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13 investors say lifelong learning is taking edtech mainstream

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The venture potential of a startup that caters to individual students — instead of a slow-moving, small-pocketed institution — has a bullish aura that attracts investors.

Add in a pandemic that forced many to embrace remote learning overnight, and it makes sense that we have seen companies like Outschool and ClassDojo turn first profits while startups like Quizlet and ApplyBoard reached $1 billion valuations.

Last year brought a flurry of record-breaking venture capital to the sector. PitchBook data shows that edtech startups around the world raised $10.76 billion last year, compared to $4.7 billion in 2019. While reporting delays could change this total, VC dollars have more than doubled since the pandemic began. In the United States, edtech startups raised $1.78 billion in venture capital across 265 deals during 2020, compared to $1.32 billion the prior year.

In today’s survey, thirteen top edtech investors shared their thoughts on how growth of lifelong learning is reshaping the industry. Given the sudden extinction of snow days and yeast shortages brought on by student bakers in the early days of the pandemic, it’s easy to see how remote education extends beyond traditional school hours. As learners become more multi-layered and nuanced, so have the edtech companies that back them. 

This was a recurring theme in today’s survey, signaling a shift in how investors approach hybrid learning. The evolution of post-pandemic education will be complex, if not aggressively competitive among the growing cohort of well-capitalized edtech companies. While we asked investors about their post-pandemic tastebuds back in July, much has changed since. Higher education didn’t combust like some expected today, and today, many predict that K-12 students will return to pre-COVID formats after vaccinations are widespread. 

It puts startups in a difficult spot: if 2020 was about enabling video-based teaching, what might emerge from 2021? Integration between different edtech apps? New student collaboration tools? Are employer-led up-skilling and a renewed interest in self-improvement enlarging edtech’s TAM?

Here are the investors we spoke to, along with their areas of interest and expertise:

  • Deborah Quazzo, managing partner, GSV Ventures (an education fund backing ClassDojo, Degreed, Clever)
  • Ashley Bittner, founding partner of Firework Ventures (a future of work fund with portfolio companies LearnIn and TransfrVR)
  • Jomayra Herrera, principal, Cowboy Ventures (a generalist fund with portfolio companies Hone and Guild Education)
  • John Danner, managing partner, Dunce Capital (an edtech and future of work fund with portfolio companies Lambda School and Outschool)
  • Mercedes Bent and Bradley Twohig, partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners (a multi-stage generalist fund with investments including Forage, Clever, and Outschool)
  • Ian Chiu, managing director, Owl Ventures (a large edtech-focused fund backing highly-valued companies including Byju’s, Newsela, and Masterclass) 
  • Jan Lynn-Matern, founder and partner, Emerge Education (a leading edtech seed fund in Europe with portfolio companies like Aula, Unibuddy, and BibliU) 
  • Benoit Wirz, partner, Brighteye Ventures (an active edtech-focused venture capital fund in Europe that backs YouSchool, Lightneer, and Aula)
  • Charles Birnbaum, partner, Bessemer Venture Partners (a generalist fund with portfolio companies including Guild Education and Brightwheel)
  • Daniel Pianko, co-founder and managing director, University Ventures (a higher ed and future of work fund that is backing Imbellus and Admithub)
  • Rebecca Kaden, managing partner, Union Square Ventures (a generalist fund with portfolio companies including TopHat, Quizlet, Duolingo)
  • Andreata Muforo, partner, TLCom Capital (a generalist fund backing uLesson)

Deborah Quazzo, managing partner, GSV Ventures

What will edtech look like when students finally go back to school in person? Now that remote has become familiar, what are other concepts that you could see becoming popular?

For k12, use of digital products and platforms will now be very “normal” – companies like Lexia and Dreambox and Nearpod. Maybe this drives home usage of some products traditionally used only in schools like Lexia. Students of all ages are now very facile with zoom, this can pave the way for more zoom based synchronous learning offerings including extracurricular learning like music, dance etc. schools are now fully wired – maybe we will see schools implement home based learning programs – it’s where students spend half their time.

What are the biggest hurdles ahead for early-stage edtech startups looking to scale? What opportunities are fading as the space matures?

