Edtech investors are panning for gold

The spotlight on edtech grows brighter and harsher: On one end, remote-learning startups are attracting millions in venture capital. On the other, many educators and parents are unimpressed with the technology that enables virtual learning and gaps remain in and out of the classroom.

It’s clear that edtech’s nebulous pain points — screen time, childcare and classroom management — require innovation. But as founders flurry to a sector recently rejuvenated with capital, the influx of interest has not fostered any breakout solutions. As a result, edtech investors must hone their skills at sorting the innovators from the opportunists amid the rush.

Lucky for us, investors shared notes during TechCrunch Disrupt and offline regarding how they are separating the gold from the dust, giving us a peek into their due diligence process (and inboxes).

Putting profitability over growth

The pandemic has broadly forced founders to get more conservative and prioritize profitability over the usual “growth at all costs” startup mentality. Growth still matters, but within edtech, the boom comes with a big focus on profitability, efficacy, outcomes and societal impact.

“The goal of all of education is personalized learning, when every student receives exactly the instruction in the way that they need it at the time that they need it. And that’s really, really difficult to do if you’re trying to have one person teach 180 students,” said Mercedes Bent of Lightspeed Venture Partners. “And so I’ve been excited to see more solutions that are focused on creating smaller class sizes that are also focused on allowing students to connect with people outside of their homes as well.”

During Disrupt, Reach Capital’s Jennifer Carolan brought up a recent Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which illustrates the impact screen time can have on society. When vetting companies, Carolan said she wanted to see founders who have considered how their products may impact young users.

Language learning service Babbel says it has now sold over 10M subscriptions

Babbel, the popular Berlin-based online language learning service, today announced that it has now sold a total of 10 million subscriptions to its service. For a language learning service, that’s quite a substantial number, especially given that Babbel doesn’t really offer a free tier. In part, the company’s march to 10 million subscriptions was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Babbel had already seen accelerating growth before, in no small part thanks to its aggressive expansion in the U.S. where Babbel’s subscriber volume and revenue have tripled year over year.

Image Credits: Babbel

The fact that growth accelerated during the pandemic actually came as a bit of a surprise to the team. Typically, at least in the U.S., demand for language learning is somewhat seasonal and users are often motivated to learn a new language because they are preparing a big trip to Europe, for example.

“We know that in the U.S., we typically find the number one motivation that our users give for why they would want to learn a language is travel, which of course, makes sense, because that is your chance to use the language,” Babbel US CEO Julie Hansen told me. “And in fact, last year, there was record travel from the U.S. to Europe. […] I was very, very concerned for the prospects of our business, not to mention the prospects of our national health.”

But with a bit of lag, after the lockdowns in the U.S. (and around the globe) started, Babbel saw an increase in interest in its service because people wanted to use this time for self-improvement. At the same time, Babbel — like so many other education-related services — launched free tiers for high school and college students, too. Hansen said the company saw at least a “couple of hundred thousand” downloads from those initiatives alone. With that, the company’s user base now also skews a little bit younger (though Hansen also credited the company’s advertising on social and especially TikTok for this).

“You can literally draw a graph per country with the date of school closures, the date of lockdown — and then maybe a day or two for the first couple of Netflix series to go by — and then language learning picked up quite quickly,” Babbel CEO Arne Schepker said.

One area that has been challenging is B2B sales, where Babbel (and its competitors) saw an immediate slowdown, but as Hansen noted, some companies also started leaning more into digital training for their employees, maybe in part because they replaced in-person classes with tools like Babbel. Yet, despite the overall slowdown, Babbel still doubled its B2B revenue year-over-year and recently signed on its fellow Berlin -based company Delivery Hero as one of its customers.

Image Credits: Babbel

Ahead of the pandemic, Babbel also started investing in its language travel business after it acquired LingoVentura in 2018. And while the team believes that this business will pick up again over time, Schebker acknowledged that nobody is traveling right now, so this business is currently in a holding pattern.

Looking ahead, the company will soon launch what Hensen called “other learning methods,” but the team isn’t quite ready to talk about these yet beyond the fact that Babbel plans to embrace “a multitude of learning experiences” to meet learners where they are.

Outschool, newly profitable, raises a $45M Series B for virtual small group classes

Outschool, which started in 2015 as a platform for homeschooled students to bolster their extracurricular activities, has dramatically widened its customer base since the coronavirus pandemic began.The platform saw its total addressable market increase dramatically as students left campus to abide by COVID regulations instituted by the CDC.

