employees on Thursday.

The startup’s international business will be headed by Karan Bajaj, the founder of coding platform WhiteHat Jr, which Byju’s acquired for $300 million last year.

WhiteHat Jr’s platform is playing a crucial role in Byju’s international play. The coding platform, which offers one-to-one session between teachers and students, is enabling Byju’s to offer its courses in both synchronous and asynchronous formats.

In international markets, the Indian online learning giant will be branded as Byju’s Future School. It will offer a range of subjects including coding, Math, Music, English, Fine Arts and Science, the startup told employees. At the launch, coding and Math will be available.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Nonobvious acquisitions are on my 2021 bingo board

By Natasha Mascarenhas

At the end of 2020, I argued that edtech needs to think bigger in order to stay relevant after the pandemic. I urged founders to think less about how to bundle and unbundle lecture experience, and more about how to replace outdated systems and methods with new, tech-powered solutions. In other words, don’t simply put engaging content on a screen, but innovate on what that screen looks like, tracks and offers.

A few months into 2021, the exit environment in edtech…feels like it’s doing exactly that. The same startups that hit billion and multi-billion valuations during the pandemic are scooping up new talent to broaden their service offerings.

Ruben Harris, the founder of Career Karma, a platform that matches aspiring coding professionals to bootcamps, put together a massive report recently with his team to talk about the pandemic’s impact on the bootcamp market.

James Gallagher, the author of the report, tells me:

It is important to note that the full potential of bootcamps has not yet been realised. We are now seeing more exploration of niches like technology sales which provide gateways into new careers in tech for people who otherwise may not have been able to acquire training. To scale such models, new businesses will need venture capital.

He went on to explain how a notable acquisition from 2020 was K12 scooping up Galvanize, “which would give K12 exposure into corporate training and the coding bootcamp space, a market outside of K12’s focus at the moment.”

To me this report signal two things: the financial interest in boot camps isn’t simply stemming from other bootcamps (although that is happening), but it’s surprising partnerships. Leaving this subsector, we see creative acquisitions such as a Roblox for edtech buying a language learning tool, and a startup known for flashcards scooping up a tech tutoring service.

Readers should know by this point that I love a nonobvious acquisition (except when this almost happened), so if you have any more tips on coming deals in edtech, please Signal me or direct message me on Twitter.

I’ll end with this: Successful startup founders are innately ambitious, finding opportunity in moonshots and convincing others that the odds are in their favor. However, the ceiling for what defines ambition heightens almost everyday. What used to be a win is now a nonnegotiable, and a feat is only a feat until your competitor hits the exact same milestone.

Acquisitions are one way to scoop up competition and synergistic talent, but it’s what happens next that matters the most.

In the rest of this newsletter, we will talk about Clubhouse competitors, how a homegrown experiment became one of the fastest growing companies in fitness tech and a cool-down in public markets (?!). As always, you can get this newsletter in your inbox each Saturday morning, so subscribe here to join the cool kids.

Clubhouse might create billions in value, but could capture none of it

Remember when everyone was buzzing around about building Stories? That’s so pre-pandemic. A number of companies recently announced plans to build their own versions of Clubhouse, after the buzzy app unearthed the consumer love for audio.

Here’s what to know: It might be easier to start guessing who isn’t building a Clubhouse clone at this point. Our predictions are already starting, but jokes aside, the rise in clones could mean that Clubhouse might have to make a run for its pre-monetized money (cough, cough, Twitter spaces). It doesn’t matter if a startup is first in unlocking a key insight, all that matters is who executes that key insight the best.

Image Credits: Getty Images

A strong unicorn, literally

Tonal, a fitness tech startup, became a unicorn this week after raising a new tranche of capital.

Here’s what to know: The new status underscores market growth for at-home fitness solutions. And while we don’t have a Tonal S-1 yet, we do have a Tonal EC-1. EC-1’s are TechCrunch’s riff on an S-1, and are essentially a deep dive into a company.

Reporter JP Mangalindan wrote thousands and thousands of words about Tonal, from its origin story to business model, its focus on communities and its biggest hurdles ahead.

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Initial public o….no

You’ve probably had a better week than Compass, Deliveroo and Kaltura. The three companies all had different events that illustrate a potential damper on the part that has been the public markets.

Here’s what to know: Compass cut its shares and lowered pricing of said shares, Deliveroo had a rough debut as a delivery company on the public markets, and Kaltura postponed its IPO after valuation demand didn’t hit expectations.

