Pakistan edtech startup Maqsad gets $2.1M pre-seed to make education more accessible

Taha Ahmed and Rooshan Aziz left their jobs in strategy consulting and investment banking in London earlier this year in order to found a mobile-only education platform startup, Maqsad, in Pakistan, with a goal “to make education more accessible to 100 million Pakistani students.”

Having grown up in Karachi, childhood friends Ahmed and Aziz are aware of the challenges about the Pakistani education system, which is notably worse for those not living in large urban areas (the nation’s student-teacher ratio is 44:1). Pakistani children are less likely to go to school for each kilometer of distance between school and their home — with girls being four times affected, Maqsad co-founder Aziz said.

Maqsad announced today its $2.1 million pre-seed round to enhance its content platform growth and invest in R&D.

The pre-seed round, which was completed in just three weeks via virtual meetings, was led by Indus Valley Capital, with participation from Alter Global, Fatima Gobi Ventures and several angel investors from Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe.

Maqsad will use the proceeds for developing in-house content, such as production studio, academics and animators, as well as bolstering R&D and engineering, Aziz told TechCrunch. The company will focus on the K-12 education in Pakistan, including 11th and 12th grade math, with plans to expand into other STEM subjects for the next one-two years, Aziz said.

Maqsad’s platform, which provides a one-stop shop for after-school academic content in a mix of English and Urdu, will be supplemented by quizzes and other gamified features that will come together to offer a personalized education to individuals. Its platform features include adaptive testing that alter a question’s level of difficulty depending on users’ responses, Aziz explained.

The word “maqsad” means purpose in Urdu.

“We believe everyone has a purpose. Maqsad’s mission is to enable Pakistani students to realize this purpose; whether you are a student from an urban centre, such as Lahore, or from a remote village in Sindh: Maqsad believes in equal opportunity for all,” Aziz said.

“We are building a mobile-first platform, given that 95% of broadband users in Pakistan are via mobile. Most other platforms are not mobile optimized,” Aziz added.

“It’s about more than just getting students to pass their exams. We want to start a revolution in the way Pakistani students learn, moving beyond rote memorization to a place of real comprehension,” said co-founder Taha Ahmed, who was a former strategy consultant at LEK.

The company ran small pilots in April and May and started full-scale operations on 26 July, Aziz said, adding that Maqsad will launch its mobile app, currently under development, in the coming months in Q4 2021 and has a waitlist for early access.

“Struggles of students during the early days of the pandemic motivated us to run a pilot. With promising initial traction and user feedback, the size of the opportunity to digitize the education sector became very clear,” Aziz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the education industry, heating up the global edtech startups that made online education more accessible for a wider population, for example in countries like India and Indonesia, Aziz mentioned.

The education market size in Pakistan is estimated at $12 billion and is projected to increase to $30 billion by 2030, according to Aziz.

It plans to build the company as a hybrid center offering online and offline courses like Byju’s and Aakash, and expand classes for adults such as MasterClass, the U.S.-based online classes for adults, as its long-term plans, Aziz said.

“Maqsad founders’ deep understanding of the problem, unique approach to solving it and passion for impact persuaded us quickly,” the founder and managing partner of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan, said.

“Pakistan’s edtech opportunity is one of the largest in the world and we are excited to back Maqsad in delivering tech-powered education that levels access, quality and across Pakistan’s youth and creates lasting social change,” Ali Mukhtar, general partner of Fatima Gobi Ventures said.

What we can learn from edtech startups’ expansion efforts in Europe

It’s a story common to all sectors today: investors only want to see ‘uppy-righty’ charts in a pitch. However, edtech growth in the past 18 months has ramped up to such an extent that companies need to be presenting 3x+ growth in annual recurring revenue to even get noticed by their favored funds.

Some companies are able to blast this out of the park — like GoStudent, Ornikar and YouSchool — but others, arguably less suited to the conditions presented by the pandemic, have found it more difficult to present this kind of growth.

