Extra Crunch roundup: Digital health VC survey, edtech M&A, deep tech marketing, more

I had my first telehealth consultation last year, and there’s a high probability that you did, too. Since the pandemic began, consumer adoption of remote healthcare has increased 300%.

Speaking as an unvaccinated urban dweller: I’d rather speak to a nurse or doctor via my laptop than try to remain physically distanced on a bus or hailed ride traveling to/from their office.

Even after things return to (rolls eyes) normal, if I thought there was a reliable way to receive high-quality healthcare in my living room, I’d choose it.

Clearly, I’m not alone: a May 2020 McKinsey study pegged yearly domestic telehealth revenue at $3 billion before the coronavirus, but estimated that “up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized” after the pandemic abates.

That’s a staggering number, but in a category that includes startups focused on sexual health, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, data management and testing, it’s clear to see why digital-health funding topped more than $10 billion in the first three quarters of 2020.

Drawing from The TechCrunch List, reporter Sarah Buhr interviewed eight active health tech VCs to learn more about the companies and industry verticals that have captured their interest in 2021:

  • Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher, partners, Venrock
  • Nan Li, managing director, Obvious Ventures
  • Elizabeth Yin, general partner, Hustle Fund
  • Christina Farr, principal investor and health tech lead, OMERS Ventures
  • Ursheet Parikh, partner, Mayfield Ventures
  • Nnamdi Okike, co-founder and managing partner, 645 Ventures
  • Emily Melton, founder and managing partner, Threshold Ventures

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Since COVID-19 has renewed Washington’s focus on healthcare, many investors said they expect a friendly regulatory environment for telehealth in 2021. Additionally, healthcare providers are looking for ways to reduce costs and lower barriers for patients seeking behavioral support.

“Remote really does work,” said Elizabeth Yin, general partner at Hustle Fund.

We’ll cover digital health in more depth this year through additional surveys, vertical reporting, founder interviews and much more.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

Woman having a medicine video conferencing with her doctor using digital tablet. Senior woman on a video call with a doctor using her tablet computer at home.

Image Credits: Luis Alvarez (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

In the last year, edtech startup Top Hat acquired three publishing companies: Fountainhead Press, Bludoor and Nelson HigherEd.

Natasha Mascarenhas interviewed CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to learn more about his content acquisition strategy, but her story also discussed “some rumblings of consolidation and exits in edtech land.”

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

Last year, U.S.-based VCs invested an average of $428 million each day in domestic startups, with much of the benefits flowing to fintech companies.

This morning, Alex Wilhelm examined Q4 VC totals for Europe, which had its lowest deal count since Q1 2019, despite a record $14.3 billion in investments.

Asia’s VC industry, which saw $25.2 billion invested across 1,398 deals is seeing “a muted recovery,” says Alex.

“Falling seed volume, lots of big rounds. That’s 2020 VC around the world in a nutshell.”

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In this week’s Decrypted, security reporter Zack Whittaker covered the latest news in the unfolding SolarWinds espionage campaign, now revealed to have impacted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Malwarebytes.

In other news, the controversy regarding WhatsApp’s privacy policy change appears to be driving users to encrypted messaging app Signal, Zack reported. Facebook has put changes at WhatsApp on hold “until it could figure out how to explain the change without losing millions of users,” apparently.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech

A big IPO debut is a juicy topic for a few news cycles, but because there’s always another unicorn ready to break free from its corral and leap into the public markets, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to reflect.

Alex studied companies like Lemonade, Airbnb and Affirm to see how well these IPO pop stars have retained their value. Not only have most held steady, “many have actually run up the score in the ensuing weeks,” he found.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Hello, Extra Crunch community!

Hello in Different Languages

Image Credits: atakan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I began my career as an avid TechCrunch reader and remained one even when I joined as a writer, when I left to work on other things and now that I’ve returned to focus on better serving our community.

