Jeffersonian Meritocracy: A New Accelerator for Edtech Research

Jeffersonian Meritocracy: A New Accelerator for Edtech Research


First announced in September 2013, the Jefferson Education Accelerator (JEA) is officially open for business.

Unlike other edtech accelerators, which focus on helping early-stage entrepreneurs refine their minimum viable products, JEA is a “research accelerator” that helps companies validate the efficacy of their products.

Its “Declaration of Interdependence” highlights the role that academics and researchers can play to surface the most effective tools in the education marketplace. According to the website, it’s designed for “companies that value merit over marketing.”

“Every edtech company at some point needs some proof that it does what it says,” says founding CEO, Bart Epstein, who was previously a chief strategy officer at (which was acquired by IAC in 2012). “But the process of showing that proof--that’s a highly specialized set of research skills that most entrepreneurs do not have.”

Many startups run A/B tests that involve a control group and a variable group using the tool, and compare pre-test and post-test scores to determine efficacy. “These kinds tests are perfectly appropriate for informing product development decisions, but they’re probably not the basis on which a district should make a multi-million decision,” says Epstein.

Unlike the consumer marketplace, where simply getting someone to buy a product is often considered a signal of its “efficacy,” schools and districts too often find themselves locked in expensive, long-term contracts for tools that don’t deliver.

Companies that apply to the accelerator must have a strong idea around what tests and proof points they want. If accepted into the accelerator, JEA and the companies will negotiate a fee in the form of company equity based on the duration and complexity of the desired research. (Epstein estimates it will usually be around 6 to 8 percent.)

JEA will then play the role of matchmaker and help the company set up its experiment with universities or K-12 districts interested in piloting the tool. Each school, Epstein adds, will be properly vetted to ensure they are properly equipped with the proper technical infrastructure and staffed with trained educators.

Figuring out the environments where a tool works well--and those where it doesn’t--is also important. There’s often a mistaken notion that an edtech product is objectively “good” or “bad,” without understanding the context in which it was implemented. To this extent, Epstein says the program will find matches not just on a specific topical focus (like STEM or literacy) but also other variables like income levels and demographics.

Each company’s experiment can run from six weeks to six months, depending on the complexity and scale. It will be overseen by a researcher, either from the University of Virginia or one of JEA’s partnering universities. Data and results will be validated by an academic review board from University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. And--perhaps most importantly--JEA intends to make research results public.

Participating companies are not required to relocate to Virginia, where JEA is headquartered. But unlike most edtech accelerators and incubators, JEA will only accept more mature companies with at least $1 million in annual revenues, says Esptein. For its first year, JEA is looking to work with up to eight companies.

In addition to serving as CEO of the accelerator, Epstein will also serve as Managing Director of the Jefferson Education Fund, which may invest in participating companies “that look promising and show good results,” he says. The fund is looking to co-invest, but not lead, financing rounds.

Also on his team is Brien Walton, who will serve as Chief Investment Officer of the accelerator and Lead Portfolio Manager of the fund. Walton was previously founding CEO of the Education Design Studio, Inc., an edtech incubator affiliated with University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education, will be chairman of the accelerator’s board.

So far the accelerator has raised $11 million from the Curry School Foundation, alumni from the University of Virginia and USA Funds. Some proceeds from the accelerator and fund will go toward supporting Curry School Foundation. (The accelerator and fund is a separate entity from the University of Virginia.)

In addition to setting a high bar for transparency around efficacy, Epstein believes JEA can also encourage universities step outside their comfort zones. “Traditionally schools of education view themselves as responsible for teacher training and research, but we feel strongly that they should also apply their expertise to directly evaluate specific products and services in the marketplace.”

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