Yak Tack is a super simple app to boost vocabulary

Word nerds with a love for linguistic curiosities and novel nomenclature that’s more fulsome than their ability to make interesting new terms stick will be thrilled by Yak Tack: A neat little aidemémoire (in Android and iOS app form) designed for expanding (English) vocabulary, either as a native speaker or language learner.

Yak Tack uses adaptive spaced repetition to help users remember new words — drawing on a system devised in the 1970s by German scientist Sebastian Leitner.

The app’s core mechanic is a process it calls ‘tacking’. Here’s how it works: A user comes across a new word and inputs it into Yak Tack to look up what it means (definition content for words and concepts is sourced from Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Wikpedia via their API, per the developer).

Now they can choose to ‘tack’ the word to help them remember it.

This means the app will instigate its system of space repetition to combat the routine problem of memory decay/forgetting, as new information tends to be jettisoned by our brains unless we make a dedicated effort to remember it (and/or events conspire to make it memorable for other, not necessarily very pleasant reasons).

Tacked words are shown to Yak Tack users via push notification at spaced intervals (after 1 day, 2,3,5,8, and 13; following the fibonacci sequence).

Tapping on the notification takes the user to their in-app Tack Board where they get to re-read the definition. It also displays all the words they’ve tacked and their progress in the learning sequence for each one.

After the second repeat of a word there’s a gamified twist as the user must select the correct definition or synonym — depending on how far along in the learning sequence they are — from a multiple-choice list.

Picking the right answer means the learning proceeds to the next fibonacci interval. An incorrect answer moves the user back to the previous interval — meaning they must repeat that step, retightening (instead of expanding) the information-exposure period; hence adaptive space repetition.

It’s a simple and neat use of digital prompts to help make new words stick.

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The app also has a simple and neat user interface. It actually started as an email-only reminder system, says developer Jeremy Thomas, who made the tool for himself, wanting to expand his own vocabulary — and was (intentionally) the sole user for the first six months after it launched in 2019. (He was also behind an earlier (now discontinued) vocabulary app called Ink Paste.)

For now Yak Tack is a side/passion project so he can keep coding (and indulge his “entrepreneurial proclivities”, as he wordily puts it), his day job being head of product engineering at Gusto. But he sees business potential in bootstrapping the learning tool — and has incorporated it as an LLC.

“We have just over 500 users spread across the world (17 different timezones). We’re biggest in Japan, Germany, and the U.S.,” he tells TechCrunch.

“I’m funding it myself and have no plans to take on investment. I’ve learned to appreciate technology companies that have an actual business model underneath them,” he adds. “There’s an elegance to balancing growth and business fundamentals, and given the low cost of starting a SaaS business, I’m surprised more companies don’t bootstrap, frankly.”

The email-only version of Yak Tack still works (you send an email to [email protected] with the word you’d like to learn as the subject and the spaced repeats happen in the same sequence — but over email). But the mobile app is much more popular, per Thomas.

It is also (inevitably) more social, showing users words tacked by other users who tacked the same word as them — so there’s a bit of word discovery serendipity thrown in. However the user who will get the most out of Yak Tack is definitely the voracious and active reader who’s ingesting a lot of text elsewhere and taking the time to look up (and tack) new and unfamiliar words as they find them.

The app itself doesn’t do major lifting on the word discovery front — but it will serve up random encounters by showing you lists of latest tacks, most-tacked this month and words from any other users you follow. (There’s also a ‘last week’s most tacked words’ notification sent weekly.)

Taking a step back, one of the cruel paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while it’s made education for kids harder, as schooling has often been forced to go remote, it’s given many stuck-at-home adults more time on their hands than usual to put their mind to learning new stuff — which explains why online language learning has seen an uplift over the past 12 months+.

And with the pandemic remaining the new dystopian ‘normal’ in most parts of the world, market conditions seem pretty conducive for a self-improvement tool like Yak Tack.

“We’ve seen a lot of good user growth during the pandemic, in large part because I think people are investing in themselves. I think that makes the timing right for an app like Yak Tack,” says Thomas.

Yak Tack is freemium, with free usage for five active tacks (and a queue system for any other words you add); or $5 a year for unlimited tacks and no queue.

“I figure the worldwide TAM [total addressable market] of English-learners is really big, and at that low price point Yak Tack is both accessible and is a huge business opportunity,” he adds.

Lingoda, an on-demand online language school with live instructors and Zoom classrooms, raises $67M

A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.

Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $67 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.

The company currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Shangkuan said that its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.

“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Parnters, and the valuation is not being disclosed.

Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient.

