Sylvan Learning Acquires Citelighter’s School Contracts and Technology (But Not Its Team)

Sylvan Learning Acquires Citelighter’s School Contracts and Technology (But Not Its Team)

Sylvan Learning, the Hunt Valley, Md.-based operator of a nationwide franchise of tutoring centers, has acquired education technology startup, Citelighter.

Founded in 2011, Citelighter offers a browser-based tool that aims to increase students’ writing competency. The product features a series of scaffolds designed to guide learners through the steps involved in researching, organizing, drafting and editing a writing assignment. (We took a test drive of the tool last year.)

The deal happened through a mutual connection: Emily Levitt, a former Sylvan employee who joined Citelighter as its Vice President of Curriculum in Jan. 2014. She returned to Sylvan in July 2016 as its Vice President of Education. At that time Sylvan was revamping its writing program, and the company’s in-house language arts expert vetted eight digital products—including Citelighter, which won out. The tool was then piloted in several of Sylvan’s corporate-owned tutoring centers.

Then a few months ago, Sylvan made an “offer that was really good,” says Saad Alam, Citelighter’s co-founder and CEO. Neither he nor Levitt disclosed financial terms of the transaction, but she clarified that the acquisition covers only the company’s technology and school contracts—not its employees.

Citelighter’s office has already closed, according to Baltimore Business Journal. Only one customer support staff will join Sylvan; the company is still in talks with Citelighter’s overseas software development team about bringing them onboard. At one point the company boasted more than 40 employees.

Selling a tool designed for and tested in schools to an after-school tutoring center is an unusual exit for an edtech startup. Yet Sylvan is no stranger to digital technology. In 2012 it launched an iPad app, SylvanSync, that instructors use to deliver lessons and assessments to students, and report updates to families. Recently Sylvan also partnered with companies such as mobile education app developer Fingerprint, along with KnowRe, a startup that offers a digital math program.

Also less publicly known are services that Sylvan sells directly to schools, including a K-8 math and reading remediation program, Ace it!.

This summer, Citelighter will be among the tools used in a new Sylvan research writing program for high school students in its Baltimore and Boston centers. Assuming that goes well, the product will be available across Sylvan’s franchise network of more than 750 tutoring centers next year.

As part of this acquisition, Sylvan will take over Citelighter’s existing contracts with schools in 45 districts. The writing tool will be among the products that Sylvan’s school contract team will try to sell to new and existing customers.

Alam says he and his co-founder, Lee Jokl will remain in the area and take the next 30-45 days to mull over next steps. Another education venture may be in the works; healthcare is also another option.

Among the important lessons they learned along the company’s six-year-journey is that “institutional K-12 sales moves slower than anticipated by the venture capital pace. You have to understand what the seasonality of sales looks like,” reflects Alam. In addition he says, “there is a very specific workflow in today’s classrooms, and you have to make sure your product doesn’t require a tremendous amount of additional support and learning for students and teachers.”

The Citelighter product may be a better fit in Sylvan’s tutoring centers, where there is a much smaller student-to-teacher ratio (usually 3:1) than in most classrooms. “In order to really help students organize their thoughts and be better writers, you need to spend an extraordinary amount of time,” he says.

This transaction would “absolutely not” have happened anywhere besides Baltimore, adds Alam, which “has been absolutely crucial in providing an educational ecosystem around us that provide us support and mentoring.” Much of the company’s $7.1 million in venture capital came from local education investors including Frank Bonsal Jr. and John Cammack, along with groups such as Baltimore Angels, Propel Baltimore Fund and TEDCO, an investment fund supported by the state of Maryland.

Tony Wan (@tonywan) is Managing Editor at EdSurge. He was named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in Education in 2014.

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