In some ways, Imagine K12 feels a bit like an overgrown
kindergarten classroom. You can draw on the walls with color markers. The
tables are a bit haphazard and can be moved around depending on the activity.
There are snacks in a handy refrigerator. And at the end of the month, Imagine
K12 will even host a graduation ceremony of sorts: launching its third cohort
of 11 freshly formed education technology companies in the market and taking
applications for its next class.
is an experiment on several levels: the companies, for instance, are
experimenting to see if their ideas will find traction with educators and
students. And Imagine K12 itself is an experiment--an effort to see if, with
some coaching the tiny team leading it can catalyze a new generation of
sustainable educational technology companies. That experiment will move into a
new phase next year, too, as one of its three cofounders moves to a part-time
role to pursue other education interests.
far, Imagine K12's efforts seem promising: of the 19 companies (in the first
two cohorts), 13 have won additional funding; two have shut down. Although
reliable data on incubators is scarce, according the numbers gathered by Seed-DB, Imagine K12 ranks in the top half of incubators based
on the average dollars raised by its startups ($220k per company) and on the
total dollars raised by its startups (estimated at $3.8 million). By the end of
the year, they hope the latest startup crop will have funders, too.
long-term impact of these startups, of course, is still very much a work in
progress. "The biggest question for me is [do these products] improve
learning?" asks cofounder Alan Louie. "Signals from investors are
important. But I want to make sure these products don't fall into line with the
edtech products of the last 30 years."
far, those signals are still faint, measured by more proxies such as the number
of teachers who like them. One company, ClassDojo, boasts 3.5 million users
and a fan following among many teachers: it gives teachers a way to reward (or
if they like, punish) students by awarding electronic badges for behavior.
Others are building traction more modestly--but still steadily. (See Imagine
K12's list of startups here.)
And Imagine K12 is still trying to attract more teachers: among those running the latest group of 11 companies, six have teachers involved--a bigger share than in the past.
the startups who have gone through the program say, however, is that Imagine
K12 itself is making a difference by tackling one of the biggest hurdles for
anyone who hopes to build products for schools: getting to education customers.
"We were just two
techie guys," says Bharath Madhusudan, cofounder of Secur.ly, one of the
recent cohort of startups. They came up with exactly the kind of product that
schools love: a cloud-based way to filter objectionable content not just from
computers in the schools but on the laptops and netbooks that students take
home with them. Even so, Madhusudan says, "it's hard to imagine us walking
into a school to make a sale. They were the catalyst that created our contacts
been a surprising path for the trio of founders.
"When we first got going, we
thought, 'Okay, what's going in education on isn't acceptable. But what can we
do?'" recalls Tim Brady, one of Imagine K12's trio of founders.
"We're three engineers, and we've got just one hammer to
was a one-time executive from Yahoo! as was long-time colleague, Geoff Ralston.
They were also friends with former Google (and also former Netscape) executive,
Alan Louie. By pooling resources,
they figured they could have a bigger impact than they might individually;
bigger still, they swiftly realized, would be to support others who wanted to
build companies rather than trying to build a single enterprise on their own.
Graham, one of the cofounders of the biggest incubator on the planet, cheered
them on. Brady recalls "Paul said, 'I've seen hundreds of edtech
applications but I don't know how to help them." He understood--at least
at an arm's length--the big problem them faced: "Graham knew the purchasing cycle [for edtech] was
broken," Brady notes. But YC wasn't in a position to take on that problem.
The trio structured their opportunity,
promising a bit of funding (between $14K to $20K depending on the size of the
team) and a lot of coaching in exchange for 6% of a startup's equity. They
weren't entirely sure how they would coach education technology startups. Although
Louie had sold enterprise software, none of them had built products for schools
or teachers before. Ralston says they weren't entirely sure anyone would even
want to come to the accelerator. "We hung up our shingle, put our
application out there and waited. And wondered: Would anyone come? Would they
K12 got about 100 applications for that first cohort, winnowed it down to 30
and ultimately settled on nine teams. (They've kept that 3:1 candidates to
final team ratio constant since then).
"One of things we look for is
entrepreneurs who are solving their own problems," Ralston says.