“We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.

A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent years has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments: technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.

So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online, and it’s keen to bring more analytics and other tech into the equation to improve learning between lessons, to help teachers get a better sense of students’ engagement and progress during class, and to more — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.

This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).

“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based learning around live teachers.

There are a number of reasons for why human teaching may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner.

Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.

On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner.

Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. Students meanwhile pay for courses along a sliding scale depending on various factors like whether you opt for group or one-to-one classes, how frequently you use the service, and which language you are learning, with per-classes prices typically ranging between $6.75 and $14.30 depending on what you choose.

Students can request a teaching level if they want it: there is always a wide selection yet with dozens of levels between basic A1 and advanced C1 proficiency, if you don’t find what you want and order it, it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class. But in any case, a teacher needs to set the class herself or himself. This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.

“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”

After students complete a course, Lingoda provides them with a certification. In English, you can take a recognized Cambridge assessment to verify your proficiency.

Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.

To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.

But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.

“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.

Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

Outschool is the newest edtech unicorn

Outschool, a marketplace providing small-group, virtual after-school activities for children has raised a $75 million Series C led by Coatue and Tiger Global Management. TechCrunch first learned of the round from sources familiar with the transaction; the company confirmed the deal to TechCrunch later today.

The new funding values Outschool’s at $1.3 billion, around 4 times higher than its roughly $320 million valuation set less than a year ago.

To date, Outschool has raised $130 million in venture capital to date, inclusive of its new round.

The company’s valuation growth curve is steep for any startup, let alone an edtech concern that saw the majority of its growth during the pandemic. But while CEO and co-founder Amir Nathoo says his company’s new valuation is partially a reflection of today’s fundraising frenzy, he thinks revenue sustainability is a key factor in his company’s recent fundraise.

The new unicorn’s core product is after school classes for entertainment or supplemental studies, on an ongoing or one-off basis. As the company has grown, ongoing classes have grown from 10% of its business to 50% of its business, implying that the startup is generating more reliable revenue over time.

The change from one-off classes to enduring engagements could be good for the company and its students. On the former, recurring revenue is music to investor ears. On the latter, students need repetition to develop close relationships with a course and a group. Ongoing classes about debate or a weekly zombie dance class makes for a stickier experience.

Nathoo says everyone always asks what the most popular classes are, but said it continues to change since its main clientele – kids – have evolving favorites. One week it might be math, the other it might be minecraft and architecture.

Its changing revenue profile helped Outschool generate more than $100 million in bookings in 2020, compared to $6 million in 2019 and just $500,000 in 2017. Nathoo declined to share the company’s expectations for 2021 beyond “projecting to grow aggressively.”

Outschool reached brief positive cash flow last year as a result of massive growth in bookings, but Nathoo shared that that has since changed.

“My goal is to always stay within touching distance of profit,” he said. “But given the fast change in the market, it makes sense to invest aggressively into opportunities that will make sense in the long-term.”

What’s next

Nathoo expects to grow Outschool’s staff from 110 people to 200 by the end of the year, with a specific focus on international growth. In 2020, Outschool launched in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, so hiring will continue there and elsewhere.

On the flip side, Outschool isn’t  teachers at the same clip it was at the height of the pandemic in the United States. When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Within months, Outschool grew to host 10,000 teachers, a screening process that the founder explained was resource-heavy but vital. Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

Similar to how Airbnb created a host endowment fund to share its returns with the people who made its platform work, Outschool has dedicated 2% of its fundraise to creating a similar program to reward teachers on its platform in the event of liquidity.

One of Outschool’s most ambitious goals is, ironically, to go in school. While some startups have found success selling to schools amid the pandemic, district sales cycles and tight budgets continue to be a difficult challenge for scaling purposes. Still, the startup wants to make its way into students’ lives through contracts with schools and employers, which could help low income families access the platform. Nathoo says enterprise sales is a small part of its business, but the strategy began just last year as part of COVID-19 response. It is currently piloting its B2B offering with a number of schools.

Outschool will also consider acquiring early-stage startups focused on direct-to-consumer learning in international markets. While no acquisitions have been made by the startup to date, consolidation in the edtech sector broadly is heating up.

Nathoo stressed that Outschool’s continued growth, even as schools reopen, has de-risked the company from post-pandemic worries.

“There’s going to be a big spike of in-person activities because everyone is going to want to do that at once,” he said. “But then we’re going to settle at some more even distribution because the future of education is hybrid.”

He added that Outschool’s ethos around online learning hasn’t changed since conception. The company has never seen opportunity in the for-credit, subject-matter digital education sector, and instead has focused more on supplemental ways to support students after school.