In other news, though:

Photo Taken In Arizona, United States. Image Credits: Jure Batagelj / 500px / Getty Images

Around TechCrunch

Thanks to everyone who tuned in to TechCrunch Early Stage! If you enjoyed the event (or missed it), don’t worry: Disrupt is almost here.

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

How startups can go passwordless, thanks to zero trust

Tips for founders thinking about doing a remote accelerator

US iPhone users spent an average of $138 on apps in 2020, will grow to $180 in 2021

Niantic CEO shares teaser image of AR glasses device

The Weeknd will sell an unreleased song and visual art via NFT auction

Seen on Extra Crunch

Embedded procurement will make every company its own marketplace

5 mistakes creators make building new games on Roblox

E-commerce roll-ups are the next wave of disruption in consumer packaged goods

How our SaaS startup improved net revenue retention by more than 30 points in two quarters

How is edtech spending its extra capital?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Edtech unicorns have boatloads of cash to spend following the capital boost to the sector in 2020. As a result, edtech M&A activity has continued to swell. The idea of a well-capitalized startup buying competitors to complement its core business is nothing new, but exits in this sector are notable because the money used to buy startups can be seen as an effect of the pandemic’s impact on remote education.

In the past week, the consolidation environment is making a clear statement.

The data agrees. Per Crunchbase data, there were 45 edtech exits in 2019 and 24 edtech exits so far in 2021. The same database shows just 35 exits for all of 2020. As we discussed nearly six months ago, the ability to buy (and be bought) has changed.

In the past week, the consolidation environment is making a clear statement: Pandemic-proven startups are scooping up talent — and fast. Kahoot, which is set to list on the Oslo Stock Exchange within months, has bought three businesses within the past 12 months. Quizlet, which became a unicorn nearly one year ago, made its first acquisition ever last week.

To understand more about this activity, I caught up with Quizlet CEO Matthew Glotzbach and Kahoot CEO Eilert Giertsen Hanoa. We talked about trends in the space including lifelong learning, self-directed learning and more.

Q&A is a lucrative business

“To be successful students in the past decade or two, it has required self-direction,” Glotzbach said simply a few minutes into our chat. “Quizlet as a platform is helping to empower that self-directed learner and give them the tools they need to really be successful.”

To further this goal, Quizlet acquired problem-solving tool Slader last week. Unfortunately, the price of the deal was not disclosed (but don’t worry, we’ll have numbers in the next section). What we do know is that it’s the startup’s latest move to solidify its focus as a tech-powered tutoring tool rather than a simple flashcard app.

Currently, Quizlet uses its data around flashcard sets, questions and trained natural language processing tools to understand how students might respond to certain prompts. Artificial intelligence gives the company a little more flexibility to understand the different ways a student could correctly answer the same question.

Coursera prices IPO at top end of its range in boon to edtech valuations

By Alex Wilhelm

Coursera, an edtech unicorn, will begin its life today as a public company after pricing its IPO at $33 per share yesterday evening. Using a simple share count, the company’s valuation comes to $4.30 billion, or $4.38 billion if its underwriters exercise their option to purchase shares at its offering price.

A more diluted share count pushes the valuation of Coursera over the $5 billion mark.

Coursera was last valued at $2.57 billion after raising $130 million in mid-2020, per PitchBook data. The company’s simple valuation is around a 67% gain on that final private figure; that gain rises to just over 70% if its underwriters purchase their available shares.

Using a diluted valuation, Coursera has roughly doubled its final private price. In under a year. For edtech investors looking to Coursera to help determine public market sentiment regarding the exit-value of their investments, TechCrunch reckons it’s a pretty good day.

The amount of private capital at play in edtech startups is staggering; billions and billions of potential returns could get a further shot in the arm if Coursera trades well this morning. And the very same billions of invested capital could lose the smile that Coursera’s seemingly-strong IPO pricing brought them.

There are other edtech debuts in the wings. TechCrunch has covered Nerdy’s plans to go public, via a SPAC, for example.

Private investors, who put well north of $10 billion into edtech companies globally in 2020, are modestly bullish on edtech exit volume this year. In a prior TechCrunch venture capitalist survey, GSV managing partner Deborah Quazzo said the following:

Exit volume is rising already with a wide range of strategic and financial buyers of edtech companies — something that didn’t exist before. You will see numerous high-value exits in the first half of 2021. It’s the public market “exits” that have really lagged and that I hope turns around in 2021 and 2022. There are numerous global companies that could go public and the addition of SPAC IPOs creates another positive dynamic.

