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Teachers are leaving schools. Will they come to startups next?

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It wasn’t the lingering exhaustion that made Christine Huang, a New York public school teacher, leave the profession. Or the low pay. Or the fact that she rarely had time to spend with her kids after the school day due to workload demands.

Instead, Huang left teaching after seven years because of how New York City handled the coronavirus pandemic in schools.

“Honestly, I have no confidence in the city,” she says. Tensions between educators and NYC officials grew over the past few weeks, as school openings were delayed twice and staffing shortages continue. In late September, the union representing NYC’s principals called on the state to take control of the situation, slamming Mayor de Blasio for his inability to offer clear guidance.

Now, schools are open and the number of positive coronavirus cases are surprisingly low. Still, Huang says there’s a lack of grace given to teachers in this time.

Huang wanted the flexibility to work from home to take care of her kids who could no longer get daycare. But her school said that, while kids have the choice on whether or not to come into class, teachers do not. She gave her notice days later.

There are more than 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Over the years, thousands have left the system due to low pay and rigid hours. But the coronavirus is a different kind of stress test. As schools seesaw between open and closed, some teachers are left without direction, feeling undervalued and underutilized. The confusion could usher numbers of other teachers out of the field, and massively change the teacher economy as we know it.

Teacher departures are a loss for public schools, but an opportunity for startups racing to win a share of the changing teacher economy. Companies don’t have the same pressures as entire school districts, and thus are able to give teachers a way to teach on more flexible hours. As for salaries, edtech benefits from going directly to consumers, making money less of a budget challenge and more of a sell to parents’ wallets.

There’s Outschool, which allows teachers to lead small-group classes on subjects such as algebra, beginner reading or even mindfulness for kids; Varsity Tutor, which connects educators to K-12 students in need of extra help; and companies such as Swing and Prisma that focus on pod-based learning taught by teachers.

The startups all have different versions of the same pitch: they can offer teachers more money, and flexibility, than the status quo.

Underpaid and overworked teachers

There’s a large geographic discrepancy in pay among teachers. Salaries are decided on a state-by-state and district-by-district level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a teacher who works in Mississippi makes an average of $45,574 annually, while a teacher in New York makes an average of $82,282 annually.

Although cost of living factors impacts teacher salaries like any other profession, data shows that teachers are underpaid as a profession. According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, teachers earn 19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals. A 2018 study by the Department of Education shows that full-time public school teachers are earning less on average, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they earned in 1990.

The variance of salaries among teachers means that there’s room, and a need, for rebalancing. Startups, looking to get a slice of the teacher economy, suddenly can form an entire pitch around these discrepancies. What if a company can help a Mississippi teacher make a wage similar to a New York teacher?

light bulb flickering on and off

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Reach Capital is a venture capital firm whose partners invest in education technology companies. Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of the firm, who also worked in the Chicago Public School system for years, sees coronavirus as an accelerator, not a trigger, for the departure of teachers.

“We have an education system where teachers are underpaid, overworked, and you don’t have the flexibility that has become so important for workers now,” she said. “All these things have caused teachers to seek opportunity outside of the traditional schooling system.”

Carolan, who penned an op-ed about teachers leaving the public school system, says that new pathways for teachers are emerging out of the homeschooling tech sector. One of her investments, Outschool, has helped teachers earn tens of millions this year alone, as the total addressable market for what it means to be “homeschooled” changed overnight.

Gig economy powered by startups

Education technology services have created a teacher gig economy over the past few years. Learning platforms, with unprecedented demand, must attract teachers to their service with one of two deal sweeteners: higher wages or more flexible hours.

Outschool is a platform that sells small-group classes led by teachers on a large expanse of topics, from Taylor Swift Spanish class to engineering lessons through Lego challenges. In the past year, teachers on Outschool have made more than $40 million in aggregate, up from $4 million in total earnings the year prior.

CEO Amir Nathoo estimates that teachers are able to make between $40 to $60 per hour, up from an average of $30 per hour in earnings in traditional public schools. Outschool itself has surged over 2,000% in new bookings, and recently turned its first profit.

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.

The company has added 10,000 vetted teachers to its platform, up from 1,000 in March.

Outschool competitor Varsity Tutors is taking a different approach entirely, focusing less on hyperscaling its teacher base and more on slow, gradual growth. In August, Varsity Tutors launched a homeschooling offering meant to replace traditional school. It onboarded 120 full-time educators, who came from public schools and charter schools, with competitive salaries. It has no specific plans to hire more full-time teachers.

Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, said that teachers came seeking more flexibility in hours. On the platform, teachers instruct for five to six hours per day, in blocks that they choose, and can build schedules around caregiver obligations or other jobs.

Varsity Tutors’ strategy is one version of pod-based learning, which gained traction a few months ago as an alternative to traditional schooling. Swing Education, a startup that used to help schools hire substitute teachers, pivoted to help connect those same teachers to full-time pod gigs. Prisma is another alternative school that trains former educators, from public and private schools, to become learning coaches.