One of the most common themes Brighteye sees in young companies is an emphasis on international expansion for growth. To get some additional insight into this trend, we surveyed edtech firms on their expansion plans, priorities and pitfalls. We received 57 responses and supplemented it with interviews of leading companies and investors. Europe is home 49 of the surveyed companies, six are based in the U.S., and three in Asia.

Going international later in the journey or when more funding is available, possibly due to a VC round, seems to make facets of expansion more feasible. Higher budgets also enable entry to several markets nearly simultaneously.

The survey revealed a roughly even split of target customers across companies, institutions and consumers, as well as a good spread of home markets. The largest contingents were from the U.K. and France, with 13 and nine respondents respectively, followed by the U.S. with seven, Norway with five, and Spain, Finland, and Switzerland with four each. About 40% of these firms were yet to foray beyond their home country and the rest had gone international.

International expansion is an interesting and nuanced part of the growth path of an edtech firm. Unlike their neighbors in fintech, it’s assumed that edtech companies need to expand to a number of big markets in order to reach a scale that makes them attractive to VCs. This is less true than it was in early 2020, as digital education and work is now so commonplace that it’s possible to build a billion-dollar edtech in a single, larger European market.

But naturally, nearly every ambitious edtech founder realizes they need to expand overseas to grow at a pace that is attractive to investors. They have good reason to believe that, too: The complexities of selling to schools and universities, for example, are widely documented, so it might seem logical to take your chances and build market share internationally. It follows that some view expansion as a way of diversifying risk — e.g. we are growing nicely in market X, but what if the opportunity in Y is larger and our business begins to decline for some reason in market X?

International expansion sounds good, but what does it mean? We asked a number of organizations this question as part of the survey analysis. The responses were quite broad, and their breadth to an extent reflected their target customer groups and how those customers are reached. If the product is web-based and accessible anywhere, then it’s relatively easy for a company with a good product to reach customers in a large number of markets (50+). The firm can then build teams and wider infrastructure around that traction.

Inside Reach Capital’s edtech-powered returns

Reach Capital, a San Francisco-based venture firm co-founded by Jennifer Carolan and Shauntel Garvey, focused exclusively on edtech for years before the sector ballooned with unicorns. The rare, female-led partnership closed its third fund in February, a $165 million vehicle and its largest to date. That said, returns from its previous funds show that the early bet on a now-revitalized sector is paying off.

Reach Capital’s second fund, an $82 million vehicle closed in 2017, posted a net internal return rate of 72.1% as of Q2 2021, according to data intended for LPs and obtained by TechCrunch. The fund, which put investments into Paper, Winnie and now-unicorns Handshake and Outschool, ranks multiple percentage points above the top quartile of funds of that vintage. According to Cambridge Associates data, the top quartile of funds of that vintage had a net IRR of 47.64% the same quarter.

By comparison, Reach Capital’s first fund was multiple percentage points below the top quartile of fund performers of its vintage year, 2015.

It’s worth noting that Reach Capital’s returns for its second fund are mostly paper gains, meaning that the net IRR is based on an uptick in valuations. Given the fact that the firm is heavily concentrated in follow-on rounds, the IRR is thus a snapshot of a single moment of its performance in time. Reach recently had its first cash exit, seeing portfolio company Ellevation merge with Curriculum Associates, but that is not represented in the data.

A number of blooming startups may explain what’s driving the improved performance between Reach I and Reach II. Per an impact report, Reach II invested $32 million into 14 core investments, including Newsela, Handshake and Outschool, all companies that have now gone to pass the billion-dollar valuation mark, making them unicorns. It also put money into Paper, which recently landed a nine-figure round led by IVP. By getting into those companies early, and then watching them get marked up as edtech booms as a category, Reach’s positions get validated.

The diversity of Reach II’s portfolio beats industry averages, but the founders are still concentrated as white and male. About 74% of investments are founded by men, while 26% are founded by women, the report states. About 62% of founders identify as white, 20% identify as Asian, 14% identify as LatinX and 4% identify as Middle Eastern. There are no Black founders in Reach Capital II’s portfolio.