“That’s the piece of the education system that is underserved and that was missing,” he said. “The advantages of online learning will remain in the convenience, the cost, and the variety of what you can get that isn’t always available locally.”

Discover how Duolingo started with CEO Luis von Ahn at Disrupt 2021

Before Luis von Ahn co-founded Duolingo, a gamified language-learning app used by hundreds of millions around the world, he was fixated on squiggly letters. The entrepreneur was a co-inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, or those security prompts you get while browsing the web to verify if you are a human or if you are a robot.

And while von Ahn often jokes that his early inventions were considered annoying (it causes friction when consumers have to decipher letters before logging into their email) reCAPTCHA was impressive enough that Google scooped it up. Since then, von Ahn has moved on to creating another iconic company, this time, one that consumers are happy to see pop up on their screens: Duolingo.

Von Ahn is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this September 21-23 to talk about the making of a gamified edtech unicorn. The pre-IPO company started as a grad school project, and over the years has become a behemoth enjoyed by more than 500 million users.

We’ll get into how von Ahn leveraged crowdsourced translation to grow the app, its roller coaster route to monetization and, of course, the iconic — and often sassy — green owl, Duo. We’ll also discuss the broader edtech market for language learning, how the pandemic impacted business and why Duolingo sees opportunity in disrupting not just language, but the tests associated with it, as well.

While part of Duolingo fits into the edtech category, some see the startup as it currently stands as a consumer subscription product with a learning hook. Von Ahn can clear the air on what Duolingo is truly solving for — and what’s ahead for the business.

Von Ahn first presented Duolingo on the Disrupt stage nine years ago, with a website and goal to teach 100 million people a new language. Now, nearly a decade later, he’ll be coming back to explain what happened next. He doesn’t hold back — so you don’t want to miss this.

Disrupt 2021 runs September 21 -23 and will be 100% virtual this year. Get your front-row seat to see von Ahn and many, many more for less than $100! Secure your seat now.

Discover how Duolingo started with CEO Luis von Ahn at Disrupt 2021

Before Luis von Ahn co-founded Duolingo, a gamified language-learning app used by hundreds of millions around the world, he was fixated on squiggly letters. The entrepreneur was a co-inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, or those security prompts you get while browsing the web to verify if you are a human or if you are a robot.

And while von Ahn often jokes that his early inventions were considered annoying (it causes friction when consumers have to decipher letters before logging into their email) reCAPTCHA was impressive enough that Google scooped it up. Since then, von Ahn has moved on to creating another iconic company, this time, one that consumers are happy to see pop up on their screens: Duolingo.

Von Ahn is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this September 21-23 to talk about the making of a gamified edtech unicorn. The pre-IPO company started as a grad school project, and over the years has become a behemoth enjoyed by more than 500 million users.

We’ll get into how von Ahn leveraged crowdsourced translation to grow the app, its roller coaster route to monetization and, of course, the iconic — and often sassy — green owl, Duo. We’ll also discuss the broader edtech market for language learning, how the pandemic impacted business and why Duolingo sees opportunity in disrupting not just language, but the tests associated with it, as well.

While part of Duolingo fits into the edtech category, some see the startup as it currently stands as a consumer subscription product with a learning hook. Von Ahn can clear the air on what Duolingo is truly solving for — and what’s ahead for the business.

Von Ahn first presented Duolingo on the Disrupt stage nine years ago, with a website and goal to teach 100 million people a new language. Now, nearly a decade later, he’ll be coming back to explain what happened next. He doesn’t hold back — so you don’t want to miss this.

Disrupt 2021 runs September 21 -23 and will be 100% virtual this year. Get your front-row seat to see von Ahn and many, many more for less than $100! Secure your seat now.

Discover how Duolingo started with CEO Luis von Ahn at Disrupt 2021

Before Luis von Ahn co-founded Duolingo, a gamified language-learning app used by hundreds of millions around the world, he was fixated on squiggly letters. The entrepreneur was a co-inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, or those security prompts you get while browsing the web to verify if you are a human or if you are a robot.

And while von Ahn often jokes that his early inventions were considered annoying (it causes friction when consumers have to decipher letters before logging into their email) reCAPTCHA was impressive enough that Google scooped it up. Since then, von Ahn has moved on to creating another iconic company, this time, one that consumers are happy to see pop up on their screens: Duolingo.

Von Ahn is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this September 21-23 to talk about the making of a gamified edtech unicorn. The pre-IPO company started as a grad school project, and over the years has become a behemoth enjoyed by more than 500 million users.