I’ve been chatting with some of the folks in our community and I’d love to talk to you, too. Nothing fancy, just 5-10 minutes of your time to hear more about what you want to see from us and get some feedback on what we’ve been doing so far.

If you would be so kind as to take a minute or two to fill out this form, I’ll drop you a note and hopefully we can have a chat about the future of the Extra Crunch community before we formally roll out some of the ideas we’re cooking up.

Drew Olanoff
@yoda

In 2020, VCs invested $428m into US-based startups every day

Last year was a disaster across the board thanks to a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and widespread social and political upheaval.

But if you were involved in the private markets, however, 2020 had some very clear upside — VCs flowed $156.2 billion into U.S.-based startups, “or around $428 million for each day,” reports Alex Wilhelm.

“The huge sum of money, however, was itself dwarfed by the amount of liquidity that American startups generated, some $290.1 billion.”

Using data sourced from the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, Alex used Monday’s column to recap last year’s seed, early-stage and late-stage rounds.

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Pole lifting rubber duck with hook in its head

Image Credits: Andy Roberts (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Building a marketing team is one of the most opaque parts of spinning up a startup, but for a deep tech company, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

How can technical founders working on bleeding-edge technology find the right people to tell their story?

If you work at a post-revenue, early-stage deep tech startup (or know someone who does), this post explains when to hire a team, whether they’ll need prior industry experience, and how to source and evaluate talent.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg. Image Credits: Bustle Digital Group

Senior Writer Anthony Ha interviewed Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg to get his thoughts on the state of digital media.

Their conversation covered a lot of ground, but the biggest news it contained focuses on Goldberg’s short-term plans.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

It may not be as glamorous as D2C, but beauty tech is big money

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is not a huge fan of personal-care D2C brands merging with traditional consumer product companies.

This month, razor startup Billie and Proctor & Gamble announced they were calling off their planned merger after the FTC filed suit.

For similar reasons, Edgewell Personal Care dropped its plans last year to buy Harry’s for $1.37 billion.

In a harsher regulatory environment, “the path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs,” it seems.

Twilio CEO says wisdom lies with your developers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: Founder and CEO of Twilio Jeff Lawson speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 at Pier 48 on September 12, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Companies that build their own tools “tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” according to Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

In an interview with enterprise reporter Ron Miller for his new book, “Ask Your Developer,” Lawson says founders should use developer teams as a sounding board when making build-versus-buy decisions.

“Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should,” says Ron.

Sounding Board raises cash as startups wake up to executive coaching

In an unprecedented work environment defined by distributed teams and virtual-only communication, two co-founders think their 2018 bet reigns truer than ever: mentors need mentorship, too.

Christine Tao and Lori Mazan, the brains behind Sounding Board, want to train any leader within an organization to be a better leader. The San Francisco startup connects anyone from first-time managers to C-suite executives with coaches through a marketplace.

Revenue has doubled or tripled every year since 2016, which the company says hovers in the “multi-millions” range. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Sounding Board has seen demand for its platform grow even more. Quarterly bookings have increased 3.4 times from Q2 2020, and in the last five months, monthly revenue has doubled.

On the heels of this growth, the co-founders say that Sounding Board’s next step as a startup is to grow beyond coaching services and into a platform that can show leaders how those newfound skills are impacting business development. The new product is meant to serve as a hub and roadmap where a participant and coach can track insights, progress and behaviors.

Within the platform, a user can schedule sessions with a coach, get matched to someone, as well as look at resources and complete tasks assigned to them. Beyond that, there is a feature that allows the coach and the manager to measure goals on an ongoing basis, similar to OKR-related software.

“The content is great, but unless you can apply that content, it’s not very useful,” Mazan said. “So this coaching is a way to help people apply the insights and the learning they’ve gotten from some kind of content and really utilize that in the workplace.”

The new product takes the monthly in-person summit that your organization used to call executive coaching and turns it into a living, breathing part of a manager’s workflow.

