Top Hat

Top Hat integrates Boundless – Interview with Mike Silagadze

As announced last week, education startups Top Hat and Boundless have formed a partnership. As part of this partnership Top Hat will integrate content from Boundless including textbook chapters, PowerPoint slides, discussion questions and interactive exercises into its cloud based teaching platform for higher education.

Through the integration more than 300,000 students at more than 400 universities including Harvard, UCLA, Duke and MIT will gain access to the Boundless’ library of 21 introductory college-level subjects.

In May Top Hat announced a $10 million Series B and its expansion plans in other verticals including corporate training.

We took this latest announcement as an opportunity to catch up with Top Hat’s co-founder and CEO Mike Silagadze to talk about the future of free content, acquiring competitors and the startup’s expansion plans.

Kirsten Winkler: Last week you announced a partnership with Boundless. What can Top Hat users expect from this?

Mike Silagadze: On Top Hat’s leading teaching platform, which increases student engagement and encourages active learning, we are now adding full digital textbooks that are customizable by the professor. Professors, our core customers, consistently ask us for great content on our platform. This partnership helps us get there and positions is to fulfil our goal to become the default classroom teaching platform for all professors.

KW: Boundless went through some tough times very early on; being sued by leading publishers right at the beginning surely would have been the end for many edtech startups. Why do you think Boundless was able to survive?

MS: Lawsuits like the one Boundless went through are typically death sentences for early stage companies. I believe that Boundless stayed true to its vision, was able to communicate that vision effectively and prove to the publishers that it was doing nothing wrong. In the end, justice won out in this case.

KW: Is this partnership exclusive, or might Boundless partner with other providers as well.

MS: Both Top Hat and Boundless are open to partnering with others. However, there is very little overlap between the capabilities Boundless and Top Hat have, which makes this a great fit. By adding great content to an amazing platform, our partnership plays on the strengths of both companies.

KW: How important are products like Boundless for the future of higher education, and what is your take on OER. Is free educational content a viable alternative, or should we rather focus more on paid but affordable content.

MS: At the end of the day, I believe there will be markets for both paid and free content. However, OER will change the way the market thinks about what to pay for. In the future, nobody will pay for the “text” portion of a textbook. Rather, payment will come for value-added products beyond this.

KW: The space you are in with Top Hat is heating up, startups now are able to raise significant funding rounds and also seem to get decent traction. Do you think this is going to be a winner takes all market or will several players hold a share of customers.

MS: For a peer classroom engagement solution, it’s not winner take all. We serve the professor, an individual decision maker. Each professor will choose the platforms and textbooks that he or she wants to use in the classroom. Ultimately, however, the winners in the space will be the ones whose products are most “sticky” for professors and meets the most needs. For us, this partnership helps us meet more needs of our customers, which will help us succeed.

KW: MasteryConnect just acquired fellow Imagine K12 alumnus Socrative. Is this a sign that there are already too many edtech startups in the same vertical, a sign that there is enough money in the ecosystem so even startups can afford M&A, something else? Are we going to see this more frequently, and are you planning to acquire smaller competitors down the line as well?

MS: Socrative primarily competes in a different area. It focuses on K-12, a harder ecosystem to sell into and one where there is much more competition. Socrative had not yet figured out a way to monetize its product, so acquisition by a larger startup in the space made sense.

Top Hat plays in a different market with a different approach. Rather than take a user-acquisition oriented growth strategy like Socrative did, Top Hat is aiming to build a product that meets a broad set of needs for a specific customer, the university professor. As such, we are moving well beyond student response and polling and do not see the providers of those types of services as our real competitors. Rather, we’re defining a new market segment as a professor-focused teaching platform. To this end, I would not rule out acquisitions of other startups down the road but this is not something we will be prioritizing in the short to medium term.

KW: Back in May you said that Top Hat might expand into the corporate training market but that an entrance in the K-12 space is unlikely. Can you explain to me why you don’t consider K-12 as relevant to Top Hat?

MS: Fundamentally we are trying to change higher education. We want to be the default platform used by professors in the classroom. Before we think about corporate or K-12, that is our primarily goal. Regarding K-12 vs higher ed specifically, professors have fundamentally different needs than K-12 teachers – including research, publishing and engagement of larger groups of students. We are focused on meeting professors’ needs right now. Our product is still relevant to K-12 teachers, but we are not focusing on selling it into school boards right now. We’d rather stay focused on higher ed, where we still have lots of room to grow.

KW: When talking about online education K-12 certainly gets lots of exposure both in North America as well as worldwide. But is there too much competition, is it too complicated to sell to schools and districts?

MS: There is a ton of competition in the K-12 space. Our vision is to make teaching fun and effective. We will need to move into the K-12 space eventually but not any time soon. There is so much room in the higher education space and we are in better position to add value and have impact in higher education.

KW: Which international markets do you think are next in line to adopt cloud based and mobile learning solutions. Might countries like India or Brazil leapfrog more established markets like Europe for instance?

MS: Sure, Europe is ahead right now but countries like India and Brazil are able to ramp up development curves faster than ever before. We are not looking beyond North America right now, but when we do we will be looking at emerging markets and developed markets alike. Wherever teachers are teaching, students are learning and you can get cell phone reception and/or wifi, we could have a market for our platform.

Further Reading

  • Boundless Partners with Top Hat to Bring Collaborative Educational Content to 300,000+ Students | Boundless

Related Links

  • HEDLINE: Top Hat raises $10 million Series B | EDUKWEST

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