We’ll get into how von Ahn leveraged crowdsourced translation to grow the app, its roller coaster route to monetization and, of course, the iconic — and often sassy — green owl, Duo. We’ll also discuss the broader edtech market for language learning, how the pandemic impacted business and why Duolingo sees opportunity in disrupting not just language, but the tests associated with it, as well.

While part of Duolingo fits into the edtech category, some see the startup as it currently stands as a consumer subscription product with a learning hook. Von Ahn can clear the air on what Duolingo is truly solving for — and what’s ahead for the business.

Von Ahn first presented Duolingo on the Disrupt stage nine years ago, with a website and goal to teach 100 million people a new language. Now, nearly a decade later, he’ll be coming back to explain what happened next. He doesn’t hold back — so you don’t want to miss this.

Disrupt 2021 runs September 21 -23 and will be 100% virtual this year. Get your front-row seat to see von Ahn and many, many more for less than $100! Secure your seat now.

Formation raises $4M led by Andreessen Horowitz to train truly ‘exceptional’ software engineers

Sophie Zhou Novati worked as a senior engineer at Facebook and then Nextdoor, where she struggled to hire great engineers for her team.

Frustrated, she decided to try training engineers to meet her team’s hiring standards by mentoring at a local coding bootcamp. After two and a half years of mentoring on nights and weekends, Novati decided to turn her passion into a career.

She and her husband, Michael, founded Formation with a couple of goals in mind. For one, they wanted to offer personalized training to help people not just learn to code, but to become “exceptional” software engineers. Sophie was also struck by the diversity of the people she witnessed going through coding bootcamps, but she realized that those graduates weren’t getting access to the same opportunities that students from traditional universities do.

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophia Zhou Navati

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophie Zhou Navati

With Formation, her goal is to personalize the training experience via a remote fellowship program that combines automated instruction with access to a “network of top tier mentors” from companies such as Facebook and Google. After one year in beta, Formation is unveiling its Engineering Fellowship, where every fellow gets a “personalized training plan tailored to their unique career ambitions.” So far, it’s placed just over 30 people in engineering roles at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Lyft with an average starting salary of $120,000.

Formation aims to offer an experience beyond bootcamps, which Sophie argues “have gotten too big, too fast, churning hundreds or thousands of students through fixed curriculums without individualized attention.”

The startup attracted the attention of Andreessen Horowitz, which just led its $4 million seed round. Designer Fund, Combine, Lachy Groom, Slow Ventures and engineers from Airbnb, Notion, Rippling and others also participated in the financing.

“The first thing that really struck me about this community is just how diverse it is. Forty-four percent of graduates are reporting that they identify as nonmale, and the percentage of Black and Latinx graduates is nearly double the national average at traditional universities,” Sophie told TechCrunch. “But the problem is that only about 55% of bootcamp grads are getting a job as a software engineer, and of the ones that do, their median salary is only about $65,000. At the same time, companies everywhere are just desperately looking for ways to diversify their talent pool.”

Instead of having students follow a fixed curriculum, Formation leverages adaptive learning technology to build a personalized training plan tailored to each student’s specific skillset and career goals. The platform continuously assesses their skills and adapts their roadmap, according to Sophie.

About half of the people participating in Formation’s program are current engineers already working in the industry in some capacity. 

Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said she’s been examining the edtech space for a while, including companies building new tools for teaching and upleveling coding skills. 

Formation stood out to her as the “only true tech-based and scalable solution that optimizes each student’s mastery of important skills.” Its ability to dynamically change based on a student’s performance in particular was compelling.

“The founder-product fit is also super clear — Sophie brings her own best-in-class engineering experience to Formation, as well as her long-time passion for mentoring,” Chan wrote via email.

Education non-profit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

Edraak, an online education non-profit, exposed the private information of thousands of students after uploading student data to an unprotected cloud storage server, apparently by mistake.

The non-profit, founded by Jordan’s Queen Rania and headquartered in the kingdom’s capital, was set up in 2013 to promote education across the Arab region. The organization works with several partners, including the British Council and edX, a consortium set up by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

In February, researchers at U.K. cybersecurity firm TurgenSec found one of Edraak’s cloud storage servers containing at least tens of thousands of students’ data, including spreadsheets with students’ names, email addresses, gender, birth year, country of nationality, and some class grades.

TurgenSec, which runs Breaches.UK, a site for disclosing security incidents, alerted Edraak to the security lapse. A week later, their email was acknowledged by the organization but the data continued to spill. Emails seen by TechCrunch show the researchers tried to alert others who worked at the organization via LinkedIn requests, and its partners, including the British Council.

