Google’s AI Assistant Fund Invests in GradeSlam to Make Online Tutoring...


Google’s AI Assistant Fund Invests in GradeSlam to Make Online Tutoring More Equitable

By Tony Wan     Feb 12, 2019

Google’s AI Assistant Fund Invests in GradeSlam to Make Online Tutoring More Equitable

Online tutoring services are a dime a dozen, and in recent times they’ve raised many dimes. Since 2016, these companies have raised more than $1.2 billion in venture capital, according to EdSurge data—most notably Chinese startups that connect local students with English tutors.

Most online tutoring startups offer their services directly to consumers, or, in the words of Philip Cutler, those who can afford to pay for them. But that model can be inequitable, says the former teacher. “I saw early on in my teaching career that a lot of my students were going to after-school homework help,” he tells EdSurge. “But they were often the wealthiest students. The students who needed the help the most, their families didn’t have the resources.”

So in 2014, Cutler started GradeSlam in an effort to give every student in a school or district access to online tutoring support. It only sells this platform to educational and youth organizations, and so far has deals with roughly 200 partners, from school districts in southern California to the Canadian Junior Hockey League. The company claims it currently reaches more than 160,000 students.

Today, the Montreal-based startup scored another partner: the Google Assistant Investments program, which funds startups leveraging Google Assistant’s voice technology into their products. The program is making an undisclosed investment in GradeSlam, with Birchmere, BDC Capital, Reach Capital and Anges Quebec also chipping into the round. Cutler declined to share the exact amount, only offering that it is “well over a million dollars.” The company previously raised $1.6 million in a seed round in 2016.

Gradeslam dashboard screenshot
GradeSlam dashboard (Image credit: GradeSlam)

GradeSlam offers a web-based platform where students can ask for live help from a tutor on any subject, at any time. They can upload files or send a photo directly onto the platform, and communicate with a tutor via chat and a digital whiteboard. Rather than dispensing answers, tutors are supposed to use Socratic-based pedagogy to guide students through solving problems on their own. The tool includes an essay-review feature where a Gradeslam tutor will give feedback on students’ drafts within 24 hours.

All help requests and communication between students and tutors are captured on a dashboard that educators can review and see, for instance, where learners may be struggling, or which topics remain confusing.

Tutors on GradeSlam undergo a certification process that includes passing a background check, vetting educational credentials, passing an in-person interview and teaching a mock 60-minute session. Currently the company boasts more than 100 tutors, and Cutler claims full-time tutors can make up to $50,000 a year.

Schools pay between $125 to $150 per student per year, he adds, which gives every student access to tutors around the clock. Peak usage hours are generally between 5 to 10pm. GradeSlam is also frequently used in AVID classes, a program available in many schools to help underachieving students prepare for college.

GradeSlam essay review
GradeSlam essay review (Image credit: GradeSlam)

GradeSlam is not profitable yet, Cutler shares. And neither is it the first to offer tutoring services directly to schools. Another startup, Zeal, attempted a similar approach, focused on connecting students with math tutors during the school day. But it struggled to grow the business, and its founder sold and shuttered the company in 2018.

Through the Google Assistant Investments program, GradeSlam will also have access to technology experts who will advise on the startup’s efforts to leverage the search giant’s voice technology into its tutoring platform. For now, there are no concrete plans or roadmap for what these features will look like, Cutler concedes. But he says the goal is to support new student demographics, including young students or those who with disabilities who may struggle to communicate with tutors by typing.

Launched in August 2018, this Google program aims to “invest in unique voice, conversational and assistive applications to find new exciting user experiences and use cases,” across all verticals including education, healthcare, finance and hospitality, said Ilya Gelfenbeyn, head of the Google Assistant Investments program, via email.

It makes equity and convertible-note investments, in the range of a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars, for companies at the pre-seed, seed or Series A stages, he added.

GradeSlam is the second education startup to raise investment from this program; the other is Edwin, an AI-powered English-tutoring tool. Altogether, the Google Assistant Investments program has funded 10 startups to date.

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