Beyond helping its users have a better temperature check on their progress, the product will help Sounding Board scale its services. Now any tutor on Sounding Board has more ways into a user’s mind and workflow, so every call isn’t synchronous and can be managed more evenly.

The co-founders see their long-term differentiation living in this feature. Anyone can create a marketplace, but it takes seamless, easy-to-use tech to track the effectiveness of what happens post-coaching.

Tao admits that the startup isn’t for everyone. Sounding Board has seen early adoption around enterprise companies that are in a late-stage, hyper-growth mindset heading toward an IPO. That level of maturity is a sweet spot for a third-party such as them to come in and scale leaders across teams. Customers include VMware, Uber, Plaid, Chime and Dropbox.

That said, within organizations, 60% of Sounding Board’s users are first-time managers, 30% are middle-tier and 10% are C-suite. The co-founders think these numbers indicate a broader demand for mentorship beyond what their competitors offer, which often sticks to C-suite life coach territory or stress management.

“Everyone is starting to realize that we’re going to have to offer coaching broader than just in the C-suite, and sometimes they don’t really know what that means,” said Mazan.

The realization, along with COVID-19 tailwinds, has helped Sounding Board attract new millions in venture capital. The startup tells TechCrunch that it has raised a $13.1 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Other investors include Correlation Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, Precursor Ventures, as well as Degreed founder David Blake and Kevin Johnson, the former CEO of Udemy.

African edtech startup uLesson lands a $7.5 million Series A

ULesson, an edtech startup based in Nigeria that sells digital curriculum to students through SD cards, has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Owl Ventures, which closed over half a billion in new fund money just months ago. Other participants include LocalGlobe and existing investors, including TLcom Capital and Founder Collective.

The financing comes a little over a year since uLesson closed its $3.1 million seed round in November 2019. The startup’s biggest difference between now and then isn’t simply the millions it has in the bank, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its entire value proposition.

ULesson launched into the market just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The startup, which uses SD cards as a low-bandwidth way to deliver content, saw a wave of smart devices enter homes across Africa as students adapted to remote education.

“The ground became wet in a way we didn’t see before,” founder and CEO Sim Shagaya said. “It opens up the world for us to do all kinds of really amazing things we’ve wanted to do in the world of edtech that you can’t do in a strictly offline sense,” the founder added.

Similar to many edtech startups, uLesson has benefited from the overnight adoption of remote education. Its positioning as a supplementary education tool helped it surface 70% month over month growth, said Shagaya. The founder says that the digital infrastructure gains will allow them to “go online entirely by Q2 this year.”

It costs an annual fee of $50, and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

With fresh demand, Shagaya sees uLesson evolving into a live, online platform instead of an offline, asynchronous content play. The startup is already experimenting with live tutoring: it tested a feature that allowed students to ask questions while going through pre-recorded material. The startup got more than 3,000 questions each day, with demand so high they had to pause the test feature.

“We want you to be able to push a button and get immediate support from a college student sitting somewhere in the continent who is basically a master in what you’re studying,” he said. The trend of content-focused startups adding on a live tutoring layer continues when you look at Chegg, Quizlet, Brainly and others.

The broader landscape

E-learning startups have been booming in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s led to an influx of tutoring marketplaces and content that promises to serve students. One of the most valuable startups in edtech is Byju’s, which offers online learning services and prepares students for tests.

But Shagaya doesn’t think any competitors, even Byju’s, have cracked the nut on how to do so in a digital way for African markets. There are placement agencies in South Africa and Kenya and offline tutoring marketplaces that send people to student homes, but no clear leader from a digital curriculum perspective.

“Everybody sees that Africa is a big opportunity,” Shagaya said. “But everybody also sees that you need a local team to execute on this.”

Shagaya thinks the opportunity in African edtech is huge because of two reasons: a young population, and a deep penetration of private school-going students. Combined, those facts could create troves of students who have the cash and are willing to pay for supplementary education.