The Coursera IPO pricing at least, meets the mark for a high-value exit. Which could lead where? Extending Quazzo’s thinking a single step, perhaps a strong Coursera first-day trading session will bolster SPAC interest in taking more edtech startups and unicorns public.

Such a move could lock-in valuations for a number of currently illiquid edtech startups, and perhaps begin to return chunks of invested capital in the historically out-of-fashion technology sector.

Adding to that sentiment is Owl Ventures’ managing director Ian Chiu, who told TechCrunch in the same survey that “the pipeline for potential IPO candidates coming from the edtech sector continues to grow larger.” Let’s hope — parsing the Coursera S-1 filing was good fun and we’d like another at-bat with an edtech IPO document.

More when Coursera trades.

Byju’s in talks to acquire US-based reading platform Epic

By Manish Singh

Byju’s is eying acquisition of a startup that could help the biggest e-learning Indian firm deepen its footprint in the U.S.

The Indian startup is in talks to acquire online reading platform Epic, a startup that offers unlimited access to over 40,000 books, videos, and quizzes from more than 250 publishers to kids aged 12 or younger, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The deal values Epic at “significantly” over $300 million dollars, according to one person, who like the other requested anonymity as the matter is private. The terms of the deal may change and/or the acquisition may not materialize, people warned.

An Epic spokesperson declined to comment Monday evening, and Byju’s did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Epic, backed by Evolution Media, reaches over 50 million kids in the U.S., a figure that has ballooned from 20 million last year.

The California-based startup, which has raised over $51 million to date, claimed in a press release last year that over 1 million teachers across more than 90% of U.S. elementary schools use Epic.

On Epic, founded by Suren Markosian and Kevin Donahue, children read over a billion books last year. The firm now plans to release several print versions of its original titles at Walmart, Target, and Sam’s Club later this year.

Some original titles released by Epic

Epic collects and analyzes real-time anonymized and aggregated data on how many children read a book, how deeply they engage with it, and where their interests start to fall off.

If the deal goes through, the startup’s offerings would align with Byju’s current playbook in the U.S. In 2019, the Indian startup acquired U.S.-based Osmo, which offers “blended learning” apps to integrate offline activities for kids aged between five to 12.

Byju’s is separately in the middle of concluding a new funding round whose size is expected to balloon over $600 million, TechCrunch reported last week. The new round is expected to value Byju’s at $15 billion.

The new financing round, a major tranche of which has already concluded (about $460 million at $13 billion valuation, per a filing), will be used to finance the new acquisition, the source said.

The Indian giant, which prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, has witnessed skyrocketing growth amid the pandemic after New Delhi issued a months-long lockdown and closed schools.

India’s second most valuable startup, which serves over 80 million users, has additionally been aggressively exploring ways to grow inorganically.

Byju’s, which acquired coding platform aimed at kids WhiteHat Jr for $300 million last year, is conducting due diligence to acquire decades-old Indian brick-and-mortar institute Aakash and Toppr, another online learning startup in the world’s second largest internet market. These two deals are being financed with the over $1 billion funds Byju’s raised last year, one person familiar with the matter said.

WhiteHat Jr, which sparked controversy last year when it sued two critics, currently generates nearly half of its revenue from the U.S.

Holberton raises $20M as it pivots to become an edtech SaaS company

By Frederic Lardinois

Holberton, the education startup that started out as a coding school in San Francisco and today works with partners to run schools in the U.S., Europe, LatAm and Europe, today announced that it has raised a $20 million Series B funding round led by Redpoint eventures. Existing investors DaphniImaginable FuturesPearson VenturesReach Capital and Trinity Ventures also participated in this round, which brings Holberton’s total funding to $33 million.

Today’s announcement comes after a messy 2020 for Holberton, and not only because the pandemic put a stop to in-person learning.

The original promise of Holberton was that it provided students — which it selects through a blind admissions process — with a well-rounded software development education akin to a college education for free. In return, students provide a set amount of their salary for the next few years to the school as part of a deferred tuition agreement, up to a maximum of $85,000.

But early last year, California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) directed the school to immediately cease operation, in part because the agency found that Holberton had started offering a new, unapproved program. This program, a nine-month training program augmented by six months of employment, required students to pay the full $85,000 cost of its approved programs. After a hearing, the BPPE allowed Holberton to continue to operate its other programs. A number of students also accused the school of not giving them the education it had promised.