Suddenly, live, small-group online learning classes became a necessity for students. Outschool’s services, which range from engineering lessons through Lego challenges to Spanish teaching by Taylor Swift songs, are now high in demand.

“When the CDC warned that school closures may be required, they talked about ‘internet-based tele-schooling,’” co-founder Amir Nathoo said. “We realized they meant classes over video chat, which is exactly what we offer.”

From August 2019 to August 2020, the online educational class service saw a more than 2,000% increase in bookings. But the surge isn’t just a crop of free users piling atop the platform. Outschool’s sales this year are around $54 million, compared to $6.5 million the year prior. It turned its first profit as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and is making more than $100 million in annual run rate.

While the profitability and growth could be a signal of the COVID-19 era, today Outschool got a vote of confidence that it isn’t just a pandemic-era boom. Today, Jennifer Carolan of Reach Capital announced at TechCrunch Disrupt that Outschool has raised a $45 million Series B round, bringing its total known capital to $55 million (see the full panel on Extra Crunch below).

The round was led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with participation from Reach Capital, Union Square Ventures, SV Angel, FundersClub, Y Combinator and others.

The cash gives Outschool the chance to grow its 60-person staff, which started at 25 people this year.

Founder Amir Nathoo was programming computer games from the age of five. So when it came to starting his own company, creating a platform that helped other kids do the same felt right.

In 2015, Nathoo grabbed Mikhail Seregine, who helped build Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys, and Nick Grandy, a product manager at Clever, another edtech company and YC alum. The trio drummed up a way to help students access experiences they don’t get in school.

To gauge interest, the company tried in-person classes in the SF Bay area, online content and tested across hundreds of families. Finally, they started working with homeschoolers as an early adopter audience, all to see if people would pay for non-traditional educational experiences.

“Homeschooling was interesting to us because we believed that if some new approach is going to change our education system radically for the better, it was likely that it would start outside the existing system,” Nathoo said.

He added that he observed that the homeschooling community had more flexibility around self-directed extracurricular activities. Plus, those families had a bigger stake in finding live, small-group instruction, to embed in days. The idea landed them a spot in Y Combinator in 2016, and, upon graduation, a $1.4 million seed round led by Collab+Sesame.

“We’d all been on group video calls with work, but we hadn’t seen this format of learning in K12 before,” he said. Outschool began rolling out live, interactive classes in small groups. It took off quickly. Sales grew from $500,000 in 2017 to over $6 million in 2019.

The strategy gave Outschool an opportunity to raise a Series A from Reach Capital, an edtech-focused venture capital fund, in May 2019. They began thinking outwards, past homeschooling families: what if a family with a kid in school wants extra activities, snuck in afterschool, on weekends or on holidays?

Today feels remarkably different for the startup, and edtech more broadly. Nathoo says that 87% of parents who purchase classes on Outschool have kids in school. The growth of Outschool’s total addressable market comes with a new set of challenges and goals.

When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Now, its marketplace hosts 10,000 teachers, all of whom have to get screened.

“That has been a big challenge,” he said. “We aren’t an open marketplace, so we had to rapidly scale our supply and quality team within our organization.” While that back-end work is time-consuming and challenging, the NPS score from students has remained high, Nathoo noted.

Outschool has a number of competitors in the live learning space. Juni Learning, for example, sells live small-group classes on coding and science. The company raised $7.5 million, led by Forerunner Ventures, and has around $10 million in ARR. Note earlier that Outschool is at $100 million in ARR.

“We provide a much broader range of learning options than Juni, which is focused just on coding classes,” Nathoo said. Outschool currently lists more than 50,000 classes on its website.

Varsity Tutors is another Outschool competitor, which is more similar to Outschool. Varsity Tutors sells online tutoring and large-group classes in core subjects such as Math and English. Nathoo says that Outschool’s differentiation remains in its focus of small-group teaching and a variety of topics.

As for what’s ahead for Outschool, Nathoo flirts with the idea of contradiction: what if the platform goes in schools?

“When I think about our strategy going forward, I think of new types of classes, international embedding and embedding ourselves back into school,” he said.

Outschool might use its growing consumer business as an engine to get into school districts, which are notoriously difficult to land deals with due to small budgets. But, to Nathoo, it’s important to get into schools to increase access to learning.

“Our vision is to build a global education community that supplements local school,” he said.

Why hasn’t digital learning lived up to its promise?

The fall semester is off to a rocky start. When schools were forced to close in the spring, students (and parents) struggled. As the new school year begins, affluent families are building pandemic pods and inequities abound, while surveys suggest that college students want tuition discounts for online classes.