The biggest hurdle ahead for uLesson, and any edtech startup that benefitted from pandemic gains, is distribution and outcomes. ULesson didn’t share any data on effectiveness and outcomes, but says it’s in the process of conducting a study with the University of Georgia to track mastery.

“Content efforts and products [will] live or die at the altar of distribution,” Shagaya said. The founder noted that in India, for example, pre-recorded videos do well due to social nuances and culture. ULesson is trying to find the perfect sauce for videos in markets around Africa and embed that into the product.

Miami-based Ironhack raises $20 million for its coding bootcamps as demand for coders continues

Ironhack, a company offering programming bootcamps across Europe and North and South America, has raised $20 million in its latest round of funding.

The Miami-based company (with locations in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, Paris and São Paulo) said it will use the money to build out more virtual offerings to complement the company’s campuses.

Over the next five years, 13 million jobs will be added to the tech industry in the U.S., according to Ironhack co-founder Ariel Quiñones. That’s in addition to another 20 million jobs that Quiñones expects to come from the growth of the technology sector in the EU.

Ironhack isn’t the only bootcamp to benefit from this growth. Last year, Lambda School raised $74 million for its coding education program.

Ironhack raised its latest round from Endeavor Catalyst, a fund that invests in entrepreneurs from emerging and underserved markets; Lumos Capital, which was formed by investors with a long history in education technology; Creas Capital, a Spanish impact investment firm; and Brighteye, a European edtech investor.

Prices for the company’s classes vary by country. In the U.S. an Ironhack bootcamp costs $12,000, while that figure is more like $3,000 for classes in Mexico City.

The company offers classes in subjects ranging from web development to UX/UI design, and data analytics to cybersecurity, according to a statement. 

“We believe that practical skills training, a supportive global community and career development programs can give everyone, regardless of their education or employment history, the ability to write their stories through technology,” said Quiñones.

Since its launch in 2013, the company has graduated more than 8,000 students, with a job placement rate of 89%, according to data collected as of July 2020. Companies who have employed Ironhack graduates include Capgemini, Siemens and Santander, the company said.

 

Senator: ‘More transparency is needed’ by exam proctoring tech firms

Three of the leading exam proctoring companies are facing calls to be more transparent, amid continued claims of bias by students forced to take remote exams because of the ongoing pandemic.

Exam proctoring tech lets students take remotely invigilated tests from home. Students are told to install their university’s choice of proctoring software, which allows the exam monitor deep access to the student’s computer, including their webcams and microphones, to monitor their activity to spot potential cheating.

But companies like Proctorio, ExamSoft, and ProctorU have faced a barrage of criticism from students who say that their proctoring technology is fraught with problems, including issues of bias — all of which could impact their test results.

Chief among the complaints are that their proctoring software cannot recognize faces with darker skin tones or religious headgear, and discriminates against students with disabilities and those in lower-income areas who may not have the internet speeds to meet the standards of the test-taking tech.

Several U.S. Democratic senators sent Proctorio, ExamSoft, and ProctorU letters in December calling on the companies to explain their technology and policies better. In their responses seen by TechCrunch, the companies rejected claims of discrimination and all said that it’s up to the teachers to decide whether a student has cheated, not the companies themselves.

But lawmakers say that the companies are not transparent enough, and worry teachers could be making decisions about a student’s conduct based on little more than what the technology tells them.

“Proctorio, ExamSoft, and ProctorU claim they don’t have problems with bias, yet alarming reports from students tell a different story,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told TechCrunch. “These responses from the companies are only the first step in learning more about how they operate, but much more transparency is needed into the systems that have the power to accuse students of cheating. I will work on every fix necessary to ensure students are protected.”

Students across the U.S. have already called on their schools to stop using proctoring software citing privacy and security risks.

We sent the companies several questions. ProctorU’s chief executive Scott McFarland declined to comment citing the holiday weekend. Proctorio and ExamSoft did not respond.