"That's usually good example of someone who knows the problem well enough
to solve it." But particular at first, far more of the people who
approached Imagine k12 to tackle education problems were not teachers--and even
fewer administrators. Instead, Imagine K12 attracted engineers and people with
non-education backgrounds looking for an opportunity to throw their hearts into
something they cared about deeply.
In some cases, the teams didn’t
have quite the right idea when they showed up. When Amy Lin and two colleagues
from Microsoft applied to Imagine K12, for instance, they had been working on a
way that teachers could safely message their students. The Imagine K12 team,
however, told her that other companies--including another investment they had
already made called Remind101--were already tackling that problem.
"They said, 'We really like
your team. Come and find something else to build.'" They did--and began by
interviewing close to 200 teachers. They realized that many teachers wanted a
way to collect and present digital resources to their students and so began
creating EdCanvas, which officially launches today.
Just about all the entrepreneurs
who come to Imagine K12 are green: few have ever even worked for a startup.
That, Ralston declares, is an advantage: "I really like inexperienced
entrepreneurs," he says. "They have no preconceived notions of what
like YC, the founders set up regular programs for thelir entrepreneurs on
everything from accounting principles for small businesses to how to give a 3-minute
pitch. They tapped their network of friends and former colleagues to be mentors
or just give a talk to their entrepreneurs. They grabbed time from visiting celebrities such as Cory
Booker and plunked him down to listen to their entrepreneurs' pitches.
essentially running a mini MBA, just reduced down to what you need for a year-one
startup," adds Brady. (Applications for the next Imagine K12 cohort are
due October 29.)
important, however, turned out to figuring out how to expose the entrepreneurs
to teachers--through events such as "educator day," when 150 or more
teachers watch pitches and talk to the entrepreneurs, to having a "teacher
in residence" for the summer on tap for consultations.
Imagine K12 team connects its startups with educators who are already excited
about technology, notes Amy Lin of EdCanvas. Starting with an upbeat group of
customers has helped EdCanvas already spread from the original teachers who
attended Educators Day to more than 1,000, she adds.
expect the market for education technology to change dramatically in five
years," says Brady. He pointed to Edmodo--not an Imagine K12 company--but
an example of how companies are reaching teachers directly rather than trying
to navigate the traditional district purchasing channels.
saw the same fundamental change in enterprise software sales, where the
[decisions about purchasing] was taken out of the exclusive control of the CIO
and put in hands of people who want the technology," Ralston says. In that
case, everyone in the company is a "customer" not just a pawns that
wait while you win and dine the CIO. "That model looks like it could be
very effective in schools, " he adds.
products winning the most success are in schools where the teachers have taken
on the evangelist role and are sharing the tools they have with their
colleagues," says Karen Lien, a director at Imagine K12 who previously
directed college relations at nonprofit QuestBridge.
old model was monolithic," says Louie. "Freemium" models are
designed so that the initial version of the software is free--something that
makes it possible for teachers to try out. "It won't be free
forever," he notes. "Freemium implies up-selling." Products will either have to be inexpensive
enough that teachers can purchase them--or they will have to be adopted by so
many teachers that the school will feel compelled to buy the more
fully-featured version. Louie says he believes that will happen. He describes
how Imagine K12 got a call from a district that wanted its help in getting all
1,500 of its teachers up and running using Class Dojo.
points to the second change that Imagine K12 is helping usher in: edech
products as simple as an iphone--so intuitive that they won't require educators
to take professional development just to keep up with the technology. "The
best designed, most intuitive product wins. That’s the design ethic that we're
bringing to education," Brady notes.
because Imagine K12 has gained momentum, Louie says he feels comfortable taking
a backseat to his colleagues. "I'll still come by for consultations,"
he promises. But he's already itching to try his hand at another problem in
education, one that is even more fundamental than building products: literacy.
He says he's still exploring what to do. And along the way, he also may become
a sort of talent scout for Imagine K12, finding teachers with great ideas and
nudging them toward the incubator, toward learning how to build a company.
and Ralston say they feel that Imagine K12 is just getting its legs.
"We're committed to keep funding this until it hasn't worked or it can be
self-sustaining," Ralston said. "We have reason to be optimistic that
it will be self-funding. We'll only stop funding if no one is interested in
coming to us to create the next great edtech startup."
Editor's note: Over the next few days, we'll describe
the 11 companies graduating from this third group of Imagine K12.