A new accelerator is cleared for takeoff.
Joe Vasquez, Runway’s Manager of Partnerships and Strategy, announced the upcoming launch of the Runway-Michelson EdTech Accelerator, at the December 15 panel “The Great Debate: The Role of Tech in Shaping 21st Century Classrooms” at Runway. Runway, an incubator and coworking space with a current class of 85 startups in downtown San Francisco, has partnered with the Michelson 20MM Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to promote affordability of and access to postsecondary education, to focus on for-profit higher education innovations. Applications may open January 2016, though the final date awaits the accelerator's formal debut. The accelerator will accept five companies.
The accelerator offers a four-month collaborative program, accounting and other services, access to Runway’s partners and mentors and a guaranteed investment of $25,000, which will come from the foundation. Companies in the accelerator will be required to work at Runway for some part of the four months. The accelerator's team believes that companies will benefit most from relocating to San Francisco for at least two months.
The companies will also have the opportunity to conduct proof of concept pilots at higher education institutions under the review of third party researchers, who will not associated with either the company or the institutions. The institutions, in return for their partnerships, will have a say in determining the problems the accelerator's investments aim to solve, which may influence which companies the accelerator selects. The California State University System has already signed up for the program, though not all the individual colleges have done so, according to the foundation's representatives.
The culminating moment of the accelerator will be twofold: A demo day and a symposium of policymakers, companies and higher education institutions. During the symposium, the startups in the accelerator and their partner institutions will share the problems identified in the study that they intend to solve. Vasquez and the foundation's representatives hope that the research from the pilot programs, which will be made publicly available, will benefit the public regardless of whether the startups take off.
The founders are in search of “innovations in postsecondary education technology,” as Vasquez called it, that promote equity and access to higher education in marginalized communities. He listed low-income, minority, and first-generation students as examples. The foundation defines "postsecondary" as both education at the college level and adult education of all levels.
Many elements of the program remain open and undetermined. The accelerator is not focusing on any one type of technology. Investments will take the form of a SAFE, a "simple investment for future equity." The foundation will invest in companies and receive equity at a later date in connection with an event or milestone. Investors use SAFEs as alternatives to a convertible note.
A website does not appear in a Google search for “Runway-Michelson Accelerator,” but there is an open application form for a pilot study grant.
Gary Michelson, the Los Angeles billionaire surgeon who founded and funded the 20MM Foundation, hopes to "promote collaboration between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors...by supporting social entrepreneurs," the foundation's representatives said. According to Vasquez, the foundation also aims to make use of Runway’s Silicon Valley connections through the accelerator. One of the Michelson Foundation's first initiatives is OpenStax, a free college textbook provider, to which the foundation has granted $1.3 million as of February 2015. OpenStax, according to the foundation, "itself has benefitted from collaboration with startup companies from Silicon Valley." The foundation wanted to expand the positive effects of that investment on a wider scale.
Both Michelson and Vasquez hope that the accelerator will facilitate a more open conversation in education technology. “Our goal with the symposium is to have all these separate silos of edtech talking to one another," Vasquez said. "That’s where the real innovation happens."
Update, December 21, 2015: Interested parties can subscribe to the Runway-Michelson Accelerator's email list for announcements from the team.
Correction, December 20, 2015: An earlier version of this article stated that the accelerator did not give a specific definition for “postsecondary,” that the business model was undecided, that the companies were required to relocate for two months and that the accelerator would not end with a demo day.