Edtech cos need to stay away from the me too solutions. We have seen 20 creator led learning platforms across “preK to Gray” learning in addition to incumbents like Teachable and very few have an ability to build a moat in my view. Unless someone has a very fresh take, I think that ship has sailed. Hopefully as white spaces fill with competitors, new white spaces will emerge. Emerging tech – AI/NLP/ML/VR – will continue to push the envelope. We are still not driving enough people to competency whether in prek12, higher ed or workforce so the opportunity remains vast.

How has edtech’s boom impacted your dealmaking? Has the new interest from generalist investors made valuations too bubbly, or is the market growth helping everyone?

We met on zoom with over 800 founding teams in covid all over the world. We invested in 14 new companies and are just finishing rounds in 2 more. Valuation pressures are across tech sectors. Id argue that education still lags average tech. the question for edtech is whether there is potential for a $100B company in the sector – will TAMs support it.

Ashley Bittner, founding partner, Firework Ventures

What will edtech look like when students finally go back to school in person? Now that remote has become familiar, what are other concepts that you could see becoming popular?

As it relates to our thesis, I believe that the role of employers is changing. Pre-COVID, it was estimated that as much as 1/3 of the US workforce would need to change jobs by 2030. Employers cite skills gaps as a top 3 business concern to stay competitive. Our thesis is that employers will take on more responsibility for reskilling their current workforce, and that training will become job-embeded (rather than only trying to hire to address the challenge.) Degreed was the first wave of this… Learn In is an example of the next step in this evolution. As employers look to provide more skills training (rather than compliance training), we believe that more will come from external sources (CEOs say they are unprepared to meet the reskilling challenge with existing internal resources) and that much of this training will be provided online and during work hours (to address the time barrier that is an equity issue.) I also see an opportunity for modalities like VR to become more popular as we shift to more digital and remote solutions (e.g TRANSFR.) Stats from McKinsey research.

What are the biggest hurdles ahead for early-stage edtech startups looking to scale? What opportunities are fading as the space matures? In US pre-K and K-12, high customer fragmentation (16,000 school districts, 100K+ schools…pre-K even more fragmented with little public investment), long sales cycles, budget, pedagogy, and regulation. TAM. Relatively low consumer spend on education relative to other markets. Opportunities – increasing access to broadband, increase in device penetration. In FOW, increased recognition that reskilling and upskilling is a business imperative, company culture matters for competitiveness, increased focus on DEI.

Jomayra Herrera, principal, Cowboy Ventures

What will edtech look like when students finally go back to school in person? Now that remote has become familiar, what are other concepts that you could see becoming popular?
I think activities that are fundamentally better in person will go back to [being] in person (e.g., sports, music and other enrichment activities). I think that new technology educators may have adopted during the pandemic that they have found to be helpful to their instruction will remain but all the “nice to haves” will likely fall to the wayside. We have a thesis at Cowboy that supplemental education (e.g., Juni Learning, Reconstruction or Outschool) will likely stay online, because parents will not have to worry about driving their kids to learning centers and these companies have the opportunity to make the learning fun.
What are the biggest hurdles ahead for early-stage edtech startups looking to scale? What opportunities are fading as the space matures?
For companies focused on K-12 students, it’s still really challenging to sell into schools and school districts because of the long sales cycle. This will likely become even harder, as local and state budgets tighten. In regard to what is fading, I think that tools that don’t solve a real need for educators, students and/or parents or don’t have demonstrated efficacy when it comes to student outcomes will start to fade. Consumers, especially after the pandemic, seem to be more aware of what technology has to offer and have lower tolerance for tools not having a demonstrable impact.For companies that are targeting adult learners, the biggest hurdle continues to be customer acquisition and building a brand that learners can actually trust. As the space starts to mature, consumers are getting more aware of the questions they should be asking (e.g., graduation and placement outcomes) and are less [fooled] by clever marketing.

