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Inspirit launches to bring Minecraft creativity to biology class

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Aditya Vishwanath, the founder of Inspirit, wants to bring the creativity associated with Minecraft to the day-to-day schoolwork of students around the world.

“These students are coming from TikTok and playing Roblox games [that are] highly interactive and highly engaging,” he said. “Then, they’re coming to the classroom and watching a 20-minute lecture from a person.” As a solution to this staleness, he and his co-founder, Amrutha Vasan, built a solution.

The virtual science platform lets students and teachers create and experience STEM simulations, from DNA replication to projectile motion experiments. Similar to how Minecraft empowers users to create their own worlds, Inspirit wants to empower users to low-code their way into personalized science experiments and learning worlds. The core technology is a 3D platform built atop Unity, a game engine used for editing games and creating interactive content.

The startup is starting with complete control over creation to understand how users naturally gravitate toward certain materials. Teachers can currently build lessons on top of pre-made tracks, such as an exploration of the moon or a eukaryotic cell, and add in annotations, quiz questions and voice-overs.

The company is starting off with this microlesson approach, but Vishwanath sees the real potential in building a Minecraft for educational purposes. The underlying belief powering Inspirit is that students across different stages in their lives want a self-directed, engaging way to learn to supplement in-school learning.

While the tool is not yet technically using virtual reality technology, the first priority is going hardware-agnostic to find product-market fit and get the biggest base of users. It is experimenting with integrations to Oculus Quest, but hasn’t yet made the option accessible on widespread basis.

After launching a waitlist in September, Inspirit had 50,000 users within the K-12 world sign up for access to the private beta.

A gamified, VR-based approach to learning has long been used in edtech to increase engagement and excitement around learning. The startup, which has not yet launched publicly, has a fair share of competitors. Labster, a well-funded Copenhagen startup, was founded in 2011 to provide lab simulations to replace science class. The startup recently expanded its lab software to Asia, after usage on the platform surged. Vishwanath thinks that Inspirit differentiates from Labster because it urges kids to become creators, instead of users.

Another recent example of edtech merging with virtual reality is Transfr, which raised $12 million to upskill workforces. Transfr is selling to an entirely different market than Inspirit by targeting trade workers, but it similarly has invested in creating a library of modules to help scale its curriculum faster.

The biggest test for Inspirit will be if it can truly recreate the spontaneity and magic of Minecraft. Will students feel inspired to create on the platform? More importantly, will they come back over and over again? The dynamic here to think about is that Inspirit is a supplement to school, which currently relies heavily on curriculum-based learning to teach. If a student wants to use Inspirit for comprehension, the possibilities aren’t exactly endless, but instead are bookended by a mandatory set of rules.

It’s the dividing line between what makes a game and what makes an interactive simulation.

“I have a strong feeling and reason to believe even the early science of engagement; the drivers of Inspirit are not going to be teachers,” Vishwanath said. One 12-year-old student used Inspirit to build a Quantum funnel using pre-made modules, he explained.

Amrutha Vasan and Aditya Vishwanath, Inspirit co-founders. Image Credits: Inspirit

Beyond that, the startup will need to prove outcomes and efficiency before it can ethically sell to end users. It’s clear that virtual reality has a huge potential to help people comprehend complex topics, but bite-sized bits of the technology used once in a while might not.

Long term, Vishwanath thinks that edtech will shift to focus on creation, instead of simply consumption. He’s already convinced a number of investors on that vision. The startup announced today that it has raised seed financing to pursue its lofty goal. The $3.6 million round was led by Sierra Ventures. Other investors include Unshackled Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, January Ventures, Edovate Capital, Redhouse Education and Roble Ventures.

The money will be used to figure out a business model and monetization plans, as well as hire a team. The blending of edtech and gaming, Vishwanath thinks, will be able to save them from becoming “another graveyard education company out there that has hypergrowth and doesn’t know how to make money.”

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Snowflake latest enterprise company to feel Wall Street’s wrath after good quarter

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Snowflake reported earnings this week, and the results look strong with revenue more than doubling year-over-year.

However, while the company’s fourth quarter revenue rose 117% to $190.5 million, it apparently wasn’t good enough for investors, who have sent the company’s stock tumbling since it reported Wednesday after the bell.

It was similar to the reaction that Salesforce received from Wall Street last week after it announced a positive earnings report. Snowflake’s stock closed down around 4% today, a recovery compared to its midday lows when it was off nearly 12%.

Why the declines? Wall Street’s reaction to earnings can lean more on what a company will do next more than its most recent results. But Snowflake’s guidance for its current quarter appeared strong as well, with a predicted $195 million to $200 million in revenue, numbers in line with analysts’ expectations.

Sounds good, right? Apparently being in line with analyst expectations isn’t good enough for investors for certain companies. You see, it didn’t exceed the stated expectations, so the results must be bad. I am not sure how meeting expectations is as good as a miss, but there you are.

It’s worth noting of course that tech stocks have taken a beating so far in 2021. And as my colleague Alex Wilhelm reported this morning, that trend only got worse this week. Consider that the tech-heavy Nasdaq is down 11.4% from its 52-week high, so perhaps investors are flogging everyone and Snowflake is merely caught up in the punishment.

Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman pointed out in the earnings call this week that Snowflake is well positioned, something proven by the fact that his company has removed the data limitations of on-prem infrastructure. The beauty of the cloud is limitless resources, and that forces the company to help customers manage consumption instead of usage, an evolution that works in Snowflake’s favor.

“The big change in paradigm is that historically in on-premise data centers, people have to manage capacity. And now they don’t manage capacity anymore, but they need to manage consumption. And that’s a new thing for — not for everybody but for most people — and people that are in the public cloud. I have gotten used to the notion of consumption obviously because it applies equally to the infrastructure clouds,” Slootman said in the earnings call.

Snowflake has to manage expectations, something that translated into a dozen customers paying $5 million or more per month to Snowflake. That’s a nice chunk of change by any measure. It’s also clear that while there is a clear tilt toward the cloud, the amount of data that has been moved there is still a small percentage of overall enterprise workloads, meaning there is lots of growth opportunity for Snowflake.

What’s more, Snowflake executives pointed out that there is a significant ramp up time for customers as they shift data into the Snowflake data lake, but before they push the consumption button. That means that as long as customers continue to move data onto Snowflake’s platform, they will pay more over time, even if it will take time for new clients to get started.

So why is Snowflake’s quarterly percentage growth not expanding? Well, as a company gets to the size of Snowflake, it gets harder to maintain those gaudy percentage growth numbers as the law of large numbers begins to kick in.

I’m not here to tell Wall Street investors how to do their job, anymore than I would expect them to tell me how to do mine. But when you look at the company’s overall financial picture, the amount of untapped cloud potential and the nature of Snowflake’s approach to billing, it’s hard not to be positive about this company’s outlook, regardless of the reaction of investors in the short term.

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A first look at Coursera’s S-1 filing

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After TechCrunch broke the news yesterday that Coursera was planning to file its S-1 today, the edtech company officially dropped the document Friday evening.

Coursera was last valued at $2.4 billion by the private markets, when it most recently raised a Series F round in October 2020 that was worth $130 million.

Coursera’s S-1 filing offers a glimpse into the finances of how an edtech company, accelerated by the pandemic, performed over the past year. It paints a picture of growth, albeit one that came at steep expense.

Revenue

In 2020, Coursera saw $293.5 million in revenue. That’s a roughly 59% increase from the year prior when the company recorded $184.4 million in top line. During that same period, Coursera posted a net loss of nearly $67 million, up 46% from the previous year’s $46.7 million net deficit.

Notably the company had roughly the same noncash, share-based compensation expenses in both years. Even if we allow the company to judge its profitability on an adjusted EBITDA basis, Coursera’s losses still rose from 2019 to 2020, expanding from $26.9 million to $39.8 million.

To understand the difference between net losses and adjusted losses it’s worth unpacking the EBITDA acronym. Standing for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization,” EBITDA strips out some nonoperating costs to give investors a possible better picture of the continuing health of a business, without getting caught up in accounting nuance. Adjusted EBITDA takes the concept one step further, also removing the noncash cost of share-based compensation, and in an even more cheeky move, in this case also deducts “payroll tax expense related to stock-based activities” as well.

For our purposes, even when we grade Coursera’s profitability on a very polite curve it still winds up generating stiff losses. Indeed, the company’s adjusted EBITDA as a percentage of revenue — a way of determining profitability in contrast to revenue — barely improved from a 2019 result of -15% to -14% in 2020.

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The owner of Anki’s assets plans to relaunch Cozmo and Vector this year

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Good robots don’t die — they just have their assets sold off to the highest bidder. Digital Dream Labs was there to sweep up IP in the wake of Anki’s premature implosion, back in 2019. The Pittsburgh-based edtech company had initially planned to relaunch Vector and Cozmo at some point in 2020, launching a Kickstarter campaign in March of last year.

The company eventually raised $1.8 million on the crowdfunding site, and today announced plans to deliver on the overdue relaunch, courtesy of a new distributor.

“There is a tremendous demand for these robots,” CEO Jacob Hanchar said in a release. “This partnership will complement the work our teams are already doing to relaunch these products and will ensure that Cozmo and Vector are on shelves for the holidays.”

I don’t doubt that a lot of folks are looking to get their hands on the robots. Cozmo, in particular, was well-received, and sold reasonably well — but ultimately (and in spite of a lot of funding), the company couldn’t avoid the fate that’s befallen many a robotics startup.

It will be fascinating to see how these machines look when they’re reintroduced. Anki invested tremendous resources into bringing them to life, including the hiring of ex-Pixar and DreamWorks staff to make the robots more lifelike. A lot of thought went into giving the robots a distinct personality, whereas, for instance, Vector’s new owners are making the robot open-source. Cozmo, meanwhile, will have programmable functionality through the company’s app.

It could certainly be an interesting play for the STEM market that companies like Sphero are approaching. It has become a fairly crowded space, but at least Anki’s new owners are building on top of a solid foundation, with the fascinating and emotionally complex toy robots their predecessors created.

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