Reach’s impressive returns come at a time when venture more broadly is booming. A number of investors and founders spoke on background to offer context about whether the returns are impressive for a seed-stage fund of that vintage. One investment strategist said that, while it’s not unheard of in this environment, the return percentage is “crazy good.”

“Easily upper quartile and probably upper decile,” they said. “Unless we are talking crypto, in which case it’s pretty ordinary.” A separate seed-stage investor pointed to Fred Wilson’s recent blogpost “Cash on Cash vs IRR,” alluding to the idea that holding periods can skew fund performance data.

Still, Reach’s returns offer an impressive window into how one of the most diverse partnerships in venture capital is performing within one of the most revitalized sectors in startupland. The momentum isn’t going unnoticed. Filings show that Reach is raising money for a $50 million opportunity fund. The company has been on a hiring spree as of late, too, bringing on Jomayra Herrera from Cowboy Ventures as a partner and Tony Wan from EdSurge as head of investor content.

Quizlet plans for IPO over a year after hitting unicorn status

Quizlet, a flashcard tool turned artificial intelligence-powered tutoring platform, is planning an initial public offering nearly a year after it was valued at $1 billion. According to people familiar with the matter, Quizlet is considerably far along in the process to go public. A recent job filing shows that it is hiring for senior roles to “help build the financial systems and processes as we move towards an IPO.”

In an email to TechCrunch, the San Francisco-based edtech startup declined to comment. Quizlet hasn’t said much about its revenue specifics or if it’s profitable. Last year, the still-private startup claimed it was growing revenue 100% annually. On its website, Quizlet says that it has 60 million monthly learners, up 10 million learners compared to its 2018 totals.

Quizlet has built a large-scale business around simple to share and simple to use products. Its free flashcard maker helps students spin up study guides on topics to prepare for exams. Those insights fuel Quizlet Plus, the startup’s subscription product that charges $47.88 a year for access to more features, including tutoring services.

Quizlet’s tutoring arm, also known as Quizlet Learn, is the company’s most popular offering, per CEO Matthew Glotzbach. As a student goes through the system, Quizlet Learn consistently assesses students to see where they are making mistakes — and where they are making progress.

“It obviously doesn’t yet replace and can’t come anywhere close to replacing a human, but it can provide that guidance and point you in the right direction and help you spend your time in the right places,” he said. “Just even helping you set goals is such a critical step in learning.”

Most recently, Quizlet announced the launch of explanations, a feature that offers a step-by-step solution guide for problem sets from popular textbooks. The feature is “written and verified by experts” and is aimed to help “students better understand the reasoning and thought process behind study questions so they can practice and apply their learnings on their own,” it said in a statement. It also reclaimed the Q from its less fortunate predecessor, amid an entire rebrand.

Quizlet’s quiet march toward the public markets has been slow yet steady. The startup was founded in 2005 by a 15-year-old, Andrew Sutherland. It was fully bootstrapped until 2015. Glotzbach, who was previously an executive at YouTube, then joined in 2016. The startup still doesn’t appear to have a CFO, which is rare for companies that are going public.

Quizlet has raised a majority of its $62 million in venture capital under Glotzbach. Now, investors in the company include General Atlantic, Owl Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Altos Ventures.

Quizlet’s pursuit of the public markets comes as other edtech companies are proving the market’s reception to the sector. Duolingo, for example, is another consumer-focused education company, albeit one that focuses on one vertical versus Quizlet’s choice to stay broad. Duolingo went public in July, and is currently trading above its open price at $169.75 per share.

 

Leap Finance raises $55 million to help Indian students study abroad, plans international expansion

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults get on flights each year from India to a foreign land to pursue higher education. Upon landing, they face myriad challenges. One big one: They don’t have a local credit history, so they can’t avail a range of financial services, including a loan or a credit card — at least not without paying a premium for it.

For banks and other financial institutions, there is an increased risk when they engage with foreigners, so they charge more. An Indian student studying in the U.S., for instance, borrows money at an interest rate of over 13%, nearly twice of what their local peers are charged.