What do you expect education to look like in five-plus years from now, when the pandemic is more of a memory?
I hope that in this pandemic we’ve realized how critical our educators are to our children’s success and we pay them more 🙂 Incentivizing our best talent to get into and stay in teaching is a critical lever we can pull to improve education.
For K-12, I expect that there will be more comfort with technology in the classroom and that tech can be partnered with in-person instruction in a way that supercharges the educator with the data needed to personalize their instruction.
For higher ed, I expect that there will be an acceleration in online learning for adults as they continue to look to reskill or upskill. There will be more opportunities to do self-paced online learning that is effective and affordable.

John Danner, managing partner, Dunce Capital

What will edtech look like when students finally go back to school in person? Now that remote has become familiar, what are other concepts that you could see becoming popular?

In K-12, education will probably continue to look much like it did, because the majority of parents are clear that child care is the principal value for their kids being at school. That said, a minority of parents are certainly rethinking education after witnessing what their children were actually learning every day for a year. My opinion is that we will continue to see a disaggregation of this care function from academics. Here’s a piece I wrote about that, which has accelerated significantly this year.

What are the biggest hurdles ahead for early-stage edtech startups looking to scale? What opportunities are fading as the space matures?

For vocational schools with a “free until you get a job” model like Lambda or SV Academy, it’s all about job placement. Lambda has had a lot of success with their new fellowship model, which has allowed them to scale significantly. For a lot of early childhood and K-12 companies working online, it’s about new parent behaviors and whether you can develop a habit like Outschool has done. For senior learning like what GetSetUp does, finding the reimbursement models through healthcare is probably the key.

What do you expect education to look like in five-plus years from now, when the pandemic is more of a memory?

I think we are in a transition to more and more academics happening in the cloud. Right now, that’s all about live experiences and human in the loop. In five years, I think we will begin seeing a significant impact of AI replacing many human functions.

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

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Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment

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Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and doughnut giant, has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture. The investment is led by Sequoia China with participation from Tencent, its digital partner in China, and Eastern Bell Capital. The round comes two years after Tim Hortons made its foray into China’s booming coffee industry.

Tim Hortons didn’t disclose the amount of its latest fundraise but noted in a social media post that the proceeds will be used for opening more stores, building its digital infrastructure, brand presence, and more.

Tencent, the Chinese social media and entertainment behemoth, first backed the 57-year-old Canadian coffee chain last May. At the time the tie-up was seen as Tencent’s move to counter archrival Alibaba’s alliance with Starbucks to deliver coffee and help the American coffee titan go digital in China.

Tim Horton’s collaboration with the WeChat parent is in a similar vein. It has so far accumulated three million members through its WeChat mini program, a type of lightweight app that runs within the instant messenger. To appeal to young Chinese consumers, Tim Hortons opened an esports-themed cafe with Tencent, China’s biggest gaming company.

Two years into operating in China, Tim Hortons says it has reached storefront-level profitability with a footprint of 150 locations across 10 major cities. It plans to add more than 200 locations in 2021 and reach 1,500 stores nationwide in the next few years.

The dramatic rise and fall of coffee delivery startup Luckin brought the prospects of China’s coffee market to the forefront. Despite the investment frenzy around Luckin and other coffee businesses, coffee drinking still has a relatively low penetration in China compared to countries like the United States and Germany. On the other hand, coffee consumption is growing at a much faster rate of 15% in China, well above the global average of 2%, and is projected to reach 1 trillion yuan ($150 million) in 2025, according to a 2020 report by Dongxing Securities.

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Bessemer Venture Partners closes on $3.3 billion across two funds

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Another major VC firm has closed two major rounds, underscoring the long-term confidence investors continue to have for backing privately-held companies in the tech sector.

Early-stage VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners announced Thursday the close of two new funds totaling $3.3 billion that it will be using both to back early-stage startups as well as growth rounds for more mature companies.

The Redwood City-based firm closed BVP XI with $2.475 billion and BVP Century II with $825 million in total commitments.

With BVP XI, it plans to focus on early-stage companies spanning across enterprise, consumer, healthcare, and frontier technologies. 

Its Century II fund is aimed at backing growth-stage companies that Bessemer believes “will define the next century,” and will include both follow-on rounds for existing portfolio companies or investments in new ones.