To avoid a catastrophic loss in revenue, colleges are bringing students back to campus. At UNC-Chapel Hill, those plans were quickly reversed when 130 students tested positive for the virus just a week into the new semester. As cases skyrocket, UNC will not be the only educational institution or school district to move online again.

What is it about digital learning that has schools so keen on reopening despite the health and reputational risks? Why hasn’t digital learning lived up to its promise?

If I were asked 20 years ago, as the founding CEO of Rosetta Stone, what digital learning would look like today, I would have imagined a very different future. Online learning was exploding. Teachers and faculty were experimenting with now commonplace consumer technologies like speech recognition and virtual reality to create immersive learning experiences.

Sadly, most of these innovations never took hold in our schools and colleges, and remote learners today are left with edtech that feels like it is still trapped in the 90s.

Ironically, the business of edtech and digital learning has been booming. Billions of dollars have been invested in tools and platforms that promise to improve the learning outcomes and lives of students. But for all the investments, headlines and flashy IPOs, edtech has little to show in terms of transformative outcomes.

The United States continues to lag behind many other advanced industrialized nations in math, science and reading literacy. Schools at all levels grapple with pervasive equity gaps. And research shows that heavily investing in education technology has, so far, yielded virtually no appreciable improvement in student achievement in these core subjects.

The challenge stems from the fact that rather than making learning better, the education technology field has, for the most part, focused on reaching more students. In our rush to scale, we have largely ignored tremendous pedagogical innovation that has occurred over the last twenty years.

No matter how high-tech a digital learning solution might be, it means nothing if it doesn’t also reflect recent and emerging changes in pedagogy. In 2010, a study at the University of North Texas compared how students retain information literacy skills in a face-to-face class, an online class and a blended class. The researchers found that there was no difference in outcomes between the three kinds of classes. This is because all three used the same materials and pedagogical approach.

But in a digital environment, far more is possible. We can now create video-game quality simulations to evaluate complex skills like creativity or problem-solving. Shy students can take the form of learning avatars in online laboratories — or explore career paths first-hand, through virtual reality. We know more than ever about attention span and engagement, or the connection between socio-emotional development and academic outcomes.

Researchers have, likewise, gained a deeper understanding of the ways students’ minds work. We know more than ever about how students reason, process information and solve problems. We know what kinds of scaffolding is required to develop and master these skills. Learning is best when it is built around doing, and when the context is practical, allowing students to try their hand at solving problems even as they’re still learning. It’s best when it is individualized, with progress based on a student’s personal aptitude and proficiency as they move toward mastering the material. And it’s best when it is enriched with peer-based discussion, practice and collaboration.

Astonishingly, few mass-market digital learning tools are built or adopted with these pedagogical advancements in mind. While Zoom is a fine tool for live conversations in small groups, it has few tools to facilitate the kind of engagement necessary for real learning. Coursera has raised millions for simply replicating the old-fashioned experience of a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom. Quizlet is but a virtual collection of flashcards; it can assess the learning of certain facts, but it is hardly useful for the acquisition of skills. These types of common digital learning tools are increasingly great at making educators’ jobs easier. They are great at expanding access, allowing teachers and schools to reach more students than ever before. But scale, ease and access are not sufficient to help students learn and build skills.

The frustrations of educators and learners alike reflect the fact that education technology functions as a digital proxy for our oldest methods of teaching. Simply listening to a lecture is not effective in the real world, and yet that largely remains the default mode of education online. The impact of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these long-standing shortcomings. To create the digital learning experience students deserve — to finally fulfill the untapped promise and potential of educational technology — we must create tools that reflect not only advancements in technology, but in what we now understand about how the mind works and how students learn.

User-generated e-learning site Kahoot acquires Actimo for up to $33M to double down on corporate sector

Norwegian company Kahoot originally made its name with a platform the lets educators and students create and share game-based online learning lessons, in the process building up a huge public catalogue of gamified lessons created by its community. Today the startup — now valued at over $2 billion — is announcing an acquisition to give a boost to another segment of its business: corporate customers.

Kahoot has acquired Danish startup Actimo, which provides a platform for businesses to train and engage with employees. Kahoot said that the purchase is being made with a combination of cash and shares, and works to to a total enterprise value of between $26 million and $33 million for the smaller company, with the sale expected to be completed in October 2020.

It may sound like a modest sum in a tech market where companies are currently and regularly seeing paper valuations in the hundreds of millions at Series A stage, but it also presents a different kind of trajectory both for founders and their investors.

