Judge, Jury and Education Startups: Reflections From the SXSW EDU Launch...

Opinion | Competitions

Judge, Jury and Education Startups: Reflections From the SXSW EDU Launch Competition

By Tony Wan     Mar 8, 2019

Judge, Jury and Education Startups: Reflections From the SXSW EDU Launch Competition
Left: SXSW EDU Launch competition judges. Right: Amira Learning CEO, Mark Angel

All the world’s a stage when you’re a startup, and life becomes a pitch in front of investors, advisers, reporters, partners and potential acquirers.

Those hats were represented in the panel of judges at this week’s SXSW EDU Launch Competition, which included Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance; Vince Chan, co-founder at Creta Ventures; Jonathan Rochelle, product management director at Google for Education; and your correspondent.

The annual tradition dates back to 2012, and features early-stage companies showing off the latest efforts to solve intractable problems across the education landscape. Eight startups took the stage this year.

Over the years I have attended dozens of demo days and exhibitions, and slogged through what already feels like a lifetime of pitches in my inbox. Yet this was my first time participating as a judge, a role that forced me to pay extra close attention.

Some things were once simpler: Edtech pitches used to concentrate on either the K-12 or higher education market. Others, like the repackaging of buzzwords and branding tactics, stay the same. And ageless problems, like helping kids read and pay for college, remain in need of solutions.

Here are my reflections from playing edtech judge for a morning.

Education Is Encompassing Everything

“So where’s the education in this?”

That’s the question that Google’s Rochelle posed to Chelsea Sprayregen, CEO of Pie for Providers—and not because the startup’s name sounds like food. The company offers a suite of administrative software to help daycare providers execute a variety of tasks, from managing government subsidies to financial bookkeeping.

It was an honest, earnest question—but one that raised broader questions about whether there’s a meaningful distinction between childcare and education. Certainly they overlap; few would deny that childcare services make an impact on a child’s development.

It’s a gray area that education funders, including government agencies and venture capitalists, are increasingly dabbling in. Investors at another SXSW EDU session noted that, since 2016, government spending on these programs has increased 17 percent, and private funding has risen 12 percent.

Questions similar to Rochelle’s surface in my mind when it comes to hiring and recruiting tools. That’s what UpKey pitched—a service that helps students build stronger resumes and “connects them to employers looking for students with grit,” according to its flyer. The emergence of these tools in “edtech” reflects the belief that perhaps the most tangible and important benefit of education may be to get a good job.

AI Is the New ‘Adaptive’

“Adaptive” and “personalized” were once ubiquitous in pitches and press releases. The new magic these days is artificial intelligence, or AI. Call it what you want. But rare is the company that takes care to explain how those technologies actually work in their products.

The first question I asked went to Mark Angel, CEO of Amira Learning, about how the AI works in his company’s reading-assistant tool. While it’s unrealistic to dive into details about algorithms and machine learning within the 5 minutes allowed for Q&A, he did at least articulate a mechanism for how the tool collects and labels data, and uses that data to continually train and fine-tune its system. (I often refer to this piece as a primer of questions to ask about AI.)

Another “AI-powered” startup present was ROYBI, which is developing a machine learning-powered robot companion for children. The company claimed it is capable of a wide range of things, from conversing with toddlers and teaching languages and “STEAM” concepts, to being able to react to their emotions and send progress reports to parents. It was a long list of checkboxes for a product that’s still in development.

Not All Ideas Translate

Ideas that sound like viable businesses in one part of the world may not translate as well to others. That was one of the challenges that emerged in the pitch for SoroTouch, which offers an app and also runs tutoring centers that teach the abacus method to do calculations. (The method is apparently very effective.) According to the company’s founder, the tool is popular among the many cram schools that dot Japan, where the company is based.

But in front of a panel of U.S. judges, the value of calculations and cram schools seemed to miss the mark. As a Kumon alumnus, I certainly appreciate all the practical use cases for quick mental calculations (especially when it comes time to split the dinner bill). When it comes to math education, however, the trend is focusing on deeper conceptual understanding and application to real-world problems. As math reformer Conrad Wolfram suggests, why not let computers handle the computations?

The ‘X’ for ‘Y’

“Netflix for education.” “Uber for tutors.” It’s a common and catchy marketing tactic to align one’s service with a popular brand. It can be risky as well. “Facebook for education” just doesn’t evoke the same fuzzy feelings as it used to.

That pitching tactic remains alive and well. At the competition was Caribu, which billed itself as a “FaceTime meets podcast” service that aims to help to connect parents and children via an interactive video call for reading and drawing activities. Think live screen-sharing with digital books that one can also doodle on. There was also Giide, which its founders described as podcasts for professional learning. “Learning must be reshaped to fit our lifestyle,” so goes the company’s flyer, which presumably means listening to a lot of bite-sized audio lessons on the go.

Still Trying to Afford College

Money talks, and when it comes to the cost of higher education, the issue still screams for attention and solutions. Edmit, which provides tools to help students and families research higher-ed costs and find financial aid opportunities, won the Launch competition. The startup claims it can provide more accurate cost estimates based on personal, geographical and publicly available data sets. It all sounded enticing enough to get Bridget Burns to ask: “Why hasn’t the College Board acquired you?”


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