Edtech Incubators Are Fading. Here’s What Will Replace Them.

column | Incubators

Edtech Incubators Are Fading. Here’s What Will Replace Them.

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Nov 7, 2018

Edtech Incubators Are Fading. Here’s What Will Replace Them.

Edtech startup incubators? That’s so 2010.

That’s the conclusion reached by Barbara (“Bobbi”) Kurshan, a long-time veteran of the education technology world.

Kurshan, a Senior Fellow and Innovation Advisor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, has spent decades building edtech enterprises—both for-profit and nonprofit ones. She knows that early stage-stage innovators need support. But she no longer believes that “incubators,” typically 3- to 6-month long programs that aim to launch edtech entrepreneurs, are the most effective way to help these self-starters. Instead, Kurshan is architecting a new type of program—one she hopes will not only help entrepreneurs spark ideas but enable them to grow robust organizations.

“We’re seeing a need for shorter programs that include more mentoring, more follow up consulting and that are rooted in research about what we know about learning,” she says. “I think this reflects an evolution of the edtech entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

At the end of November, Kurshan along with her PennGSE colleagues, Michael Golden, now Executive Director of the Catalyst program and Jenny Zaph, the Director of the Master’s in Education Entrepreneurship program, will put those ideas to the test: They are hosting two “Entrepreneurship in Education” workshops in San Francisco, aimed at entrepreneurs starting companies and schools, another step on a path of delivering a more robust program of networking and startup advice. Their hope is that these programs will help pave the way toward the kind of supportive environment that education technology companies need to survive.

In some ways, Kurshan’s observation parallels another hard-learned lesson in education, namely how secondary schools have measured “success.” About two decades ago, education reformers began leading a drumbeat about the importance of getting students into college. Over time, they realized that getting students into college was a starting point, not a finish line. The harder yet more powerful result was to set students up for success in college so that they would leave with a degree in hand.

Kurshan has a unique perspective on what it takes to build edtech organizations: She was part of the first wave of schools using computer technology back in the 1980s as pioneering educators embraced Apple computers. She earned an Ed.D. in analyzing the use of computers in education, helped start companies—and then watched as many of those early startups got swallowed up by large textbook publishers or other companies and faded from sight. What’s more: Keeping this technology working and up-to-date proved to be a herculean task that few schools or districts could manage with their lean IT support teams.

The Second Coming of Edtech

Education technology resurged around 2010 as software applications moved to the cloud (and could be administered and maintained by a handful of people), and as startup entrepreneurs began designing software specifically for classrooms and schools, not just repurposing products originally created for industry.

Many of the most eager entrepreneurs were first timers—often very young people with little experience in building companies or even in teaching—but driven by a passion for education. Then there were the former educators who wanted to take ideas that had worked in their classroom and scale them for tens of thousands or millions of students.

To support these budding entrepreneurs, more seasoned entrepreneurs set up edtech incubators modeled after Silicon Valley’s explosively successful Y Combinator, which launched companies such as Airbnb and Zenefits. StartL (now shuttered) and Imagine K12 (which merged with Y Combinator in 2016) were among the first edtech accelerators, designed to help entrepreneurs navigate the unique complexities of education. These were followed by more than a dozen others—some hosted by corporations (like Intel and AT&T.) and others by private investors, all around the country.

Kurshan took a university-centered approach to developing an incubator. Shortly after she joined Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 2012, she raised funding to start what she called a “design charrette”—or basically an incubator program for edtech entrepreneurs lodged at UPenn. Like other incubators, Penn’s group made modest (typically $20K) investments in the companies it chose and took equity in those ventures. Penn wound up making minority, seed investments in about 28 startups. Of those, Kurshan reports that two have been sold; one is growing significantly in value (and attracting more investment). And another eight are growing revenue and customers.

Penn also created a Master's program in entrepreneurship. Five cohorts have included 114 students whose “capstone” project was to create a business plan. About 70 percent of them developed for-profit (or part for-profit and part nonprofit) business plans; the other 30 percent were nonprofits. A handful (about 10 percent) of those projects focused on developing school designs.

And over the past decade, Penn has hosted the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan competition, which hands out $140K in annual awards (ranging from $20K to $40K apiece) to entrepreneurs who competed in a “pitch” competition.

Now the game plan is to lace those programs, include workshops and certificates, and "personalize" edtech entrepreneur education.

Edtech’s More Thoughtful Era

Overall, the number of edtech startups exploded. The rush peaked in 2013 when more than 240 companies were operating in the edtech space. This year, there will likely be a third of that number (fewer than 80 edtech startups), the lowest number of fresh companies since 2011.

Statistically more startups fail than succeed. But edtech failures are tinged with a special pain because of the significant costs—both in dollars and time—that individual educators and schools must invest to adopt and successfully use any new technology.

“My concern is we’re giving a lot of companies a little money [and a little advice] but not enough to get to scale,” Kurshan notes. “They need support—and we need to find other ways to do it.”

She pairs that concern with another long-term goal: Seeing more edtech companies thoughtfully incorporate research on learning into their products and practices. “We’ve seen a lot of people who want to build a new company and often the research doesn’t support the approach they’re taking,” Kurshan says. “I’m not against trying something different—but you should have a good explanation if you’re going to buck the research.”

Those observations have led Kurshan and her colleagues to design their ongoing workshops and bootcamps focused on specific issues: How to start an organization, what legal issues command attention, and critically, how to build a startup on a base of research. By early next year, Kurshan expects the program will be formalized and that UPenn will offer entrepreneurs a chance to earn a certificate (or even a degree), along with ongoing mentorship and networking to help entrepreneurs connect with potential funders.

Kurshan sees the new approach as more personalized to the needs of entrepreneurs: “We customize the instruction, the research and the mentoring for the needs of each company through the workshops, weekly mentoring and GSE’s network of researchers, educators and investors,” she adds.

“Entrepreneurs say, ‘We don’t listen very well at the beginning, but eventually get our hearing back,’” Kurshan quips. Now she hopes to have the support they need ready for them, available at the time they need it.

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