Throughout this period, Holberton continued expanding, though. It opened campuses in Mexico and Peru, for example. Indeed, it doubled the number of schools in its system from nine to 18 in 2020.

But on December 17, 2020, Holberton voluntarily surrendered its operating license in California. The day before, Holberton announced that it would not re-open its campus in San Francisco, which had been shut down since March because of the pandemic. Holberton co-founder Sylvain Kalache argued that the school would be best positioned to achieve its mission by “working with amazing local partners who operate the campuses and deeply understand their markets’ unique needs” and not by operating its own campuses.

It now thinks of itself more as an “OS of Education” that offers franchised campuses and education tools.

In January, California’s attorney general struck down the fraud allegations against the school. “California was the only market in which Holberton faced any regulatory challenges,” Kalache wrote in the company’s first public acknowledgment of the lawsuits. “With this now behind us, we are excited to move forward with our original mission of providing affordable and accessible education to prospective software engineers around the world.”

Clearly, that’s how Holberton’s funders feel about this, too.

“They’ve proven successful in breaking down barriers of cost and access while delivering a world-class curriculum,” said Manoel Lemos, managing partner at Redpoint eventures. “With the concept of ‘OS of Education’ as a service, they provide customers with all the tools they need for success. Customers can be nonprofit impact investors who want to improve local economies, education institutions who want to fill gaps in how they teach in a post-COVID learning environment, or corporations who want to provide the best training possible as education providers themselves or as employee development programs.”

Holberton founder and CEO Julien Barbier tells me that, today, “for the first time since our creation, we have started working with universities to help them create a better experience and add hands-on education on top of their traditional methodology. Everyone’s happy: the school, the students, and the teachers — because they prefer to focus on teaching and not spend huge amounts of time correcting projects.”

He expects to see 5,000 students join this year, up from 500 in 2019, and see the network expand with new schools in the U.S., Europe, LatAm and Africa. He also noted that the company already has customers for its “OS of Education” tools for auto-grading projects and its online programs. Just this week, Holberton Tulsa announced plans to more than double its physical campus in the city.

“Raising funds is helping us support and accelerate our vision of creating this ‘OS of education.’ Many educational entities need help and tools to better support their students and their staff. It is now that they need our help. Again, COVID has accelerated the digital transformation, and clearly, there are a lot of gaps that need to be filled,” he said. “[…] We are now a SaaS company which charges other businesses, universities or non-profits to use our tools and/or contents so that they can run their education/training programs at scale, with a better experience, while increasing the quality of education.”

Argentina’s Digital House raises over $50M to help solve LatAm’s tech talent shortage

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Digital House, a Buenos Aires-based edtech focused on developing tech talent through immersive remote courses, announced today it has raised more than $50 million in new funding.

Notably, two of the main investors are not venture capital firms but instead are two large tech companies: Latin American e-commerce giant Mercado Libre and San Francisco-based software developer Globant. Riverwood Capital, a Menlo Park-based private equity firm, and existing backer early-stage Argentina-based venture firm Kaszek also participated in the financing.

The raise brings Digital House’s total funding raised to more than $80 million since its 2016 inception. The Rise Fund led a $20 million Series B for Digital House in December 2017, marking the San Francisco-based firm’s investment in Latin America.

Nelson Duboscq, CEO and co-founder of Digital House, said that accelerating demand for tech talent in Latin America has fueled demand for the startup’s online courses. Since it first launched its classes in March 2016, the company has seen a 118% CAGR in revenues and a 145% CAGR in students. The 350-person company expects “and is on track” to be profitable this year, according to Duboscq.

Digital House CEO and co-founder Nelson Duboscq. Image Credits: Digital House

In 2020, 28,000 students across Latin America used its platform. The company projects that more than 43,000 will take courses via its platform in 2021. Fifty percent of its business comes out of Brazil, 30% from Argentina and the remaining 20% in the rest of Latin America.

Specifically, Digital House offers courses aimed at teaching “the most in-demand digital skills” to people who either want to work in the digital industry or for companies that need to train their employees on digital skills. Emphasizing practice, Digital House offers courses — that range from six months to two years — teaching skills such as web and mobile development, data analytics, user experience design, digital marketing and product development.

The courses are fully accessible online and combine live online classes led by in-house professors, with content delivered through Digital House’s platform via videos, quizzes and exercises “that can be consumed at any time.” 