Leap Finance, a two-and-a-half-year old startup with headquarters in San Francisco and Bangalore, is attempting to solve this problem — and many others. The startup, which sits at the intersection of fintech and edtech, grants loans to students at a fair interest rate by evaluating the data they generated — alternative and derived — in India itself.

But in recent years, Leap Finance has aggressively expanded its offerings to provide what it calls a broader infrastructure to enable students to pursue international higher education.

The startup is helping students with guidance on admission, visas, and test preparation. Leap has developed a community of over 1 million students where they advise each other and explore options. Leap Finance said it has helped over 60,000 students in their study abroad journey over the last 18 months — and just had its strongest fall season.

And as is common in the startup ecosystem, such growth is usually followed by strong interest from investors. Which brings us to the development the startup shared on Wednesday.

Leap Finance has announced it has raised $55 million in a new financing round led by Owl Ventures. The Series C round also saw participation from Harvard Management Company, more popularly known for being a high-profile LP to venture funds. Existing investors Sequoia Capital India and Jungle Ventures also participated in the round, which follows a Series B funding in March this year, and brings Leap Finance’s all-time raise to over $75 million.

Vaibhav Singh (left) and Arnav Kumar founded Leap Finance in 2019 (Leap Finance)

Since we last spoke about Leap Finance, the startup has demonstrated strong growth on various fronts, said Arnav Kumar, co-founder of Leap Finance, in an interview with TechCrunch. Its community has grown, the test preparation app is increasingly becoming popular, and its core financial services has also surged, he said.

On top of this, the startup has expanded its offerings to help students with preparing for — and landing — internships when they do join a college abroad, solving another aspect in which they struggle.

Now with the new funding, the startup is planning to expand to serve international markets including Middle East and Southeast Asia and help the students pursue higher education in 20 nations, said Kumar, who previously worked as an associate vice president at venture fund Elevation Capital.

“Leap is on the trajectory to become the preeminent study abroad platform for students. The overseas education market is fragmented where there is no single one-stop solution,” said Amit Patel, Managing Director of Owl Ventures, in a statement.

“It can be very confusing for students to know where to begin preparation, what colleges they should target, and how they are going to afford to pay for their education. Leap is creating a comprehensive platform that addresses all of these preparation and financing needs for students. Owl Ventures is excited to deepen our partnership with Vaibhav, Arnav, and the Leap team to make studying abroad a reality for as many students as possible.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Online learning platform Class 101 bags $26M Series B to support growth

Everything is switching from offline to online mode, spurred by the pandemic, and that also has turned around things for the creative economy. Creative professionals continue to look for ways to monetize their talents and knowledge through online education platforms like Class 101 that bring stable incomes and improve opportunities.

Class 101, a Seoul-based online education platform, announced today it has closed $25.8 million (30 billion won) Series B funding to accelerate its growth in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

The Series B round was led by Goodwater Capital, with additional participation from previous backers Strong Ventures, KT Investment, Mirae Asset Capital and Klim Ventures.

In 2019, the company raised a $10.3 million (12 billion won) Series A round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia along with Mirae Asset Venture Investment, KT Investment, Strong Ventures and SpringCamp.

Co-founder and CEO of Class 101 Monde Ko told TechCrunch that the company will use the proceeds to focus on hiring more talent, as well as expanding domestic business and overseas markets in the U.S. and Japan.

Ko and four other co-founders established Class 101 in 2018, which was pivoted from a tutoring service platform that was founded in 2015, Ko said. It has 350 employees now.

“We will keep supporting creators to monetize their talents and we will also allow creators to expand their revenue streams by selling their goods, digital files and more products via our platform,” Ko said.

When asked about what differentiated it from other peers, Class 101 provides and ships all the necessary tools and material “Class Kit”, Ko said.

The company offers more than 2,000 classes within a raft of categories, with drawing, crafts, photography, cooking, music and more. It also provides about 230 classes in the U.S. and 220 classes in Japan. There are approximately 100,000 registered creators and 3 million registered users as of August 2021.

Class 101 launched its platform in the U.S. in 2019 and entered Japan last year. The company opened online classes for kids aged under 14 in 2020.