This is actually a strong exit for Actimo, which had raised less than $500,000, according to data from PitchBook. And it puts Actimo under the wing of a company that has been scaling globally fast, finding — like others in the areas of online education and remote working — that the current state of social distancing due to Covid-19 is resulting in a boost to its business.

To give you an idea of the scale and growth of Kahoot, the company says that currently it has over 1 billion active users, on top of some 4.4 billion users in aggregate since first launching the platform in 2013. In the last 12 months, some 200 games have been played on its platform. In June, when Kahoot announced that it had raised $28 million in funding, it told us that 100 million games had been played.

In light of its growth and the future opportunity — even putting aside the progression of the coronavirus, it looks like remote work and remote learning will at the least become a lot more common as a longer-term option — the company has also seen a rise in its valuation. With some of its shares traded on the Merkur Market in Norway, the company currently has a market cap of 18.716 billion Norwegian Krone, which at today’s rates is about $2.08 billion. That figure was $1.4 billion in June.

Kahoot’s targeting of the corporate sector is not new. The company has been building a business in this space for years. It says that in the last 12 months, it logged 2 million sessions across 20 million participating “players” of its corporate training “games”, with some 97% of the Fortune 500 among those users. Customers include the likes of Facebook (for sales training), Oyo (hospitality training and onboarding) and Qualys (for taking polls during a conference), among others.

Critically, while a lot of Kahoot’s audience is in education, its corporate most of the revenues come in, one reason why it’s keen to grow that segment with more services and users.

The aim with Actimo, Kahoot says, is to build out a product set aimed at helping organisations with company culture — which, with many organisations now going on eight months and counting of entire teams working regularly outside of their physical offices, has grown as a priority.

Keeping a team feeling like a team, and an individual feeling more than a transactional regard for an employer, is not a simple thing in the best of times. Now, as we continue to work physically away from each other, it will take even more tools and efforts to get the balance right.

In that context, Actimo’s solution is just one aspect, but potentially an interesting one: it has built a platform where employees can track the training that they have done or need to do, engage with other co-workers, and provide feedback, and employers can use it to generally track and encourage how employees are engaging across the company and its various efforts. It counts some 200 enterprises, including Circle K, Hi3G, and Compass Group, among its customers, and has current ARR of $5 million.

For comparison, Kahoot, in its Q2 financials published in August, reported ARR of $25 million, with invoiced revenue for the quarter at $9.6 million, growing some 317% on the same quarter a year before. The company has also raised some $110 million in private funding from the likes of Microsoft and Disney.

As Kahoot looks to find more than just a transient place in a company’s IT and software fabric — transience of attention always being a risk with anything gaming-based — it makes a lot of sense to pick up Actimo and work on ways of coupling the platform with its other corporate work. You can also imagine a time when it might create a similar kind of dashboard for the educational sector.

“We are excited to welcome the Actimo team to be part of the fast-growing Kahoot! family,” said Kahoot! CEO, Eilert Hanoa, in a statement. “This acquisition will further extend Kahoot!’s corporate learning offerings, by providing solutions tailored for the frontline segment, as well as to solidify company culture and engagement among remote and distributed teams in companies of all types and sizes. This continues our expressed ambition to also grow through M&A by adding strategic capabilities that we can leverage across our global platform.”

“We are thrilled to join forces with Kahoot! in our mission to develop next-level solutions that connect remote employees and boost employee engagement and productivity,” said Eske Gunge, CEO at Actimo, in a statement. “Being part of Kahoot! and with our experience from working with innovative and ambitious enterprises across industries, we can together set a new standard for corporate learning and engagement.”

Indian decacorn Byju’s CEO talks about future acquisitions, coronavirus, and international expansion

Since India enforced a lockdown across the country in late March, shutting schools and other public places, Bangalore-headquartered startup Byju’s has emerged as one of the quintessential platforms for school-going students in the world’s second largest internet market.

It took the startup about four and a half years to amass 40 million students. Since the lockdown, its user base has ballooned to 65 million, its co-founder and chief executive Byju Raveendran said at Disrupt 2020 conference Tuesday.

Students say they were attracted to Byju’s platform because of the way it taught them subjects. Byju, who is a teacher himself, found intuitive ways like using real-life objects such as a pizza to teach complex math problems.

Today, his startup is valued at nearly $11 billion (which makes it India’s second most valuable startup), and has presence across several international markets. Late last year, Byju’s announced it has also turned profitable. It’s not everyday that we see an Indian startup with any of these three characteristics — let alone all three in one.

In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Raveendran shared the journey of Byju’s, which started as an offline platform that taught students at classrooms, auditoriums, and stadiums; the startup’s plans for further expansion in international markets; his views on merger and acquisition opportunities; and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected his business and the education landscape at large in India, among a number of other things.