Two months passed and the server remained open. At its request, TechCrunch contacted Edraak, which closed the servers a few hours later.

In an email this week, Edraak chief executive Sherif Halawa told TechCrunch that the storage server was “meant to be publicly accessible, and to host public course content assets, such as course images, videos, and educational files,” but that “student data is never intentionally placed in this bucket.”

“Due to an unfortunate configuration bug, however, some academic data and student information exports were accidentally placed in the bucket,” Halawa confirmed.

“Unfortunately our initial scan did not locate the misplaced data that made it there accidentally. We attributed the elements in the Breaches.UK email to regular student uploads. We have now located these misplaced reports today and addressed the issue,” Halawa said.

The server is now closed off to public access.

It’s not clear why Edraak ignored the researchers’ initial email, which disclosed the location of the unprotected server, or why the organization’s response was not to ask for more details. When reached, British Council spokesperson Catherine Bowden said the organization received an email from TurgenSec but mistook it for a phishing email.

Edraak’s CEO Halawa said that the organization had already begun notifying affected students about the incident, and put out a blog post on Thursday.

Last year, TurgenSec found an unencrypted customer database belonging to U.K. internet provider Virgin Media that was left online by mistake, containing records linking some customers to adult and explicit websites.

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As working out goes virtual, Moxie raises $6.3M Seed+ round led by Resolute Ventures

With the pandemic sending the planet indoors to workout, the at-home fitness market has boomed. It was only in October last year that three-year-old Future closed $24 million in Series B and Playbook (streaming for personal trainers) raised $9.3 million in a Series A. Into this market launched Moxie, a platform that allowed fitness instructors to broadcast live and recorded classes, access licensed music playlists and deploy a CRM and payment tools. Classes range from $5-$25 and various subscriptions and packages are offered.

Moxie has now raised a $6.3M ‘Seed+’ funding round led by Resolute Ventures with participation from Bessemer Ventures, Greycroft Ventures, Gokul Rajaram, and additional investors. With the $2.1M Seed round from last October, that means Moxie has now raised a total of $8.4M.

With the funding, Moxie now plans to better optimize the user experience with a curated selection of top Moxie classes; new tools that help connect users to instructors; and the ability to preview classes before attending.

The company claims to have experienced “exponential growth” because of its convenience in the pandemic era, with 8,000 classes and 1 million class-minutes completed in March. Moxie’s independent instructors set their own schedules and prices, and get to keep 85% of what they earn on the platform.

The company will also now launch ‘Moxie Benefits’ in partnership with Stride Health, provide instructors with access to health insurance, dental and vision plans, life insurance, and other benefits.

Also planned is ‘Moxie Teams’, enabling groups of instructors to join together to form small businesses on the platform, not unlike the way some Uber drivers form teams.

Jason Goldberg, CEO and founder said in a statement: “Moxie was born during the pandemic alongside thousands of independent fitness instructors who were forced out of gyms and studios and suddenly had to become entrepreneurs and navigate the new frontier of virtual fitness. Now we are seeing widespread adoption of online fitness into people’s lives, and Moxie’s growth proves that these shifts in consumer behavior have staying power. We know that 89% of Moxie users plan to continue virtual workouts post COVID — they love the convenience.”

Resolute Ventures Partner & Co-Founder Raanan Bar-Cohen said: “Our investment theory has always been to identify entrepreneurial founders solving for today’s problems. With Moxie, we saw an experienced operator in Jason, with a product that solved for the issues that instructors and consumers had experienced in the shift to online fitness, as well as a clear roadmap for continued success.”

So why has Moxie managed to cleave to the new virtual workout culture? Goldberg tells me it’s down to a range of factors.

For starters, it’s a two-sided fitness marketplace that has live interactive group fitness classes, unlike VOD apps, and, crucially, unlike Peloton. Additionally, any instructor can teach on Moxie, rather than wait to be picked as a ‘star’ by Peloton. Since 90% of classes are live group fitness classes, they are effectively replacing yoga studios and HIIT classes, rather than personal training. He says many top instructors are now earning $6-figures on the platform.

Certainly, Moxie has managed to capitalize on the fact that while gyms are closed, it’s easy to do virtual classes. Will they still stick around when the pandemic is over? Presumably many will find it more convenient than schlepping to the gym and less intimidating than joining classes in person. Additionally, users can switch classes as easily as switching TV channels.

As Goldberg told me via email: “Covid forced everyone to try virtual fitness for the first time. Guess what? People found it more convenient and more connected than going to offline gyms. And guess what? Peloton is not for everyone.”