Bankers, Buyers and Warriors: Reporter’s Notebook From the 2017 ASU+GSV Summit

Bankers, Buyers and Warriors: Reporter’s Notebook From the 2017 ASU+GSV Summit

Bankers, lawyers, researchers and policymakers. Administrators, entrepreneurs and the Golden State Warriors. The ASU+GSV Summit, now in its eighth year, has assembled yet another potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders from different walks of life. (We’re kidding about the Warriors, who just happened to be staying at the venue hotel prior to Game 4 of the NBA playoffs.)

Once hailed as a financier’s playground, the Summit has worked hard to attract a diverse audience. “We’ve tried to make this event much more broader than just another ‘edtech conference’ and to encompass learning and talent development,” says Li Jiang, Vice President of GSV Asset Management. This year he estimates there were roughly 500 educators across K-12 and higher education in attendance. Even so, many sessions—and the biggest rooms—were devoted to panels about corporate training and workforce development.

Yet among the more than 3,000 people who poured into Salt Lake City for the event, the bankers were visibly in full force. Nearly a dozen entrepreneurs we talked to said they each received upwards of 20 emails from investment banking groups, inviting them to meetings in private suites.

This year’s lineup of sessions and keynotes focused heavily on higher education and “upskilling” or workforce development, while K-12 took a backseat. This split was almost reinforced physically, in a way. Almost all of the PreK to 12 programming clustered in the Little America hotel, while the post-secondary, workforce training and company suites clustered in the more opulent Grand America across the street. Perhaps that’s a sign of where the dollars and funders are gravitating these days.

Here’s a few of the things we noticed.

Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, on his way to Game 4

BANKERS’ BOUNTY—OR FOLLY? Bankers sporting nametags from the likes of Barclays and Bain Capital could be spotted in the main lobby of the Grand American and its hallways. It’s a crowd that’s always frequented the Summit Felix Ortiz, the CEO of Viridis Learning who has been coming to ASU+GSV Summit since 2010, has worried that the event “has too much concentration of financiers who know little about the education business.”

Others wonder if the investment banks are disappointed. Says Christopher Nyren, founder of Educated Ventures: “All these investment banks are here, having watched the bubble of edtech investments in the past four years and thinking [that, as a result,] there are lots of companies with $15 to $30 million in revenue.”

That’s generally how much companies have to generate for most major banks to consider working with them to find a buyer. One investment banker who specializes in acquisitions tells us he’s turned down six companies who are looking to sell—due primarily to low revenue.

Nyren offered a blunt take on whether bankers will find many startups to salivate over this year. “The joke’s on them.”

BUYER’S MARKET: Even still, companies with money to spend use the event as scouting ground for potential strategic acquisitions. Take Blackboard, which has bought 15 companies since 2014. Katie Blot, the company’s Chief Strategy Officer, says she can trace at least 5 of those deals to a meeting at conferences like ASU+GSV.

GOING TO MICROSOFT’S MARKET: Fresh off the heels of its whirlwind of product launches and announcements on May 2, Microsoft’s education partnerships team dedicated an entire day to wooing companies to join its Microsoft Education Program. Claiming more than 350 million teachers and students with Microsoft Office IDs, the company touted its global reach with more than 7,000 sales and 16,5000 channel partners across the globe.

The company offers a three-tier partnership program that offers partnering companies different marketing and sales perks based on how tightly their tools are integrated with the Microsoft products such as Azure (its cloud computing platform), School Data Sync (its rostering system) and Edge (its successor to the Internet Explorer web browser). Its first partner was Achieve 3000, which provides digital literacy solutions for K-12 learners.

YET GOOGLE STILL REIGNS: In April, Education Week asked roughly 1,000 K-12 teachers and administrators: “Imagine that you have been asked to hire one of the following companies to help improve student achievement in your school district. Which one would you hire?” The answer options range from tech giants—Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft—to publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Scholastic).

(The survey question raises eyebrows, as publishers and technology companies offer overlapping, but fundamentally different services. And “hiring” a company to improve student achievement may be giving it too much credit. )

Source: Education Week

Still, more than 52 percent chose Google for Education; “the reason is clear: Google products are perceived as easy to use,” according to the report. What’s indisputable is that Chromebooks currently dominate; more than 40 percent of respondents say that’s the device of choice in the classrooms, followed by PC laptops (17 percent). And G Suite for Education and Google Classroom far outpace Microsoft’s offerings (68 to 17 percent).