Digital House also links its graduates to company jobs, claiming an employability rate of over 95%.

Looking ahead, Digital House says it will use its new capital toward continuing to evolve its digital training platforms, as well as launching a two-year tech training program — dubbed the the “Certified Tech Developer” initiative — jointly designed with Mercado Libre and Globant. The program aims to train thousands of students through full-time two-year courses and connect them with tech companies globally. 

Specifically, the company says it will also continue to expand its portfolio of careers beyond software development and include specialization in e-commerce, digital marketing, data science and cybersecurity. Digital House also plans to expand its partnerships with technology employers and companies in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. It also is planning some “strategic M&A,” according to Duboscq.

Francisco Alvarez-Demalde, co-founder & co-managing partner of Riverwood Capital, noted that his firm has observed an accelerating digitization of the economy across all sectors in Latin America, which naturally creates demand for tech-savvy talent. (Riverwood has an office in São Paulo).

For example, in addition to web developers, there’s been increased demand for data scientists, digital marketing and cybersecurity specialists.

“In Brazil alone, over 70,000 new IT professionals are needed each year and only about 45,000 are trained annually,” Alvarez-Demalde said. “As a result of such a talent crunch, salaries for IT professionals in the region increased 20% to 30% last year. In this context, Digital House has a large opportunity ahead of them and is positioned strategically as the gatekeeper of new digital talent in Latin America, preparing workers for the jobs of the future.”

André Chaves, senior VP of Strategy at Mercado Libre, said the company saw in Digital House a track record of “understanding closely” what Mercado Libre and other tech companies need.

“They move as fast as we do and adapt quickly to what the job market needs,” he said. “A very important asset for us is their presence and understanding of Latin America, its risks and entrepreneurial environment. Global players have succeeded for many years in our region. But things are shifting gradually, and local knowledge of risks and opportunities can make a great difference.”

Indian edtech giant Byju’s in talks to raise over $600 million at $15 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

Indian edtech giant Byju’s, which raised about a billion dollars last year as the pandemic accelerated growth of online learning services in India, is about to kickoff its fundraising spree for this year.

Byju’s is in talks to raise over $600 million in a new financing round that would value the Indian startup at $15 billion, up from $11 billion late last year, and $5.75 billion in July 2019, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Byju Raveendran, the co-founder and chief executive of the eponymous startup, informed some existing investors last month that he would be raising a sizeable round this month, a person familiar with the matter said. The new round is in advanced stages of talks, and some new investors are expected to participate, the people said.

The startup declined to comment last month and earlier this week.

Byju’s, which is profitable, generated revenues of over $100 million in the U.S. last year, Deborah Quazzo, Managing Partner of GSV Ventures, said at a session held by Indian venture fund Blume Ventures earlier this week.

Byju’s prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, and in recent years it has also expanded its catalog to serve all school-going students. Tutors on Byju’s app tackle complex subjects using real-life objects such as pizza and cake.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Y Combinator widens its bet in edtech in latest batch

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Y Combinator is slowly growing its stake in education companies, as the sector balloons with newfound demand from remote learners. In its latest batch, the famed accelerator had its highest number of edtech startups yet: 14 companies from around the world, working on everything from teacher monetization to homework apps to ways to train software engineers in an affordable fashion.

While Y Combinator isn’t the definitive source on what success in early-stage startups looks like — it quite literally has a post-mortem dinner after Demo Day to celebrate failure — it does serve well in providing an illustrative glance of how entrepreneurs are thinking about certain sectors in a given moment in time. Managing director Michael Seibel said that the number of startups in each sector isn’t a Y Combinator choice, but is in line with the concentration of applicants in each sector. In other words, YC is backing more edtech companies because more edtech companies are applying to the accelerator.

One dynamic worth pointing out here is that, of the 14 edtech startups in this batch, only two have a woman founder, UPchieve and Degrees of Freedom. Y Combinator provided aggregate batch diversity, stating that 19% of companies in W21 include a woman founder, and 10% of founders in the entire batch are women. It’s a slight uptick from the last batch, but not an immense jump.

diversity of the @ycombinator w21 batch:

📈 19% of the companies have a woman founder (16% S20)
📈 7% have a Black founder (6% S20)
📈 13% have a Latinx founder (10% S20)

— natasha (@nmasc_) March 23, 2021

With this context, I will use the current edtech cohort within the batch to sketch out one version of the future of education in the eyes of this specific demographic of early-stage founders.

