Embracing Schools as Customers

Often times the various demo days and edtech press all tends to blur together in a cloud of buzz words (a la adaptive platforms, flipped classroom), however, Imagine K12’s recent batch of edtech startups sounded distinctly different. With 13 teams presenting, one of their largest batches to-date, there was a noticeable shift in tone as many of the startups were not afraid to say they are selling to schools and are actually generating revenue. From the “ramen profitable” startup DeansList kicking off the day to YC and Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education closing the show sharing they have “4,500 schools using their product, all of which are paying customers.”

As someone who has been following and working in this space for the past few years, hearing these stats are a welcome change. This not only indicates that the investor side of the ecosystem has matured and has a better understanding of the K12 market, but it also demonstrates that more and more schools are deciding to purchase and pilot new edtech tools.

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As for the teams themselves, the pragmatist in me likes more enterprise oriented startups like SchoolMint, while the optimistic side is drawn to efforts like Kodable. SchoolMint’s appeal comes from the basic idea that they are saving schools/admins hundreds of hours by digitizing a process that is currently entirely offline. (And the fact they are already on track to $100k annual revenue is a sign they are addressing a real pain point for schools.) Similar to another IK12 alum, Chalk Schools, these products seem obvious and I think in several years we’ll look back and wonder why schools took so long to adopt these more streamlined and efficient systems.

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Kodable believes that even before kids learn to read they can learn the basic elements of programming. My 3.5 year old and I have tried out the app and I hope more schools and parents will find engaging ways like this to introduce loops and conditional statements to their kids. Kudos to Imagine K12 and the teams for kicking off the year on this impressive note.

My so-coding life

Just over the past few weeks I’ve read about several initiatives to help teach anyone basic coding skills.  As I work on my second lesson from Code Year (Week 2: functions in javascript), my mind wanders back to the few CS classes I took in undergrad almost 10 years ago and I’m seriously impressed by how much easier and accessible this content is for anyone who wants to learn to code. (The desire to learn is a big part and I’ll come back to this.) In just about a week, over 350,000 people signed up for the CodeYear program, designed by the Codecademy team (the darling of the most recent YC batch) that raised $2.5M just a couple months after launching last August. (Those growth numbers are amazing and Fred Wilson does a great job outlining some of the factors that contributed to those sign-ups.)

Adding to that buzz, Codecademy announced an abbreviated version of Code Year, CodeSummer+, in partnership with the White House and their Summer Jobs+ Program to “ provide pathways to employment for low-income and disconnected youth in the summer of 2012.” It is wonderful to see the various startups and government officials that are coming together to build off this momentum and create resources & programs that are needed in schools & communities across the country. However, I think the more important points of this announcement are the offline meetups and Q&A forums. While delivering content online is efficient, scalable and allows for self-paced learning, learning is inherently social so these 2 aspects of their program are crucial to reaching the goal of actually teaching people to code. Combining their online content with offline interactions to create a blended learning model is a smart approach that other hot digital learning startups, such as Khan Academy, are developing as well to reach key learning goals.

And speaking of learning goals, I’m curious to see some of the assessments that go along with Code Year to help confirm that I am, in fact, becoming a hacker. (Of course I’m also relying on several other online resources as well as direct instruction from my sometimes not-so-patient hacker husband.)

Back to an earlier point…One of the key drivers to learning anything is interest, so in order for these types of programs to be successful the first step is actually to foster the desire for people to want to code. Coming from the Silicon Valley, it’s fairly obvious to many of us, but convincing a middle/high school student from another environment is slightly more challenging. That is what excites me most about The Academy for Software Engineering, NY’s first public high school that will actually train kids to develop software. Beyond being open to any student that is interested and focusing on diversity in STEM fields, the school is focusing on 9th graders and helping plant the seed of why coding is an important and necessary skill. I believe igniting that interest in 14 year olds is what will truly lead to a world of coders.

And in contributing to that larger teach-the-world-to-code vision and my own personal goals, I should get back to my lesson.

Just StartX It!

StartX, aiming to establish themselves as the “YCombinator of Stanford,” hosted a successful demo day today, leaving standing room only at Annenberg Auditorium. The teams, consisting mainly of Stanford undergrads, grad students and alumni, were chosen out of hundreds of applications and were full of praise for the accelerator program that introduced them to the lingo, mentorship and relationships necessary to launch their startups. The event started with a quick message from Board Member and long time supporter, George Zachary, from Charles River Ventures.

Half of the companies in their portfolio pitched today (see below for a list) and did a great job conveying their energy and enthusiasm. While the teams and product ideas were impressive, I was most excited by the program itself which is explicitly providing educational support to entrepreneurs, encouraging them to explore the unique opportunities available to them as part of the Stanford and Silicon Valley community. One of the speakers captured the theme of the day in their statement, “I know many of you could get a job with Google or Facebook tomorrow, but I highly encourage you to join one of the startups you see here, even as a side project.” I loved the positivity around the program and the overall message to explore entrepreneurship and take advantage of the resources right here in front of you (especially StartX.)

Applications for the next round are due this Wednesday, October 5th and they are aggressively recruiting for staff positions as well.

StartX companies that pitched today (in order of presentation):

  1. Morpheus: creating the first patient-specific airflow simulation software for medical applications.
  2. Kitchit: bridging private chefs and event planners to create personal, in-home fine dining experiences
  3. Modewalk: creating the most emotionally engaging shopping experience online for luxury goods
  4. 6Dot: developing a new portable, easy-to-use braille labeling device based on unique labeling technology
  5. Black Swan Solar: making solar energy cheaper than coal
  6. WifiSlam: enabling a technology for indoor positioning, location based tagging/check-ins in indoor spaces
  7. qWhisper: social search platform that will revolutionize the way people discover and find information from their social graph
  8. HungryTribe: meal planning and nutrition information targeted for corporations to save money on healthcare costs
  9. ClassOwl: online app for students/teachers to create personalized planners
  10. MotionMath: pioneering movement-based learning games for mobile devices
  11. Tactilize: creating the first publishing app for tablets
  12. diffbot: applies computer vision techniques to extract useful metadata from web docs.
  13. Loki Studios: utilizes GPS-enabled mobile devices to bring content-awareness to immersive social gaming
  14. FountainLoop: website and mobile application to help you find campus events and discover nearby friends.
  15. AiryLabs: creating the next generation of social learning games for kids
  16. Gameclosure: multiplatform. multiplayer. HTML5.
  17. Lark: enables the mobile phone to monitor, alert and improve sleep