“Unfortunately it took a pandemic for most stakeholders to try out digital learning. Parents are now accepting the online segment more than before. This sector is clearly at an inflexion point,” said Raveendran.

To make online learning more accessible to students, Byju’s made all of its offerings free during the pandemic. But the platform’s paying subscribers, now at more than 4 million, remains on a steady path of growth, he said.

The startup expects to generate more than $1 billion in revenue this year from India itself and take home profits between $150 million to $180 million, he said.

“I would still call it a relative success. What we consider as the target audience, we have less than 4% of penetration in that segment,” he said. “More than one-third of school-going students don’t have a smartphone. There’s still a lot of catch up to do.”

Another phenomenon that the pandemic has kickstarted in India is some consolidation in the edtech startup space. Byju’s itself acquired WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding skills to students, for $300 million.

TechCrunch has reported that the startup is engaging with several more startups including Indian firm Doubtnut, which through its app allows students to take a picture of a math problem and delivers step-by-step solution.

Here’s what Byju’s had to say about that: “The long-term potential of the sector is at an all-time high. […] We are looking for companies that can add strong product components to either our existing userbase or potential new customers in new markets, or companies that can give us some kind of distribution so that we get a headstart to launch in a new market — especially English speaking markets.”

“You will hear of a few more acquisitions from us. We are exploring some of them very seriously,” he added. The future acquisitions will again be all-cash deals, Byju said, as he “values equity more than others.”

On IPO, fundraise, and international expansion

Byju’s isn’t looking to go public for at least two years, the chief executive said. “We have strong business fundamentals; we have been able to find the right balance between high-growth and sustainable growth and created a very profitable model in such a short period of time. But we have not seriously thought about the public listing,” he added.

And it appears that investors in Byju’s are also not in a hurry. “We don’t need to do public listing to give exit to some of the early investors because the business itself will generate enough cash. A good number of them have already taken the money they invested out in the last few rounds,” he said.

Byju’s has raised more than $700 million this year. We asked Byju why is the startup raising capital. “We have been very capital efficient in terms of how we have used the primary capital we have raised. In the first five years, we have utilized less than $350 million of the primary capital — which shows how we have efficiently scaled the model,” he said.

“Most of the recent fundraising is to finance inorganic growth like full-cash acquisitions. We are utilizing it to add some strong business models. We never raised money because we needed it. It was always to add the right partner. In recent times, we have added long-term, patient investors,” he said. Byju’s is likely not done with its fundraising spree yet as the startup is currently engaging with at least two more investment firms.

For expansion in international markets, Byju said it plans to launch a digital learning app aimed at kids in several English-speaking markets. He said WhiteHat Jr., will introduce math subject to its offering to serve customers in several markets including Australia, New Zealand.

We also talked about what he thinks of other giant startups in India that are not profitable today, the kind of message that sends to international investors, and whether there is room for any new player in the education market in India, and much more. You can watch the full-interview below.

Extra Crunch Friday roundup: Edtech funding surges, Poland VC survey, inside Shift’s SPAC plan, more

I live in San Francisco, but I work an East Coast schedule to get a jump on the news day. So I’d already been at my desk for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning when I looked up and saw this:

As unsettling as it was to see the natural environment so transformed, I still got my work done. This is not to boast: I have a desk job and a working air filter. (People who make deliveries in the toxic air or are homeschooling their children while working from home during a global pandemic, however, impress the hell out of me.)

Not coincidentally, two of the Extra Crunch stories that ran since our Tuesday newsletter tie directly into what’s going on outside my window:

As this guest post predicted, a suboptimal attempt I made to track a delayed package using interactive voice response (IVR) indeed poisoned my customer experience, and;

Sheltering in place to avoid the novel coronavirus — and wildfire smoke — is fueling growth in the video-game industry, perhaps one factor in Unity Software Inc.’s plan to go public ahead of competitor Epic Games. In a two-part series, we looked at how the company has expanded beyond games and shared a detailed financial breakdown.

We covered a lot of ground this week, so scroll down or visit the recently redesigned Extra Crunch home page. If you’d like to receive this roundup via email each Tuesday and Friday, please click here.

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

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor
@yourprotagonist


Bear and bull cases for Unity’s IPO

In a two-part series that ran on TechCrunch and Extra Crunch, former media columnist Eric Peckham returned to share his analysis of Unity Software Inc.’s S-1 filing.

Part one is a deep dive that explains how the company has grown beyond gaming to develop multiple revenue streams and where it’s headed.