UK’s WhiteHat rebrands as Multiverse, raises $44M to build tech apprenticeships in the US

University education is getting more expensive, and at the moment it feels a bit like a petrie dish for infections, but the long-term trends continue to show a dramatic growth in the number of people worldwide getting degrees beyond high school, with one big reason for this being that a college degree generally provides better economic security.

Today, a startup that is exploring a different route for those interested in technology and knowledge worker positions — specifically by way of apprenticeships to bring in and train younger people on the job — is announcing a significant round of growth funding to see if it can provide a credible, scalable alternative to that model.

Multiverse, a UK startup that works with organizations to develop these apprenticeships, and then helps source promising, diverse candidates to fill those roles, has raised $44 million, funding that it will be using to spearhead a move into the US market.

The Series B is being led by General Catalyst (which has been especially active this week with UK startups: it also led a large round yesterday for Bloom & Wild), with GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Audacious Ventures, Latitude and SemperVirens also participating. Index Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, who first invested in the company in its $16 million Series A in 2020, also participated. Valuation is not being disclosed.

The company was originally co-founded as WhiteHat and is officially rebranding today. Co-founder Euan Blair (who happens to be the son of the former UK prime minister Tony Blair and his accomplished barrister wife Cherie Booth Blair) said the name change was because the original name was a reference to how the startup sought to “hack the system for good.”

However, he added, “The scale has become bigger and more evolved.” The new name is to convey that — as in gaming, which is probably the arena where you might have heard this term before — “anything is possible.”

There are “multiple universes” one can inhabit as a post-18 young adult, Blair continued, and while it’s been assumed that to get into tech, the obvious route was college or university, the bet that Multiverse is making here is that apprenticeships can easily, and widely, become another. “We want to build an outstanding alternative to university and college,” he said.

This is especially important when thinking of how to target more marginalized groups and how this ties up with how tech companies are looking to be more diverse in the future. Blair said that currently over half of the people making their way through Multiverse are people of color, and 57% are women, and the plan is to build tools to make that an even firmer part of its mission. 

The startup sees itself as part-tech company and part-education enterprise. It works with tech companies and others to open up opportunities for people who have not had any higher education or any training, where fresh high school graduates can come in, learn the ropes of a job while getting paid, and then continue on working their way up the ladder with that knowledge base in place. Apprenticeships on the platform right now range from data analysts through to exhibition designers, and the idea is that by opening up and targeting the US market, the breadth, number and location of roles will grow.

This is not just a social enterprise: there is actual money in this area. Blair prices that it charges the companies it works with range by qualification “but are broadly around the $15,000 mark.” (The individuals applying don’t pay anything, and they will eventually also be paid by the companies providing the apprenticeships.)

On the educational front, Multiverse doesn’t just connect people as a recruiter might: it has a team in place to build out what the “curriculum” might be for a particular apprenticeship, and how to deliver and train people with the requisite skills alongside the practice experience of working, and more.

That latter role, of course, has taken on a more poignant dimension in the last year: concepts like remote training and virtual mentorship have very much come into their own at a time when offices are largely standing empty to help reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Regardless of what happens in the year ahead — fingers crossed that vaccinations and other efforts will help us collectively move past where we are right now — many believe that the infrastructure that has been put into place to keep working virtually will continue to be used, which bodes well for a company like Multiverse that is building a business around that, both with technology it creates itself and will bring in from third parties and partners.

Indeed, the ecosystem of companies building tools to deliver educational content, provide training and work collaboratively has really boomed in the pandemic, giving companies like Multiverse a large library of options for how to bring people into new work situations. (Google, which is now an investor in Multiverse, is very much one of the makers of such education tools.)

Apprenticeships are an interesting area for a startup to tackle. Traditionally, it’s a term that would have been associated mainly with skilled labor positions, rather than “knowledge workers.”

