flipped edtech startup

Incubating the Era of the Flipped Edtech Startup

Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

Remember the discussion about a possible edtech bubble we had at the end of 2012? If you worried back then, the recent launch of at least four new edtech incubators and accelerators might add to this nagging feeling.

To me, it’s merely another sign that education technology is adapting to the general rules of the technology startup world. In 2012, we had the flipped classroom; in 2013, we will see the flipped edtech startup.

Founders on a mission?

I never believed in those stories of edtech startup founders “on a mission.” Yes, there are a handful who are really into the game because they want to change education (Khan, Wales), but the overwhelming majority of them are in it to make money — which I suppose is also kind of a mission, just a personal one.

And who can blame them? Aren’t tech blogs and investors talking about the billion dollar market in K-12, higher education, and lifelong learning? Where are the stories about the impact of education technology when it comes to learning outcomes or change in society? All you read about is “X raised $Y million and then got acquired by Z.”

There are an increasing number of talented people who find the potential outcome interesting enough to build an education startup instead of the next social application or e-commerce platform. Those startups are built to flip (sell) from the start. And that’s why we have a big opportunity for incubators.

You might ask why this is news. What about Dreamit Ventures, Imagine K12 or New Schools Venture Seed Fund? Well, the difference is that the potential acquirers in the edtech space are now even better placed than before — at the source itself.

This week, we learned about the launch of two new edtech accelerators/incubators by two major players in the education space, Kaplan and Pearson. This means that both companies get access to very early stage startups, probably before they raised their first official round of funding. Before we talk about potential implications, let’s take a look at the offerings:

Kaplan EdTech Accelerator

Let’s start with Kaplan. For its EdTech Accelerator based in New York, Kaplan teamed up with TechStars. TechStars is a well-known and pretty successful network of accelerators across the US (they also just announced their first overseas location in London).

This summer, Kaplan and TechStars will host ten startup teams in New York for an intensive 3-month program which includes access to high profile mentors in the tech space, access to data and connections from Kaplan, and a $20,000 equity investment from TechStars.

Pearson Catalyst

Pearson, which announced Pearson Catalyst one day after Kaplan, takes a slightly different approach. They don’t invest into the edtech startups they choose for their incubator (aka, they don’t take equity), but they do offer access to Pearson executives and cover travel expenses to up to $10,000.

In the announcement, Pearson states that they are looking for startup teams working on a product that is ready to launch and, in the best case scenario, complements existing Pearson products. The participating teams will be matched with a Pearson company and get a top Pearson executive as a key sponsor. Like Kaplan, Pearson is planning a 3-month program starting in mid-April, but the teams will stay at their existing locations with the option of meeting Pearson executives.

Honi soit qui mal y pense?

Now, I already wrote about the slightly bitter taste edtech blogger colleagues get in their mouth when they hear about initiatives like this. Why, you ask? Well, having access to ideas that could potentially disrupt your market or help a competitor so early on might get you into a situation in which you try to put out the fire as early as possible.

There is a risk that ideas or products that could have a significant impact on the education landscape don’t see light of day because executives decide to kill them early by “ acquiring” the team and the IP, something that happens in other industries all the time.

Do big ideas really need incubation?

There is, of course, the question of whether an edtech founder who is truly on a mission to disrupt the educational landscape would literally sell the soul of his startup to the companies he is trying to take down. Or, in other words, will there ever be a truly disruptive idea/company coming out of an incubator/accelerator anyway?

If we take a look at the big tech incubators like Y-Combinator, TechStars or Founder Institute, we have not seen a Facebook, Google, Twitter, or Microsoft coming out of such a program. Sure, there are some pretty decent ones, but nothing at a world-changing scale to my knowledge.

Therefore, I wouldn’t expect to see truly disruptive ideas or products coming out of those incubators. They are more like casting shows for potential talent to hire, and give companies like Kaplan and Pearson a good idea of what is going on in the market early on.

Last but not least, this week Erin Griffith wrote an interesting piece on PandoDaily about accelerators and how VCs think about the startups that present at demo days. Worth reading, I think.

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Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at KirstenWinkler.com.