For part two on Extra Crunch, he studied the company’s numbers to offer some context for its approximately $11 billion valuation.


10 Poland-based investors discuss trends, opportunities and the road ahead

The Palace of Culture and Science is standing reminder of communism in Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland.

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

As we’ve covered previously, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the world a lot smaller.

Investors who focus on their own backyards still have an advantage, but the ability to set up a quick coffee meeting with a promising investor is no longer one of them.

Even though some VCs are cutting first checks after Zoom calls, regional investors’ personal networks are still a trump card. Tourists will always rely on guide books, however, which is why we continue to survey investors around the world.

A Dealroom report issued this summer determined that 97 VC funds backed more than 1,600 funding rounds in Poland last year. With over 2,400 early- and late-stage startups and 400,000 engineers in the country, it’s easy to see why foreign investors are taking notice.

Editor-at-large Mike Butcher reached out to several investors who focus on Warsaw and Poland in general to learn more about the startups fueling their interest across fintech, gaming, security and other sectors:

  • Bryony Cooper, managing partner, Arkley Brinc VC
  • Anna Wnuk-Błażejczyk, investor relations manager, Experior.vc
  • Rafał Roszak, investment director, YouNick Mint
  • Michal Mroczkowski, partner, Market One Capital
  • Marcus Erken, partner, Sunfish Partners
  • Borys Musielak, partner, SMOK Ventures
  • Mathias Åsberg, partner, Nextgrid
  • Kuba Dudek, SpeedUp Venture Capital Group
  • Marcin Laczynski, partner, Next Road Ventures
  • Michał Rokosz, partner, Inovo Venture Partners

We’ll run the conclusion of his survey next Tuesday.


Brands that hyper-personalize will win the next decade

Customer Relationship Management and Leader Concepts on Whiteboard

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

Even for fledgling startups, creating a robust customer service channel — or at least one that doesn’t annoy people — is a reliable way to keep users in the sales funnel.

Using AI and automation is fine, but now that consumers have grown used to asking phones and smart speakers to predict the weather and read recipe instructions, their expectations are higher than ever.

If you’re trying to figure out what people want from hyper-personalized customer experiences and how you can operationalize AI to give them what they’re after, start here.


VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market

For today’s edition of The Exchange, Natasha Mascarenhas joined Alex Wilhelm to examine how the pandemic-fueled surge of interest in edtech is manifesting on the funding front.

The numbers suggest that funding will far surpass the sector’s high-water mark set in 2018, so the duo studied the numbers through August 31, which included a number of mega-rounds that exceeded $100 million.

“Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year,” they conclude.


How to respond to a data breach

Digital Binary Code on Red Background. Cybercrime Concept

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

The odds are low that someone’s going to enter my home and steal my belongings. I still lock my door when I leave the house, however, and my valuables are insured. I’m an optimist, not a fool.

Similarly: Is your startup’s cybersecurity strategy based on optimism, or do you have an actual response plan in case of a data breach?

Security reporter Zack Whittaker has seen some shambolic reactions to security lapses, which is why he turned in a post-mortem about a corporation that got it right.

“Once in a while, a company’s response almost makes up for the daily deluge of hypocrisy, obfuscation and downright lies,” says Zack.


Shift’s George Arison shares 6 tips for taking your company public via a SPAC

Number 6 By Railroad Tracks During Sunset

Image Credits: Eric Burger/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a lot of buzz about special purpose acquisition companies these days.

Used-car marketplace Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020, and is on track to complete the process in the next few months, so co-founder/co-CEO George Arison wrote an Extra Crunch guest post to share what he has learned.

Step one: “If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering.”


Dear Sophie: What is a J-1 visa and how can we use it?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I am a software engineer and have been looking at job postings in the U.S. I’ve heard from my friends about J-1 Visa Training or J-1 Research.

What is a J-1 status? What are the requirements to qualify? Do I need to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor me before I apply for one? Can I get a visa? How long could I stay?

— Determined in Delhi


As direct listing looms, Palantir insiders are accelerating stock sales

While we count down to the September 23 premiere of NYSE: PLTR, Danny Crichton looked at the “robust secondary market” that has allowed some investors to acquire shares early.

“Given the number of people involved and the number of shares bought and sold over the past 18 months, we can get some insight regarding how insiders perceive Palantir’s value,” he writes.


Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup

Vector illustration of padlocks and keys in a repeating pattern against a blue background.

Image Credits: JakeOlimb / Getty Images

Zack Whittaker interviewed Bugcrowd CTO, founder and chairman Casey Ellis about the best practices he recommends for creating a startup culture that takes security seriously.