BVP XI marks Bessemer’s largest fund in its 110-year history. In October 2018, the firm brought in $1.85 billion for its tenth flagship VC fund. This latest fund is its fifth consecutive billion-dollar fund, based on PitchBook data. 

Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, Bessemer didn’t actually enter the venture business until 1965. It’s known for its investments in LinkedIn, Blue Apron and many others, with a current portfolio that includes PagerDuty, Shippo, Electric and DocuSign. Exits include Twitch and Shopify, among many others.

With more money than ever before available for backing startups, the challenge now for VCs is to see how and if they can find (and invest in) whatever will define the next generation of tech. 

“As venture capitalists, we pay too much attention to pattern recognition and matching when in reality, the biggest opportunities exist where those patterns break,” the firm wrote in a blog post today. “Our job is to make perceptive bets on the future, especially those that others will dismiss and ridicule. We are fundamental optimists and strong believers in the power of innovation; our life’s work is putting our reputation, time, and money to help entrepreneurs realize a different future. They’re the ones pioneering something entirely new and obscure – a technology, a business model, a category.

In addition to announcing the new funds, Bessemer also revealed today that it’s brought on five new partners including Jeff Blackburn, who joins after a 22-year career at Amazon, alongside the promotion of existing investors Mary D’Onofrio, Mike Droesch, Tess Hatch, and Andrew Hedin.

Most recently at Amazon, Blackburn served as senior vice president of worldwide business development where he oversaw dozens of Amazon’s minority investments and more than 100 acquisitions across all business lines – including retail, Kindle, Echo, Alexa, FireTV, advertising, music, streaming audio & video, and Amazon Web Services.  

“Having been part of Amazon for more than two decades, I’m excited to begin a new chapter helping customer-focused founders build breakthrough companies,” said Blackburn in a written statement.  “I’ve known the Bessemer team for many years and have long admired their strategic vision and success backing early-stage ventures.” 

With the latest changes, Bessemer now has 21 partners and over 45 investors, advisors, and platform “team members” located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, and Beijing. 

“At Bessemer, there’s no corner office or consensus; every partner has the choice, independently, to pen a check. This kind of accountability and autonomy means a founder is teaming up with a partner and board director who thoroughly understands your business and can respond quickly and decisively,” the firm’s blog post read.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

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Twitter reveals its move into paid subscriptions, Australia passes its media bargaining law and Coinbase files its S-1. This is your Daily Crunch for February 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

Twitter announced its first paid product at an investor event today, showing off screenshots of a feature that will allow users to subscribe to their favorite creators in exchange for things like exclusive content, subscriber-only newsletters and a supporter badge.

The company also announced a feature called Communities, which could compete with Facebook Groups and enable Super Follow networks to interact, plus a Safety Mode for auto-blocking and muting abusive accounts. On top of all that, Twitter said it plans to double revenue by 2023.

Not announced: launch dates for any of these features.

The tech giants

After Facebook’s news flex, Australia passes bargaining code for platforms and publishers — This requires platform giants like Facebook and Google to negotiate to remunerate local news publishers for their content.

New Facebook ad campaign extols the benefits of personalized ads — The sentiments are similar to a campaign that Facebook launched last year in opposition to Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Sergey Brin’s airship aims to use world’s biggest mobile hydrogen fuel cell — The Google co-founder’s secretive airship company LTA Research and Exploration is planning to power a huge disaster relief airship with an equally record-breaking hydrogen fuel cell.

Coinbase files to go public in a key listing for the cryptocurrency category — Coinbase’s financials show a company that grew rapidly from 2019 to 2020 while also crossing the threshold into unadjusted profitability.

Boosted by the pandemic, meeting transcription service Otter.ai raises $50M — With convenient timing, Otter.ai added Zoom integration back in April 2020.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market — The company intends to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “DOCN.”

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck — For founders aiming to entice investors, the pitch deck remains the best way to communicate their startup’s progress and potential.

Five takeaways from Coinbase’s S-1 — We dig into Coinbase’s user numbers, its asset mix, its growing subscription incomes, its competitive landscape and who owns what in the company.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads — The new streaming service launches on March 4.

Register for TC Sessions: Justice for a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup world — This is just one week away!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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