“Class 101 is a company that combines the advantages of Patreon and YouTube, offering tailored support for creators while fulfilling users’ learning needs,” co-founder and managing partner at Goodwater Capital Eric Kim said, adding that it is the fastest growing company “in an economic phenomenon in which individuals follow their passions and do what they really enjoy while also making a living from it.”

Panorama raises $60M in General Atlantic-led Series C to help schools better understand students

Panorama Education, which has built out a K-12 education software platform, has raised $60 million in a Series C round of funding led by General Atlantic.

Existing backers Owl Ventures, Emerson Collective, Uncork Capital, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Tao Capital Partners also participated in the financing, which brings the Boston-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $105 million.

Panorama declined to reveal at what valuation the Series C was raised, nor did it provide any specific financial growth metrics. CEO and co-founder Aaron Feuer did say the company now serves 13 million students in 23,000 schools across the United States, which means that 25% of American students are enrolled in a district served by Panorama today. 

Over 50 of the largest 100 school districts and state agencies in the country use its platform. In total, more than 1,500 school districts are among its customers. Clients include the New York City Department of Education, Clark County School District in Nevada, Dallas ISD in Texas and the Hawaii Department of Education, among others.

Since March 2020, Panorama has added 700 school districts to its customer base, nearly doubling the 800 it served just 18 months prior, according to Feuer.

Just what does Panorama do exactly? In a nutshell, the SaaS business surveys students, parents and teachers to collect actionable data. Former Yale graduate students Feuer and Xan Tanner started the company in an effort to figure out the best way for schools to collect and understand feedback from their students.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to many students attending school virtually, the need to address students’ social and emotional needs has probably never been more paramount. Many children and teenagers have suffered depression and anxiety due to being isolated from their peers, and some believe the impact on their mental health has been even greater than any negative academic repercussions.

Students, for example, are asked questions to determine how safe they feel at school, how much they trust their teachers and how much potential they think they have.

“We help schools survey students, teachers and parents to understand the environment and experiences of the school,” Feuer told TechCrunch. “And then we help schools measure social and emotional development so that in the same way you might have rigorous data on math, you can now get information about social emotional learning and well-being.”

In the past year, for example, 25 million people across the country have taken a Panorama survey, which has resulted in quite a bit of information. The company is able to integrate with all of a district’s existing data systems so that it can pull together a “panorama” of its data, plus the information about a student.

“It’s really powerful because a teacher can then log in and see everything about a student in one place,” Feuer said. “But most importantly, we give teachers the tools to plan actions for a student.”

The company claims that by using its software, districts can see benefits such as improved graduation rates, fewer behavior referrals, more time engaged in learning and students building “stronger supportive relationships with adults and peers.”

Panorama plans to use its new capital toward continued product development, further deepening its district partnerships and naturally, toward hiring. Panorama currently has about 250 employees.

Notably, Panorama had not raised capital in a couple of years simply because, according to Feuer, it did not need the money.

“We met General Atlantic and realized the opportunity to reach the next level of impact for our schools,” he told TechCrunch. “But it was important to me that we didn’t need to raise the money. We chose to because we want to be able to invest in the business.”

Tanzeen Syed, managing director at General Atlantic, said edtech has been an important area of focus for this firm.

“When we looked at the U.S. education system, we thought that there was a massive opportunity and that we’re in the very early innings of using software and technology to really enhance the student experience,” he said.

When it came to Panorama, he believes “it’s not just a business” for the company.

“They truly and deeply care about providing students and administrators with the tools to make the student experience better,” Syed told TechCrunch. “And they’re maniacally focused on developing the sort of product to allow them to do that. In addition to that, we spoke with a lot of schools and districts and the feedback came back consistently positive.”

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 2

From beaming actors into the class room to plucking things out of space, the second day of Y Combinator’s S21 Demo Day was a fresh snapshot of what nearly 200 startup teams believe is the future of innovation.

Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go “oh wait, what’s this?”