“It’s an everyone problem,” said Ellis, who encouraged founders to promote the notion of “productive paranoia.”

Now that the threat envelope includes everyone from marketing to engineering, employees need to “internalize the fact that bad stuff can and does happen if you do it wrong,” Ellis said.

Toucan raises $3M to teach you new languages as you browse the web

Toucan has developed a Chrome browser extension designed for anyone who wants to learn a new language but hasn’t found the motivation or the time.

Once installed, the extension scans the text of any (English-language) website you’re visiting and will automatically translate some of the words into the language that you’re trying to learn. If you mouse over the word, you’ll see original English word. Think of it as a browser-based version of language flashcards.

The startup was founded by CEO Taylor Nieman, CTO Shaun Merritt and CPO Brandon Dietz. Today, it’s announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding led by GSV Ventures, with participation from Amplifyher Ventures, Wonder Ventures, Golden Ventures, Halogen Ventures, Vitalize Ventures and strategic angel investors.

Nieman’s past roles include business development roles at Headspace (where Dietz was a senior product manager), startup studio Science and car leasing startup Fair.com (where Merritt was an iOS developer). She told me that one thing she learned from across all those experiences is “habit formation — how hard it actually to do anything that steals people’s time.”

Dietz made a similar point, arguing that while language learning software like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo has had their share of success, “It’s just such a high ask to get people to change their behavior and go to this one website,” particularly on a regular basis.

So Toucan is designed to help users learn a new language (it currently supports Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese) while they browse the web as they normally would, without having to change their behavior.

Toucan screenshot

Image Credits: Toucan

Nieman said the extension can be used to solidify and expand your vocabulary as you take digital or in-person classes. Or if you’re not taking classes, you can still use Toucan on its own, and it can help you achieve (as Dietz put it) “that magic moment of realizing you know a few words in other people’s languages.”

To ensure accuracy, the company works with teams of translators, including college professors and students, while also employing natural language processing to understand the context in which words are appearing. Users can also report words that are incorrectly translated.

And Toucan is experimenting with fun ways to promote itself, including the ability to “own” a word, so that for a week, your name appears anytime a word is translated by Toucan. In fact, the Toucan team has gifted me the word “writer,” — but since ownership is currently free, I guess it’s not a bribe?

Eventually, the company could charge people and businesses to own (a.k.a. sponsor) certain words. In addition, users can sign up for a premium subscription that gives them access to additional vocabulary. Dietz suggested that Toucan will continue exploring different business models, but he said the team is committed to “accessible” education and will keep “a large chunk” of the offering free.

Looking ahead, Toucan is planning to add new languages and to launch browser extensions for Firefox and Safari. And eventually, Nieman said the startup could apply the same approach to other subjects, “history or science or math or general knowledge.”

Toucan raises $3M to teach you new languages as you browse the web

Toucan has developed a Chrome browser extension designed for anyone who wants to learn a new language but hasn’t found the motivation or the time.

Once installed, the extension scans the text of any (English-language) website you’re visiting and will automatically translate some of the words into the language that you’re trying to learn. If you mouse over the word, you’ll see original English word. Think of it as a browser-based version of language flashcards.

The startup was founded by CEO Taylor Nieman, CTO Shaun Merritt and CPO Brandon Dietz. Today, it’s announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding led by GSV Ventures, with participation from Amplifyher Ventures, Wonder Ventures, Golden Ventures, Halogen Ventures, Vitalize Ventures and strategic angel investors.

Nieman’s past roles include business development roles at Headspace (where Dietz was a senior product manager), startup studio Science and car leasing startup Fair.com (where Merritt was an iOS developer). She told me that one thing she learned from across all those experiences is “habit formation — how hard it actually to do anything that steals people’s time.”

Dietz made a similar point, arguing that while language learning software like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo has had their share of success, “It’s just such a high ask to get people to change their behavior and go to this one website,” particularly on a regular basis.

So Toucan is designed to help users learn a new language (it currently supports Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese) while they browse the web as they normally would, without having to change their behavior.

Toucan screenshot

Image Credits: Toucan

Nieman said the extension can be used to solidify and expand your vocabulary as you take digital or in-person classes. Or if you’re not taking classes, you can still use Toucan on its own, and it can help you achieve (as Dietz put it) “that magic moment of realizing you know a few words in other people’s languages.”

To ensure accuracy, the company works with teams of translators, including college professors and students, while also employing natural language processing to understand the context in which words are appearing. Users can also report words that are incorrectly translated.