Pod-based learning, which can in some cases cost thousands a week, was popular among wealthy families and even led to bidding wars for best teacher talent. It also was met with criticism, suggesting the product wasn’t built with most students in mind.

The reality of next job

A tech-savvy future where students can learn through the touch of a button, and where teachers can rack in higher earnings, is edtech’s goal. But that path is not accessible for all.

Some tutoring startups could create a digital divide among students who can pay for software and those who can’t. If teachers leave public schools, low-income students are left behind and high-income students are able to pay their way into supplemental learning.

Still, some don’t think it’s the job of public school teachers, the vast majority of which are female, to work for a broken system. In fact, some say that the whole concept of villainizing public school teachers for leaving the system comes with ingrained sexism that women have to settle for less. In this framework, startups are both a bridge to a better future for teachers and a symptom of failures from the public educational systems.

Huang, now on the job hunt, says that the opportunities that edtech companies are creating aren’t built for traditional teachers, even though they’re billed as such. So far, she has applied to curriculum design jobs at educational content website BrainPop, digital learning platform Newsela, math program company Zearn and Q&A content host Mystery.org.

“What I’m finding is that a lot of edtech companies don’t seem to value our skills as teachers,” she said. “They’re not looking for teachers, they’re looking for coders.”

Edtech has been forced to meet increasing demand for services in a relatively short time. But the scalability could inherently clash with what teachers came to the profession to do. Suddenly, their work becomes optimized for venture-scale returns, not general education. Huang feels the tension in her job interviews, where she feels like recruiters don’t pay attention to creativity, knowledge and human skills needed for managing students. She has created 30 different versions of her resume.

The lack of suitable jobs made Huang decide to go on childcare leave instead of quitting the education system entirely, in case she needs to return to the traditional field. She hopes that is not the case, but isn’t optimistic just yet.

“I haven’t gotten a whole lot of interviews, because people see my resume; they see that I’m a teacher, and they automatically write me off,” she said.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin (opens in a new window)

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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YC-backed LemonBox raises $2.5M bringing vitamins to Chinese millennials

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Like many overseas Chinese, Derek Weng gets shopping requests from his family and friends whenever he returns to China. Some of the most wanted imported products are maternity items, cosmetics, and vitamin supplements. Many in China still uphold the belief that “imported products are better.”

The demand gave Weng a business idea. In 2018, he founded LemonBox to sell American health supplements to Chinese millennials like himself via online channels. The company soon attracted seed funding from Y Combinator and just this week, it announced the completion of a pre-A round of $2.5 million led by Panda Capital and followed by Y Combinator .

LemonBox tries to differentiate itself from other import businesses on two levels — affordability and personalization. Weng, who previously worked at Walmart where he was involved in the retail giant’s China import business, told TechCrunch that he’s acquainted with a lot of American supplement manufacturers and is thus able to cut middleman costs.

“In China, most supplements are sold at a big markup through pharmacies or multi-level marketing companies like Amway,” Weng said. “But vitamins aren’t that expensive to produce. Amway and the likes spend a lot on marketing and sales.”

Inside LemonBox’s fulfillment center

LemonBox designed a WeChat-based lite app, where users receive product recommendations after taking a questionnaire about their health conditions. Instead of selling by the bottle, the company customizes user needs by offering daily packs of various supplements.

“If you are a vegetarian and travel a lot, and the other person smokes a lot, [your demands] are going to be very different. I wanted to customize user prescriptions using big data,” explained Weng, who studied artificial intelligence in business school.

A monthly basket of 30 B-complex tablets, for instance, costs 35 yuan ($5) on LemonBox. Amway’s counterpart product, a bottle of 120 tablets, asks for 229 yuan on JD.com. That’s about 57 yuan ($9) for 30 tablets.

Selling cheaper vitamins is just a means for LemonBox to attract consumers and gather health insights into Chinese millennials, with which the company hopes to widen its product range. Weng declined to disclose the company’s customer size, but claimed that its user conversion rate is “higher than most e-commerce sites.”

With the new proceeds, LemonBox is opening a second fulfillment center in the Shenzhen free trade zone after its Silicon Valley-based one. That’s to provide more stability to its supply chain as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts international flights and cross-border trade. Moreover, the startup will spend the money on securing health-related certificates and adding Japan to its sourcing regions.

Returnees adapt

Screenshot of Lemonbox’s WeChat-based store

In the decade or so when Weng was living in the U.S., the Chinese internet saw drastic changes and gave rise to an industry largely in the grip of Alibaba and Tencent. Weng realized he couldn’t simply replicate America’s direct-to-customer playbook in China.

“In the U.S., you might build a website and maybe an app. You will embed your service into Google, Facebook, or Instagram to market your products. Every continent is connected with one other,” said Weng.