Spark Studio

My experience with Indian culture is that it has a long history of valuing math and science over any other subject, which is why Spark Studio’s twist on online enrichment was refreshing. The YC company offers live, extracurricular learning classes for kids in Indian households — with a twist: The classes are about music, art and communication. As seen by the success of Outschool, small-group classes for school-going children can be a scalable way to supplement traditional education. Spark Studio is selling to kids between the ages of 5 to 15, which are highly impressionable, exploratory years.

Growing up, I was the only kid in my predominantly Indian family friend group who didn’t gravitate toward STEM. There were no services, other than the local library, to quench my interest in writing and reading. A service like Spark, if it gains the trust of parents, has the potential to make currently unconventional interests more conventional. And with over 400 students, and less than 2% churn, Spark Studio has early inklings it may be onto something. — Natasha

Litnerd

Image Credits: Litnerd

The best books don’t feel like homework, they feel like trips into another universe and hangouts with characters that could be friends. Litnerd is trying to scale the feeling of immersive, engaging text to millions of students, while also encouraging better literacy and habit-forming skills. The startup has works read and enacted by actors, making classroom reading into a more entertaining experience for school-age children.

NoRedInk raises $50 million Series B to help students become better writers

“In order to become a better writer, read your written words out loud.”

That’s one of the first, and best, writing tips I ever received. I always found the advice ironic because it required me to change the medium of my writing to become a better writer. Still, all these years later, it’s true: Vocalizing your words helps identify typos and incomplete thoughts, but also notice more subtle things like awkward turns of phrases or a weird rhythm in your sentence structure. Best of all, if you find yourself bored of your own text while reading out loud, you know readers will be, too.

This is all to say that writing, even for those who love writing, is a deeply human art built on top of non-obvious rules. While those complications don’t exactly scream for a tech solution, NoRedInk, a San Francisco-based startup, has spent nearly a decade trying to help students get better at their writing through software.

NoRedInk announced today that its digital writing curriculum, which pairs adaptive learning with Mad Libs-style prompts, has helped it raise a $50 million Series B led by Susquehanna Growth Equity, with participation from True Ventures. Other investors in the company include GSV, Rethink Education and Kapor Capital.

The financing event comes nearly six years after its Series A, a signal that the company has ambition to scale meaningfully in the coming months and years. With millions more, though, NoRedInk has to address its biggest challenge: the intricacies of the subject matter that it wants to make simple.

Founder and CEO Jeff Scheur built NoRedInk in 2012 when he was an English teacher in Chicago. The site served as a way to help kids get more than “red ink” on their papers, a nod at how teachers often use red ink to mark corrections and suggestions on assignments.

“Kids get feedback on their paper and they have no idea what to do with it,” Scheur said. “They see the grade, but they tend to just throw it out … so I started building tools to figure out how to help [students] apply very difficult to learn skills that we expect kids to know, but don’t explicitly teach them.”

Since launch, NoRedInk’s goal is to help students with writing skills ranging from how to structure an essay to how to cut fluff from their arguments to how to cite correctly.

Image Credits: NoRedInk

“One of the great challenges about teaching writing is that we want to demystify the process of becoming a great writer without reducing the art form of expression,” he said. “So that means providing kids with lots of targeted personalized practice, and helping them realize that there’s no one way to write.”

It thus makes sense that NoRedInk uses adaptive learning, an educational method that uses an algorithm to get inputs of learners, such as strength areas or preferences, to create an output that better meets them where they are. After asking students for their favorite characters and role models, NoRedInk creates personalized writing exercises targeting each student’s interests, then guides them through the writing process with light support.

noredink

Image Credits: NoRedInk

Scheur described part of the goal of NoRedInk as “breaking down difficult to learn skills with various degrees of scaffolding.”

To date, more than 10 billion exercises have been completed on NoRedInk’s practice engine — which is data the company uses to underscore problem areas, shared struggles and potential blind spots of traditional curriculum for its districts.

NoRedInk has a free-but-limited version of its platform for teachers to try, but offers a full-fledged premium version that integrates with learning management systems and other classrooms to offer a school and district a view of progress.

As the business expands, NoRedInk might need to get deeper into drafts in order to win over market share. Will it ever play the role of suggesting tone the way that AI-based grammar and writing unicorn Grammarly does? For now, it appears not.