And Toucan is experimenting with fun ways to promote itself, including the ability to “own” a word, so that for a week, your name appears anytime a word is translated by Toucan. In fact, the Toucan team has gifted me the word “writer,” — but since ownership is currently free, I guess it’s not a bribe?

Eventually, the company could charge people and businesses to own (a.k.a. sponsor) certain words. In addition, users can sign up for a premium subscription that gives them access to additional vocabulary. Dietz suggested that Toucan will continue exploring different business models, but he said the team is committed to “accessible” education and will keep “a large chunk” of the offering free.

Looking ahead, Toucan is planning to add new languages and to launch browser extensions for Firefox and Safari. And eventually, Nieman said the startup could apply the same approach to other subjects, “history or science or math or general knowledge.”

VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market

A few weeks back, The Exchange looked into the pace of edtech exits, noting that over time, the sector has delivered rising exit volume. All startup verticals want to demonstrate a history of liquidity, so you might imagine that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, edtech fundraising was rising due to its improving exit profile.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


And dollars invested into edtech startups did increase, with 2018 and 2019 recording historically-elevated results concerning edtech venture capital deals and venture capital dollars invested.

However, with COVID-19 pushing more students to learn from home and forcing schools to invest in new tooling and other digital capabilities that support remote-learning, a strengthening exit market and a market shift towards edtech services has led to an explosion in venture capital investment in the sector.

According to CBInsight’s data concerning the state of edtech venture capital activity, startups in the sector have already surpassed their 2019 venture capital dollar tally and are on-track to set a new record in 2020, besting even 2018’s elevated result. Whether more total edtech deals will be closed in 2020 is less clear, but if current pace holds, 2020 should come somewhat close to 2018’s edtech deal count.

What’s driving the huge boom in edtech’s venture capital results? Let’s dig into just that.

An edtech boom

The data is pretty clear, as the following chart details. 2018 and 2019 were amazing, and 2020 is looking super hot as well:

Chart via CBInsights, shared with permission. 2020 data through August 31, 2020. Global edtech funding.

Driving 2020’s huge VC totals in terms of dollars invested are a grip of mega-rounds — venture deals of $100 million or more. According to CBInsights data, 13 deals of $100 million or more have been raised by edtech startups thus far in 2020, worth billions of dollars as a group. Indeed, the huge rounds from Yuandudao and Zuoyebang were worth $1.75 billion as a pair.

The high concentration of big rounds is also part of the reason why edtech startups are prepping to set a venture capital dollar record, if not a venture capital deal volume record, in 2020.

But don’t think that it is all over for early-stage edtech rounds. Per the same dataset, a historically-normal 50% of edtech deals recorded through August of 2020 were seed or angel investments. These transactions are worth a far-smaller fraction of dollars-raised by definition, but the number of very early bets into the edtech space implies that there is still lots of room to build. We’ve covered a number of early-stage financings such as Edsight’s $1.6 million round and Learn In’s $3.5 million round. Gaps around inclusivity, efficacy, outcomes and back-end support still remain and are ripe territory for new startups to innovate within. Plus, data shows that there’s a good pipeline of future deals for the later-stage investors that have already demonstrated an interest in writing big edtech checks.

A geographic focus

The CBInsights data also shows that 8 of the 10 top-funded edtech startups are in China, and a chunk of those are focused on English-learning education. China’s edtech scene has historically been bigger than other regions because of a high population, consumer spending patterns and a cultural focus on education. It was growing much before the pandemic; when venture investing dropped in China Q1 2019, edtech grew year over year and brought in $1.86 billion.

In the past couple of months, edtech startups have closed strategic capital to expand into the gold mine that is China. Labster, for example, recently brought on $9 million in capital and GGV’s Jenny Lee, who is based in Shanghai, to break into China. Duolingo similarly took a $10 million check to welcome on an investor with knowledge of Asian markets, General Atlantic.

Byju’s, coming out of India, is one of the other top-funded edtech startups. The personalized learning startup, already the most valued edtech startup in the world, got a $500 million check from Silver Lake earlier this week. It has doubled its revenue during the pandemic as it added more than 20 million new students to its platform. The company also acquired 18-month old White Hat Jr for $300 million. And the venture capital firm that invested in both Byju’s and White Hat Jr? Owl Ventures, which has raised a $565 million pair of funds to invest in edtech. 

The unicorn’s growth during the pandemic is hard to get your head around (although we tried to) but sums up how boggling growth can be.

That growth is part of why edtech’s venture capital results are as strong as they are. Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year, but bets placed in a startup niche that will keep getting hotter for years to come.