Internationalization is a factor

The current YC batch has 50% of its startups based outside of the United States, a first for the accelerator. The growing internationalization of Y Combinator might help partially explain the uptick in edtech companies. The growth of companies like India’s Byju’s, one of the most valuable edtech companies in the world, shows how consumer spending in education companies internationally is impressive, and it’s clear that early-stage edtech startups are taking note.

Only two of Y Combinator’s 14 edtech investments are from the United States, with the highest concentrations in South America and India.

  • Manara: A marketplace to connect Middle East talent to tech jobs.
  • Prendea: Peru-based startup that offers live, online after-school classes for Spanish-speaking kids.
  • Avion School: The education startup teaches Filipino students to be remote software engineers around the world.
  • Poliglota: A language school for Latin America.

The future is consumer over B2B

The vast majority of startups in the current edtech batch charge consumers, instead of institutions or enterprises, for services. In some ways, edtech startups going for consumers instead of institutions isn’t new: it’s always been easier to convince a parent instead of a public school to pay for a service simply due to red tape. Consumers are an easier way to reach a venture-demanded scale, and that’s always been a truth of edtech.

  • Kidato: Targeting the middle class of Africa, Kidato is an online school for K-12 students. The startup has a focus on quality and affordability.
  • Codingal: An afterschool program for Indian kids to learn coding.

Still, it’s noteworthy that we’re not seeing too much experimentation in business model here, despite the pandemic and that some schools have begun to invest more in edtech services.

A potential hurdle that these companies might face is access. If it costs to use your service, you can only educate so many people from specific income groups. As a result, income share agreements, or ISAs, were especially present in this batch, a set-up that allows a student to hold off on paying for an education until they are employed. Upon employment, said student has to give a percentage of their income to the company until their debt is paid. While the model is controversial, it was popularized by YC graduate Lambda School and continues to be one way to make the upfront cost of school more popular.

  • Pragmatic Leaders: The startup wants to build a more cost-effective MBA, which is free until the student is hired post-grad.
  • Awari: The São Paulo-based startup uses income share agreements to help students in Brazil afford a tech education. Courses range from data analytics to product UX and growth marketing.

Acadpal, mentioned later, is an outlier here selling to schools in India. Before I move on to our next section, I do want to shout out two startups that I think embody the most ambitious bets in business model:

Zoom University lives on

Despite the struggles of “Zoom University,” this batch of edtech founders clearly believe that the future of instruction is through online courses. This was perhaps the most overwhelming thread tying together all the companies in the sector: a bet on one of these companies is a bet that remote education will become status quo.

As previous sections show, a number of startups are offering online coding platforms for specific demographics. Now, I always have my inbox filled with different “Lambda School for X” startups, so seeing a variety of these startups pop up yet again isn’t exactly exciting. However, the pandemic did show how much community and network enhances a school experience. If these online schools can pull off strong partnerships with employers and alumni, I think there’s a huge opportunity here.

  • Turing College: The Lithuania-based online data science school uses income-share agreements to bring affordability to education.
  • Coderhouse: An Argentina-based startup that wants to build a live, online tech education for the Spanish-speaking populations of the world.

That said, where there’s big opportunity there’s always a lot of competition. These startups will have to find a way to differentiate themselves, like the one below:

  • Unschool: The startup wants to tie higher education to employment outcomes, so it’s building a platform to increase completion rates in India with a guarantee of internships.

There were bets on the infrastructure of how courses get done online, from course creation to completion.

  • Pensil: A platform that helps YouTube teachers in India monetize their courses.
  • Acadpal: A learning app for teachers in India to create and share homework, and for students to complete and discuss assignments.
  • CreatorOS – Questbook: This company wants to make it easier for teachers to teach online courses. It gives professionals the tools they need to launch a course within minutes, with a focus on a bite-sized end-product.

In conclusion

To end, the edtech startups in the current YC batch are more complementary to each other than competitive. For a homework platform like Acadpal to succeed, it would be good news for a company like Codingal, which helps bring afterschool learning online, to get funding as well. For Unschool, which ties higher-ed to employment, a company like Degrees of Freedom could be a key partner or integration for students from a low-income background.

Edtech is growing — and fast — so the fragmentation of different plays is somewhat expected. And while this batch’s hard work starts now, it’s illuminating to understand where the earliest entrepreneurs out there are seeing promise.

❌