Guest Post: How Ed Tech is Changing the Boston Startup Scene

 

I moved to Boston in the fall of 2008 to work at The Steppingstone Foundation, a local non-profit focused on educational access. Since I was helping to build a new organization within the non-profit, I set out to meet more people in my field and build up my network. This was very difficult since Greenhorn Connect hadn’t been founded yet. Even finding groups of reform-minded educators was not as easy as I had imagined. I eventually stumbled upon Boston Leaders for the Future of Education (BLFE), an organization geared toward young professionals who were mostly educators passionate about public policy reform.

While this was a wonderful group for networking with educators (full disclosure: I served on the steering committee for 1.5 years), I was surprised that I was meeting a ton of education technology entrepreneurs at other networking events who didn’t know each other. Christina Chase, founder of the video tutorial platform Firehoze, and I casually discussed forming a meet-up group for ed tech entrepreneurs, but I held off for awhile because I wasn’t convinced there were enough people interested in ed tech to make a recurring event worthwhile.

 To my delight, I was terribly wrong. I put together an event, which I dubbed an “EdTechup” in March 2011 at Venture CafĂ©, expecting a handful of people to show up. Over 80 people attended and many were from diverse backgrounds – entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and students. I decided to keep holding the events monthly. They started out very casually – a few people showing up at a bar to have a few drinks and network. After several months, I realized people wanted something more than pure networking so I added content – panel discussions, pitch sessions for entrepreneurs to demo and get feedback, and guest speakers.

As I grew EdTechup, I realized there were a lot of education technology startups in the Boston area (over 150, in fact), and many of them weren’t getting the funding, talent, and users they needed to grow and thrive. About half of them were bootstrapped, 1-2 person companies.

In the summer of 2012, I met with Jean Hammond, an angel investor, and Eileen Rudden, a former Broad Fellow and angel investor, both of whom are passionate about education technology startups. We decided to do something about closing this gap and build off the work I had done at EdTechup and Jean had done with Kids Club, a peer learning group she started for CEOs of startups that market to families. This fall, we formed LearnLaunch, a non-profit focused on building the ed tech ecosystem in New England.

Since LearnLaunch officially launched in early November, we have held classes that address issues ed tech entrepreneurs face or topics they want to understand more in depth. We plan to continue the EdTechup meetups as well. Our next big event is a conference called Across Boundaries: Innovation & The Future of Education, which will take place February 1 and 2 at MIT. The conference will bring together entrepreneurs, educators, investors, and students. We have assembled ed tech leaders from across the country like Matthew Pittinsky who co-founded Blackboard, Inc. and John Katzman who founded The Princeton Review, to discuss the current trends in education technology and how those trends will shape the future of education in America.

I believe this is a fantastic time for entrepreneurs to be starting education technology companies. Education comprises nearly 9% of the GDP, yet many schools are sorely behind when it comes to technology adoption. The good news is that the White House seems to be supportive of innovation – there is even an Office of Educational Technology, run by Richard Culatta, that is currently working on mapping the ed tech landscape in the U.S.

The challenge is getting around all the barriers, such as lack of Wi-Fi in classrooms, slow sales cycles when selling to school districts, and prohibitive school regulations. However, there are many startups in New England like TenMarks Education, AcceptU, and TeenLife that have been able to circumvent these roadblocks by offering freemium models, selling directly to teachers, students, and parents, or monetizing through ads.

Not only is Boston home to some of the biggest publishers like Pearson and Cengage Learning, but also its ecosystem is conducive to starting an ed tech company because it has all the resources an ed tech entrepreneur needs: a huge network of colleges and universities, prominent researchers, a top notch public school system, innovative charter schools, a startup support network, educators who are passionate about reform, and investors who are starting to realize that ed tech is an industry worthy of VC dollars.

I look forward to making Boston an even better city for ed tech entrepreneurs in the coming months. See you at the conference in February. 

Written by Marissa Lowman. Co-Founder and Executive Director at LearnLaunch.