But you can argue that with the bigger swing that the globe has seen away from industrial and towards knowledge economies, there is an argument to be made for building more enterprises and opportunities for an ever wider pool of users, rather than expecting everyone to be shoehorned into the models of the last 50 years. (The latter would essentially imply that college is possibly the only way up.)

You might also be fair to claim that Blair’s connections helped him secure funding and open doors with would-be customers, and that might well be the case, but ultimately the startup will live or die by how well it executes on its premise, whether it finds a good way to connect more people, engage them in opportunities, and keep them on board.

This is what really attracted the investors, said Joel Cutler, managing director and co-founder of General Catalyst.

“Euan has a genuine belief that this is important, and when you talk to him, you get a  feeling of manifest destiny,” Cutler said in an interview. In response to the question of family connections, he said that this was precisely the kind of issue that the technology industry should be tackling to fight.

“Of all the industries to break the mold of where you went to school, it should be the tech world that will do that, since it is far more of a meritocracy than others. This is the perfect place to start to break that mold,” he said. “Education will be super valuable but apprenticeships will also be important.” He noted that another company that General Catalyst invests in, Guild Education, is addressing similar opportunities, or rather the gaps in current opportunities, for older people.

Thimble teaches kids STEM skills with robotics kits combined with live Zoom classes

Parents with kids stuck learning at home during the pandemic have had to look for alternative activities to promote the hands-on learning experiences kids are missing out on due to attending class virtually. The New York-based educational technology startup Thimble aims to help address this problem by offering a subscription service for STEM-based projects that allow kids to make robotics, electronics and other tech using a combination of kits shipped to the home and live online instruction.

Thimble began back in 2016 as Kickstarter project when it raised $300,000 in 45 days to develop its STEM-based robotics and programming kits. The next year, it then began selling its kits to schools, largely in New York, for use in the classroom or in after-school programs. Over the years that followed, Thimble scaled its customer base to include around 250 schools across New York, Pennsylvania, and California, who would buy the kits and gain access to teacher training.

But the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of Thimble’s business.

“A lot of schools were in panic mode. They were not sure what was happening, and so their spending was frozen for some time,” explains Thimble co-founder and CEO Oscar Pedroso, whose background is in education. “Even our top customers that I would call, they would just give [say], ‘hey, this is not a good time. We think we’re going to be closing schools down.”

Pedroso realized that the company would have to quickly pivot to begin selling directly to parents instead.

Image Credits: Thimble

Around April, it made the shift — effectively entering the B2C market for the first time.

The company today offers parents a subscription that allows them to receive up to 15 different STEM-focused project kits and a curriculum that includes live instruction from an educator. One kit is shipped out over the course of three months, though an accelerated program is available that ships with more frequency.

The first kit is basic electronics where kids learn how to build simple circuits, like a doorbell, kitchen timer and a music composer, for example. The kit is designed so kids can experience “quick wins” to keep their attention and whet their appetite for more projects. This leads into future kits like those offering a Wi-Fi robot, a little drone, an LED compass that lights up, and a synthesizer that lets kids become their own D.J.

Image Credits: Thimble

While any family can use the kits to help kids experience hands-on electronics and robotics, Pedroso says that about 70% of subscribers are those where the child already has a knack for doing these sorts of projects. The remaining 30% are those where the parents are looking to introduce the concepts of robotics and programming, to see if the kids show an interest. Around 40% of the students are girls.

The subscription is more expensive than some DIY projects at $59.99/per month (or $47.99/mo if paid annually), but this is because it includes live instruction in the form of weekly 1-hour Zoom classes. Thimble has part-time employees who are not just able to understand teach the material, but can do so in a way that appeals to children — by being passionate, energetic and capable of jumping in to help if they sense a child is having an issue or getting frustrated. Two of the five teachers are women. One instructor is bilingual and teaches some classes in Spanish.

During class, one teacher instructs while a second helps moderate the chat room and answer the questions that kids ask in there.

The live classes will have around 15-20 students each, but Thimble additionally offers a package for small groups that reduces class size. These could be used by homeschool “pods” or other groups.

