Almost New? New York City's EDGE Edtech Accelerator

Almost New? New York City's EDGE Edtech Accelerator


Here comes another one! New York City has a new edtech accelerator. Tempted to ask—as EdSurge did—do we need it?

For the past two years, Kaplan has supported the Techstars edtech incubator program in New York City. The program has graduated more than 20 companies including Cognotion, Degreed, MentorMob, Newsela, Ranku, Tuva Labs, and UVize. As the cost of supporting Techstars climbed, Kaplan withdrew its support. But former managing director, Don Burton, and long-time entrepreneur and mentor to entrepreneurs, Jonathan D. Harber, who founded Schoolnet, decided to pool their experience, their networks of connections and even some capital to jumpstart what they call the EDGE program.

The EDGE Accelerator will host 10 startups for a three-month program from September to December. Startup teams are eligible for up to $170K in support apiece (a combination of startup funds and convertible debt at the conclusion) in exchange for a 6% equity stake. The first cohort of 10 will set up shop in New York from September through December.

EDGE offers a no-nonsense 47-question application online via F6s, a platform based in London for applying to incubators or seeking investments. Startups will find some of the questions a snap (“How much total revenue has your startup had in its lifetime?”) and others more challenging: How will you find customers? Who will you sell to in the next year? And “Provide a 1-minute video demo of your product,” the admonition that longer videos simply won’t be watched.

Here are excerpts from an interview with EdSurge .

EdSurge: Why are you doing this? Aren’t there enough edtech accelerators already?

Jonathan Harber: Opportunity. If you’re going to do anything in life, you should pick things that are worthwhile to do. There are enough global edtech problems – skill gaps, haves and have not’s– that [education] is a worthwhile thing to spend time doing. Also I feel that if you combine [the opportunities] there are, with the multi-trillion markets that haven’t used technology, that this is an area ripe for tech to transform And we need more talented entrepreneurs. So whatever you want to call this thing, I do believe in starting great edtech companies and in looking for great entrepreneurs.

Don Burton: On the accelerator front, what we’re doing is different. Jonathan’s had decades of experience and relationship, as do I in New York City. As you know, in the education ecosystem, having deep relationships really matter – relationships with the schools, with the publishers – those are the ones that will really help entrepreneurs. That’s what’s different about our accelerator.

EdSurge: What were the biggest achievements of the Kaplan program?

Burton: Every [startup] company has a different profile. They’re at different points in their life cycles. What we did well was to be able to match the companies with right talent and the resources they needed. Figuring out business models is key. [For instance] Degreed ...made a pivot that helped them get into corporate learning, which is where they’re getting good traction. We helped them get to the right people and helped them establish the relationships they needed to build their businesses.

Sure, there may be a million accelerators. But what Jon and I are saying is that what makes a difference is what kind of “wrappers,” what kind of access to the right people, that helps differentiate them. We have those deep relationships.

Harber: I can’t claim any success from Techstars [because he served only as an advisor]. I view EDGE as more than an accelerator--it’s an economic development engine for New York, something that galvanizes jobs in edtech community. Over past year, and in years prior, I’ve worked closely with New York City including with groups like the Partnership for New York City and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Why is it that New York City has largest K12 school district, all the major publishers, great Teachers Colleges, and on and on. Yet people don’t think [edtech] is a viable business in New York City? I view this as a creating of an ecosystem in New York City around education.

Burton: EDGE will be more than accelerator. We’ll have an EDGE studio; we’ll be helping edtech companies from their ideation phase to Series A. We’re not just doing ‘Wham, bam, here’s the accelerator and we’re off.’ We want to provide a level of support from conception until companies hit a $1M in [revenue] run rate.

Structurally, it’s a broader platform than an accelerator.

  1. Beyond one company: We’re looking at a broader consortium of stakeholders, including a large number of [traditional] publishers.
  2. We’re taking seriously the idea that the accelerator is more than a three-month program but instead it’s about building capabilities in the companies. It’s like serious personal training for three months. Like a General Assembly “boot camp” or a mini startup MBA.
  3. We have access to the right relationships. You can’t just hire some VP who doesn’t know anything about education. We get the right access to the right people. That’s a lot of the benefit of the accelerator.

EdSurge: How much money have you raised to support it so far?

Burton: [So far] we’re personally funding it. We have commitments [that can’t yet be disclosed. The goal, Burton says, is to raise an investing war chest of up to $10 million.]

Harber: I haven’t paid much attention to [what other incubators are doing]. I hope they’re successful, too. At end of the day, a company is successful if they have customers and not many companies make it that far. Venture capitalists get a ton of companies that come to them and aren’t ready. That’s why the ecosystem we’re building will help [aspiring companies] to get better.

What Joel [Klein] in New York and Sir Michael Barbar [in London] put into place was atypical. It was more like a state. They almost dismantled a lot of the centralization [of the education bureaucracy]. It was about creating lots of opportunities for individual innovation. It failed in scaling innovation is difficult. I think Chancellor Carmen Fariña is doing tremendous work to bring back some of the structure that will make New York City a more navigable place for edtech companies to succeed.

Burton: There haven’t been as many exits as there could be in the future. There will be lots of opportunities for companies to make a profit and an impact. And when you have impact, you’ll have revenue and profit. Right now education isn’t at that stage yet. We’re at the beginnings of being more effective. The health care industry didn’t have multi-billion-dollar companies 15 to 20 years ago. Now it does. We’re at the beginning of changing education. We think education will follow a similar path [as did the health care industry.]

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