CHINA IN FULL FORCE: A strong Chinese delegation should leave no doubt that Asian money is coming to the U.S. edtech industry. Executives and startups supported by TAL Education Group, a tutoring-turned-technology infused education conglomerate in China, booked up 13 sessions throughout the three-day conference. The delegation includes startups that have raised gargantuan rounds including VIPKID ($100 million), iTutor Group ($200 million) and 17zuoye ($100 million). Word on the street is that they’re looking to bring the edtech show to Beijing later this year.

LISTENING TO USERS: For years, DreamBox Learning has built adaptive math tools to help elementary school students appreciate and learn math. Now, with support from the Gates Foundation, DreamBox is putting its adaptive learning engine to work to build self-directed, on-demand professional development modules to ensure their teachers are ahead of the game, too.

HOW TO PILOT A PILOT: Sometimes it seems like there are as many definitions of "pilot" as fish in the ocean. But the Learning Assembly would like to put a bit more rigor into those terms. On Tuesday, the eight organizations that have been leading piloting efforts--including Leap Innovations, LearnLaunch, the Highlander Institute, DigitalPromise, Citizen Schools, Silicon Valley Education Foundation and New York City's iZone put together a collection of resources to lay out practices and principles for how to pilot edtech products. There's something for all constituents here--from companies to schools. All the work is here.

DEASY’S WRITING GIG: John Deasy, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and CEO of juvenile reform nonprofit, the Reset Foundation, has been moonlighting as editor-in-chief of The Line, a print and online magazine funded by Frontline Education. It’s geared for K-12 administrators, he told EdSurge. Even more importantly, he adds: “We want too model, engage and support civil discourse, and value and appreciate different opinions.”

GIGS FOR TEACHERS: Mark Philips, founder and CEO of edtech talent search company, HireEdu, is expanding the scope with his latest project, GigEd. His aim: to help teachers find gigs at edtech companies that are looking for educators to help test, refine, implement or evangelize their tools. “The gig economy for teachers already exist,” Phillips tells EdSurge. He points to a report (PDF) that found that at least 10 percent of teachers in every state take on another job outside of school to supplement their income.

MAPPING EDTECH: Navitas Ventures, the investment arm of Australia’s biggest education provider, unveiled the first iteration of its global edtech map covering 5,000 education companies. Done in collaboration with Quid, a data visualization platform, the graph not only breaks down edtech players into eight different categories but also shows how companies are connected. Now it needs help: Navitas is asking edtech community to complete the 2017 Global Edtech Census for the next iteration of the map.

Source: Navitas Ventures
STUNNING STARTUPS: The three winners of the ASU-GSV startup pitches included two female CEOs and a startup from Down Under:
  • StellarEmploy uses machine learning algorithms to better match people applying for jobs with the right spots, particularly for minimum-wage jobs that have historically seen huge turnover of workers.
  • Wisr, an alumni career network student advising platform and dedicated marketing team, raised closed $1 million in seed funding.
  • MathSpace, Australian-based company, has an app that lets students show their work as they solve math problems and provides feedback as they go through the steps. 

NEW FUNDS TO WATCH: The U.S. edtech startup ecosystem continues to draw more investors at home and abroad. Add Bisk Ventures, another edtech-focused firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, to the rolodex. Abroad, keep an eye on A1 Capital (South Africa) and Quartet Edtech Fund (Australia). Also, the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, which launched in 2012 and invested in 10 education companies Ghana, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa, is now looking at opportunities stateside that serve low-income communities.

TEACHING COMPASSION: During the evening keynote, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and EverFi CEO Tom Davidson announced a partnership to create a program that teach compassion and emotional intelligence to elementary-grade students.

BY THE NUMBERS: Before each Summit, organizers send survey to participating companies to learn about their demographic makeup. Of the more than 400 presenting companies this year, survey says:

  • 31% led or founded by women
  • 72% have a woman in the executive team
  • 25% led or founded by a person of color
  • 43% have a person of color in the executive team

The results held steady from last year’s survey:

Source: GSV

SWAG OF THE DAY: Lightneer, a Finnish educational gaming company whose executives hail from Rovio (maker of Angry Birds), were handing out playing cards for a game that aims to teach kids the periodic table. Kudos to the illustrator for turning elements into Pokemon-esque characters. (Catch one if you can!)

Lightneer playing cards

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

This post has been updated with additional information throughout the conference.

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