Image Credits: Thimble

“We started hearing from pods and then micro-schools,” notes Pedroso. “Those were parents who were connected to other parents, and wanted their kids to be part of the same class. They generally required a little bit more attention and wanted some things a little more customized,” he added.

These subscriptions are more expensive at $250/month, but the cost is shared among the group of parents, which brings the price down on per-household basis. Around 10% of the total customer base is on this plan, as most customers are individual families.

Thimble also works with several community programs and nonprofits in select markets that help to subsidize the cost of the kits to make the subscriptions more affordable. These are announced, as available, through schools, newsletters, and other marketing efforts.

Since pivoting to subscriptions, Thimble has re-established a customer base and now has 1,110 paid customers. Some, however, are grandfathered in to an earlier price point, so Thimble needs to scale the business further.

In addition to the Kickstarter, Thimble has raised funds and worked on the business over the year with the help of multiple accelerators, including LearnLaunch in Boston, Halcyon in D.C., and Telluride Venture Accelerator in Colorado.

The startup, co-founded by Joel Cilli in Pittsburgh, is now around 60% closed on its seed round of $1 million, but isn’t announcing details of that at this time.

 

 

 

YC-backed Blabla raises $1.5M to teach English through short videos

Short, snappy, entertaining videos have become an increasingly common way for young people to receive information. Why not learn English through TikTok-like videos too? That was what prompted Angelo Huang to launch Blabla.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang relocated to Shanghai in 2019 to start Blabla after working in Silicon Valley for over a decade. A year later, Blabla was chosen as part of Y Combinator’s 2020 summer cohort. The coronavirus had begun to spread in the U.S. at the time, keeping millions at home, and interest in remote learning was reviving.

“It was my eighth time applying to YC,” Huang, who founded two companies before Blabla, told TechCrunch during an interview.

This week, Blabla announced it has raised $1.54 million in a seed round led by Amino Capital, Starling Ventures, Y Combinator, and Wayra X, the innovation arm of the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. While Y Combinator wasn’t particularly instrumental in Blabla’s expansion in China — one of the biggest English-learning markets — the famed accelerator was of great help introducing investors to the young company, said the founder.

The Blabla app pays native English speakers by the hour to create short, engaging videos tailored to English-learning students around the world. The content creators are aided by Blabla’s proprietary software that can recognize and tag their scenes, as well as third-party translation tools that can subtitle their videos. The students, in turn, pay a subscription fee to receive personalized video recommendations based on their level of proficiency. They can practice through the app’s built-in speech recognition, among other features like speaking contests and pop quizzes.

The startup is in a highly crowded space. In China, the online English-learning market is occupied by established companies like VIPKID, which is backed by Tencent and Sequoia Capital. Compared to VIPKID’s one-on-one tutoring model, Blabla is more affordable with its starting price of 39 yuan ($6) a month, Huang noted.

“The students [on mainstream English learning apps] might have to spend several thousands of RMB before they can have a meaningful conversation with their teachers. We instead recycle our videos and are able to offer lessons at much cheaper prices.”

The app has about 11,000 weekly users and 300-400 paid users at the moment, with 80-90% of its total users coming from China; the goal for this year is to reach 300,000 students. The funding will allow Blabla to expand in Southeast Asia and Latin America while Wayra X can potentially help it scale to Telefónica’s 340 million global users. It will be seeking brand deals with influencers on the likes of TikTok and Youtube. The new capital will also enable BlaBla to add new features, such as pairing up language learners based on their interests and profiles.

Blabla doesn’t limit itself to teaching English and has ambitions to bring in teachers of other languages. “We want to be a global online pay-for-knowledge platform,” said Huang.

Amazon makes education push in India with JEE preparation app

Amazon on Wednesday launched Amazon Academy, a service that will aim to help students in India prepare for entry into the nation’s prestigious engineering colleges. The American firm is the latest entrant to this market where scores of startups and institutes have launched digital offerings in recent years.

