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Guest Author: Anokhee Mepani, Founder of Learn to Love, a nonprofit that delivers education & healthcare to differently-abled children in need in India

On a warm Wednesday evening in early June, over 200 investors and edtech industry leaders came to District Hall for LearnLaunch’s third cohort’s “coming out” party. The evening began with some cookies and mingling, and ended with some wine and more mingling, with quite a bit in between.

The event’s emcee, Christopher Mirabile (Co-Managing Director of Launchpad Venture Group and Chair-Elect of the Angel Capital Association), made clear the cohort’s perseverance and dedication to education when he reminded us just how special the cohort was. Each startup began just days after Boston was hit with 21 inches of snow, and later a total of 75 more inches. Yet not a single company let that delay their progress; each team worked tirelessly day in and day out, regardless of the weather. And their hard work showed brilliantly when they got up on stage and told their story.

Before the stars of the show took over, keynote speaker Secretary of Education Jim Peyser reminded us all that though Massachusetts has the highest performing public education system in the country, we still have a lot of work to do. He cautioned that success can foster a sense of complacency, but though we have seen great success in Massachusetts, we can never be complacent when it comes to education. Throughout his more than 12 years in education reform, he has never believed in technology for technology’s sake. Rather, targeted and specific uses of technology to provide new, better, and cheaper instructional models and school designs for students is the way edtech with transform education.

After Jim Peyser left us inspired about the potential and future of edtech, Matt Greenfield of Rethink Education and Bill Collatos of Spectrum Equity duked it out in a “boxing match” on the state of the edtech industry today, with LearnLaunch Co-Founder Vinit Nijwahan as the referree. The two greats discussed their investment theses when looking at early stage (Rethink Education) and growth stage (Spectrum Equity) edtech companies, the other investors and seed capital out in the market, exit opportunities, and the difficulty of investing in a hot IPO market. Both gentlemen acknowledged the obstacles edtech startups faced when trying to raise money, but were optimistic that funding would continue to flow in coming years.

After 15 rounds of edtech talk both men were declared champions. Next up were the stars: the six edtech startups in the LearnLaunch accelerator. The demos highlighted three clear themes:

  1. Edtech is not just for the classroom

Knowledge to Practice improves patient-centered care through personalized, master-based postgraduate medical education. CEO Mary Ellen Beliveau asked the 200+ investors in the room how far the distance is between a medical breakthrough and the implementation of its practice by doctors and caregivers. Turns out, community hospitals are, on average, three years behind medical breakthroughs. That means a life-saving procedure might not make it to a hospital in time to actually save lives when needed. Knowledge to Practice changes that – it’s a system for lifelong learning that helps doctors master these breakthroughs when they happen, not three years later. It’s taking on a total addressable market of 850,000 physicians, and currently the Mayo Clinic is its largest content provider. Knowledge to Practice is transforming how doctors and caregivers master medical breakthroughs and bring them to the patient.

Authess designs and delivers authentic problem-based assessment activities that measure not just what people know, but also how people apply what they know to a given role or problem and how well they do it. Paul Crockett, Authess’ CEO, emphasized that skills are the new standard – a college degree is not enough. Job applicants must be able to fill the gap between knowing something and doing something, and Authess helps them do that at a fraction of the cost of a traditional internship, apprenticeship, or simulation. The platform designs an assessment around a specific problem and learners can demonstrate their understanding and thought process by highlighting the information they deem important and striking out information they deem unnecessary. Learners can then run experiments, correct mistakes, choose their own path to solving the problem, etc. The assessment is dynamic and captures learners’ execution process. The system them compares the learners’ outcomes to research to determine the applicant’s placement on the expertise curve. Authess then shows the learner areas where they can improve, ultimately helping organizations make better hiring decisions and job seekers better candidates.

  1. Each student learns differently, and their education experience should be protected

Education Modified provides teachers with researched-based special needs strategies for each student with different needs. In the U.S., over 6.5 million students have special needs, but only 7.5% of teachers are special-needs certified. Current methods to help differently-abled students are not customized or dynamic, and they cost schools over 20% of their total budget spend. Education Modified changes that by giving teachers a technology platform that delivers research-based strategies for each student, and allows them to track what works for students and what doesn’t, creating a learning bio that can then follow the student throughout time. Johns Hopkins has chosen to work with Education Modified and the company is also piloting with two school districts in the Northeast, giving them exposure to over 145 schools. Education Modified is delivering the first tool that is fully customized for special needs students and truly helps the teacher provide a better educational experience.

Every student learns differently, and information on how they learn should be protected. Pip Learning Technologies has developed the Trust Platform®, which helps school districts manage access to third party systems holding sensitive data and reduces the cost and complexity around student privacy. Schools are asked to keep up with the avalanche of edtech apps and technology without having the staff to truly do so while complying with student privacy laws. Pip Learning Technologies helps these schools manage access to innovation, ensuring that users have a trusted connection to technology without having their data taken. The company has over 60,000 users and continues to grow strong, particularly at the state level.

  1. Most importantly, learning can and should be fun!

Quill is a literacy tool that builds students’ grammar skills through personalized writing and proofreading games. It makes writing fun by having students play interactive games where they can see immediate improvement in their own skills. Quill uses a three-pronged approach to help kids learn writing: first, by building games to engage students in the writing process; second, by building a platform that integrates the games and allows teachers to see students’ progress and learning outcomes as aligned with the Common Core standards; and third, by building a community to include parents and other stakeholders. Since the beginning of this year, Quill has had 86,000 students on their platform complete over 450,000 learning activities, and 50,000 of those kids spent over an hour on the platform. Quill also has a premium version that provides educators with in-depth progress reports on student learning. Clearly, Quill is on the fast-track to making writing fun for students!

NI-O Toys is in the business of fun by creating toys of the future – personalized 3D-printed smart toys that merge with technology to bring interactive play experiences to kids and unleash their imagination. Kids use the Monster Maker to customize their toy. The toy is 3D-printed and embedded with location and movement sensors that interact with apps on tablets and phones. Parents can purchase a smart box, which is the technology that is embedded in the toy, and swap it amongst other “monsters” that their children make and print. Kids can play against each other and have learning experiences along the way. NI-O Toys is actively selling into after-school programs and is quickly on its way to making toys exciting again!

After the six startups presented, the excitement was buzzing through the air. Investors were eager to talk to companies and the audience moved to the showcase tables to hear more about the cohort’s progress. Hors d’oeuvres were served and wine was flowing, and it was clear that we were at the forefront of innovation in the heart of Boston, the edtech capital of the world.