“In China, it’s pretty significantly different. First off, not a lot of people use web browsers, but everyone is on mobile phones. Baidu is not as popular as Google, but everybody is using WeChat, and WeChat is isolated from other major traffic platforms.”

As such, LemonBox is looking to diversify beyond its WeChat store by launching a web version as well as a store through Alibaba’s Tmall marketplace.

“There’s a lot of learning to be done. It’s a very humbling experience,” said Weng.

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Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170 million fund and expands into Asia

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OTV (formerly known as Olive Tree Ventures), an Israeli venture capital firm that focuses on digital health tech, announced it has closed a new fund totaling $170 million. The firm also launched a new office in Shanghai, China to spearhead its growth in the Asia Pacific region.

OTV currently has a total of 11 companies in its portfolio. This year, it led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health, and its other investments include genomic machine learning platform Emedgene; microscopy imaging startup Scopio; and at-home cardiac and pulmonary monitor Donisi Health. OTV has begun investing in more B and C rounds, with the goal of helping companies that already have validated products deal with regulations and other issues as they grow.

OTV focuses on digital health products that have the potential to work in different countries, make healthcare more affordable, and fill gaps in overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Jose Antonio Urrutia Rivas will serve as OTV’s Head of Asia Pacific, managing its Shanghai office and helping its portfolio companies expand in China and other Asian countries. This brings OTV’s offices to a total of four, with other locations in New York, Tel Aviv and Montreal. Before joining OTV, Rivas worked at financial firm LarrainVial as its Asian market director.

OTV was founded in 2015 by general partners Mayer Gniwisch, Amir Lahat and Alejandro Weinstein. OTV partner Manor Zemer, who has worked in Asian markets for over 15 years and spent the last five living in Beijing, told TechCrunch that the firm decided it was the right time to expand into Asia because “digital health is already highly well-developed in many Asia-Pacific countries, where digital health products complement in-person healthcare providers, making that region a natural fit for a venture capital firm specializing in the field.”

He added that OTV “wanted to capitalize on how the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the internationalized and interconnected nature of the world’s healthcare infrastructures into the limelight, even though digital health was a growth area long before the pandemic.”

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WH’s AI EO is BS

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An executive order was just issued from the White House regarding “the Use of Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence in Government.” Leaving aside the meritless presumption of the government’s own trustworthiness and that it is the software that has trust issues, the order is almost entirely hot air.

The EO is like others in that it is limited to what a president can peremptorily force federal agencies to do — and that really isn’t very much, practically speaking. This one “directs Federal agencies to be guided” by nine principles, which gives away the level of impact right there. Please, agencies — be guided!

And then, of course, all military and national security activities are excepted, which is where AI systems are at their most dangerous and oversight is most important. No one is worried about what NOAA is doing with AI — but they are very concerned with what three-letter agencies and the Pentagon are getting up to. (They have their own, self-imposed rules.)

The principles are something of a wish list. AI used by the feds must be:

lawful; purposeful and performance-driven; accurate, reliable, and effective; safe, secure, and resilient; understandable; responsible and traceable; regularly monitored; transparent; and accountable.

I would challenge anyone to find any significant deployment of AI that is all of these things, anywhere in the world. Any agency claims that an AI or machine learning system they use adheres to all these principles as they are detailed in the EO should be treated with extreme skepticism.

It’s not that the principles themselves are bad or pointless — it’s certainly important that an agency be able to quantify the risks when considering using AI for something, and that there is a process in place for monitoring their effects. But an executive order doesn’t accomplish this. Strong laws, likely starting at the city and state level, have already shown what it is to demand AI accountability, and though a federal law is unlikely to appear any time soon, this is not a replacement for a comprehensive bill. It’s just too hand-wavey on just about everything. Besides, many agencies already adopted “principles” like these years ago.

The one thing the EO does in fact do is compel each agency to produce a list of all the uses to which it is putting AI, however it may be defined. Of course, it’ll be more than a year before we see that.

Within 60 days of the order, the agencies will choose the format for this AI inventory; 180 days after that, the inventory must be completed; 120 days after that, the inventory must be completed and reviewed for consistency with the principles; plans to bring systems in line with them the agencies must “strive” to accomplish within 180 further days; meanwhile, within 60 days of the inventories having been completed they must be shared with other agencies; then, within 120 days of completion, they must be shared with the public (minus anything sensitive for law enforcement, national security, etc.).

In theory we might have those inventories in a month, but in practice we’re looking at about a year and a half, at which point we’ll have a snapshot of AI tools from the previous administration, with all the juicy bits taken out at their discretion. Still, it might make for interesting reading depending on what exactly goes into it.

This executive order is, like others of its ilk, an attempt by this White House to appear as an active leader on something that is almost entirely out of their hands. To develop and deploy AI should certainly be done according to common principles, but even if those principles could be established in a top-down fashion, this loose, lightly binding gesture that kind-of, sort-of makes some agencies have to pinky-swear to think real hard about them isn’t the way to do it.

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