“Grammarly is a great consumer app, it’s a modern-day version of Grammar spellcheck that Microsoft Word did all those years ago,” Scheur said. “NoRedInk is very different; it’s what schools and districts use to teach skills.”

KaiPod Learning thinks ‘learning pods’ are here to stay

Since launch, “learning pods” have been controversial in the world of edtech. The term, somewhat synonymous with micro-schools, pandemic pods and small-group learning, describes small clusters of children within the same age range who are paired with a private instructor with the goal of replacing, or supplementing, school learning.

The concept took off last year as working parents looked for a way to supplement their children’s video-based school days with more engaging, personalized material. Some edtech entrepreneurs predicted that the trend would usher in a new wave of homeschooled children, which would disproportionately favor affluent families that could afford pod-learning to begin with. Tyton Partners estimates that 7 million students were enrolled in supplemental learning pods last year, which drove $12 billion in new spend.

Now, nearly a year after the first pods popped up, one startup coming out of Y Combinator has a fresh take on the role that the emerging learning model plays in schooling. KaiPod Learning, founded by the former chief product officer of Pearson Online Learning, Amar Kumar, recently launched its learning pod service that aims to connect homeschooled children with in-person, supplemental learning pods.

The Boston-based startup wants to be the go-to platform for online learners and learning pod families to get in-person interactions into their curriculum. The startup is starting by targeting homeschooling families in need of a boost to refresh existing curriculum.

KaiPod begins by helping parents pick the best online school for their child, whether it’s through a virtual micro-school like Sora Schools or a homeschooling program set up by locals. This process makes sure that students get access to a replacement from a traditional school that still meets core standards. Then, KaiPod tries to serve as a co-working space of sorts for any child that is going through the online school.

“We know we can’t do socialization as well in the cloud, we can’t do childcare as well in the cloud, and those are some of the things that parents look to schools for,” Kumar said. “And the fact that we got rid of them by moving everything online shows you that our priorities weren’t in the right place.”

Students are invited to come to a KaiPod center near them where they will interact with learning coaches, a role that Kumar defines as part-time teacher, part-time camp counselor.

The coaches are there to help through online coursework, while also leading enrichment activities meant to give the social edge back to the school day. Learning coaches are juggling a variety of curriculums within their centers, which could be a quality assurance challenge as KaiPod scales.

In the broadest sense, KaiPod is helping students in virtual school go to physical school, but this time with more flexibility and diversity when it comes to what the day looks like. For example, one kid may be following an entirely different curriculum than another; which means the physical space won’t be used for, say, a lecture, but may be used for a Socratic-style seminar that motivates children to share their separate learnings.

A WeWork for education?

Kumar thinks it’s a more inclusive approach to pods because it takes care of childcare along with education. The centers are open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Kumar pointed to Kumon as an example of how out of school, supplemental models can lead to academic enrichment. Kumon began as one-off centers, and eventually took over the franchise model until it became one of the largest after- school tutoring companies in the global market.

A non-insignificant part of KaiPod’s success depends on if homeschooling is here to stay, beyond the pandemic bump of interest. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that the percent of homeschool households in the United States tripled between 2020 to 2021, but the numbers don’t entirely reflect how the return to school will change those metrics.

In the meantime, KaiPod Learning ran an eight-student pilot program in Boston this year. Kumar said that one learning coach identified the early signs of a potential learning disability in a middle-schooler during a game, a sign he thinks illustrates how a small-group format helps instructors “engage with students in more ways than just didactic teaching.” KaiPod plans to open up five to seven more centers in the next few months.

“As we generate more awareness, we think entrepreneurs in other states will want to open centers using our playbook (à la franchise model) and we can power them through our technology layer [which is] affectionately code-named ‘KaiPod OS’, ” Kumar said. The locations of centers could show who KaiPod is selling to, as well as if families come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“At this point I have no interest in becoming WeWork for education, or anything like that,” he said. “Think of the centers as convenient areas where families can drop off their kids, stop in and see how the pod is doing.”