The e-commerce giant, which has invested more than $6.5 billion in the world’s second largest internet market, said Amazon Academy offers curated learning material, live lectures, mock tests, and comprehensive assessments to help students learn and practice Math, Physics and Chemistry and prepare for the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE), a government-backed engineering entrance assessment conducted in India for admission to various engineering colleges in the country. About two million students take JEE test each year.

Tests offered on Amazon Academy are “designed to mirror the JEE experience helping students understand the nuances of the examination. Students will also benefit from shortcuts, mnemonics, tips, and tricks, equipping them with the necessary tools to retain concepts and solve questions effectively,” the company said in a press note.

Amazon began testing Amazon Academy, previously known as JEE Ready, in India in mid-2019. Amazon Academy, available via its website and as an app for Android and iOS, is free and will remain so for the “next few months,” the company said.

More than 260 million children go to school in India and much of the population sees education as a key to economic progress and a better life. TechCrunch reported last month that Amazon was also looking to hire executives in India to launch Amazon Future Engineer, a program through which it aims to bring computer science education to underserved and underrepresented children and young adults, in India by this year.

“Amazon Academy aims to bring high quality, affordable education to all, starting with those preparing for engineering entrance examinations. Our mission is to help students achieve their outcomes while also empowering educators and content partners reach millions of students. Our primary focus has been on content quality, deep learning analytics and student experience. This launch will help engineering aspirants prepare better and achieve the winning edge in JEE,” said Amol Gurwara, Director, Education at Amazon India, in a statement.

Amazon’s global rivals, Facebook and Google, have also made push in India’s education market in recent years. Last year, Facebook partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators.

Facebook also invested in Unacademy, a Bangalore-based startup that offers online learning classes. Google, which invested in Indian edtech startup Cuemath, also partnered with CBSE to train more than 1 million teachers in India and offer a range of free tools such as G Suite for Education, Google Classroom and YouTube to help digitize the education experience in the nation.

India’s top edtech startups — Byju’s, Unacademy, and Vedantu — also offer students classes to prepare for JEE test. Last year, these startups onboarded tens of millions of students to their platforms after the coronavirus outbreak prompted New Delhi to shut down schools across the nation. Byju’s, which became the world’s most valuable edtech startup last year, is in talks to buy decades-old Aakash Educational Services Aakash Educational Services, which owns and operates more than 200 physical tutoring centres across the country aimed at students preparing to qualify for top engineering and medical colleges, for $1 billion, Bloomberg reported this week.

Byju’s is reportedly buying Indian brick-and-mortar institute Aakash for $1 billion

We may finally have an answer to why Byju’s, the world’s most valuable edtech startup, spent the last year raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bloomberg reports that the Bangalore-based startup has agreed to buy Aakash Educational Services, which owns and operates more than 200 physical tutoring centres across the country aimed at students preparing to qualify for top engineering and medical colleges.

According to the publication, Byju’s will pay $1 billion to buy Aakash Educational Services, which serves more than 250,000 students. A Byju’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Byju’s has raised over $800 million in the past two years, and more than doubled its valuation to over $11 billion. The startup, like several other edtech firms, attracted tens of millions of students to its platform last year after the pandemic prompted New Delhi to shut down schools nationwide.

Byju’s prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, and in recent years has also expanded its catalog to serve all school-going students. Tutors on Byju’s app tackle complex subjects using real-life objects such as pizza and cake. The startup, which turned profitable in late 2019, serves over 70 million students.

In an interview at TechCrunch Disrupt last year, Byju’s co-founder and chief executive Byju Raveendran said the startup, which acquired a coding platform aimed at young students called WhiteHat Jr for $300 million last year, was open to more merger and acquisition opportunities.

The startup is backed by several high-profile investors, including Bond, which was co-founded by Mary Meeker. Bond expects Byju’s to be worth over $30 billion within three years, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch earlier.