This September, the newly formed Jefferson Education Accelerator will join the ranks of emerging edtech incubators. Supported by the Curry School of Education Foundation, the Jefferson Education Accelerator will take full advantage of its connections to faculty at University of Virginia and other universities to provide research and mentoring services to growth stage edtech companies.
Leading the charge is founding CEO Bart Epstein, formerly senior vice president and general manager at Tutor.com, who describes the accelerator as the “finishing school for education companies.”
Recognizing that growth stage companies have different needs, Epstein chose not to replicate the typical incubator model, where startups receive $15K to $30K in exchange for equity, attend a series of on-site workshops and programs, and conclude with a demo day pitch in front of investors.
“Each engagement will be uniquely structured to determine the specific research and support needs of that company,” explains Epstein. “Some younger startups may simply need a researcher to review their internal data over a 6-week period while others may be ready for a gold standard, double-blind classic research study.” Companies may apply on a rolling basis and most will exchange equity for participation in the accelerator; funding details have not been disclosed.
“There’s an emerging decision-making structure in education where impact and evidence will matter even more as we get better at knowing what works,” argues Robert C. Pianta, Dean at the UVA Curry School of Education. “As a school of education,” he explains, “we have an obligation to help shape how purchasing and implementation decisions are made so that teachers have better tools in their classrooms.”
“The current edtech market too often relies on who has the most successful marketing and relationships with schools,” argues Epstein, who wants schools to have enough information to make decisions based more on merit. With a focus on research and gathering evidence, Epstein believes the Jefferson Education Accelerator will offer opportunities that other programs don’t.
But this emphasis doesn’t mean the accelerator will ignore the realities of doing business. The University of Virginia has a history of exploring the connection between research, innovation and commercialization in multiple fields, Pianta points out. Successful edtech alumni include PALS (founded in 1997), CaseNEX (2001) and Teachstone (2008).
The past year has seen other tweaks to the traditional incubator model: Imagine K12 shifted to a rolling application, extended the incubation period to 12 months, and increased funding from $20,000 to $100K (while maintaining a 3-month residential component from September through December).
Other universities have spun out tweaks on the education incubator model as well. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education announced its inaugural group of edtech companies for its Education Design Studio. The University of Toronto is host to the MaRS-supported UTEST incubator. Johns Hopkins University’s fee-based evaluation program now includes shorter evaluation studies in response to the growing need for more rapid feedback. Towson University, in Maryland, recently hired edtech investor, Frank Bonsal III, as Director of Entrepreneurship of the TU Global Incubator to encourage more edtech startups. It also removed a residency requirement and is offering its targeted mentoring services to all edtech companies across the state, even those in other incubators.
The Curry School of Education Foundation and yet-to-be-announced partners are taking the long view and raising enough initial funds to seed a self-sustaining model that won’t feel the impact of external economic swings. The hope is that in five to seven years, these companies will begin to share returns back to the accelerator to fuel the next generation of promising companies. Eventually Epstein hopes to raise philanthropic funds to support non-profit organizations participating in the accelerator as well as companies.
In addition to funding for the accelerator, Epstein says an affiliated edtech investment fund is being raised that seeks to invest in the “best of the best of edtech,” both inside and outside of the Jefferson Education Accelerator.