Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

By Betsy Corcoran     Oct 16, 2012

Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

In some ways, Imagine K12 feels a bit like an overgrownkindergarten classroom. You can draw on the walls with color markers. Thetables 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, ImagineK12 will even host a graduation ceremony of sorts: launching its third cohortof 11 freshly formed education technology companies in the market and takingapplications for its next class.  

Itis an experiment on several levels: the companies, for instance, areexperimenting to see if their ideas will find traction with educators andstudents. And Imagine K12 itself is an experiment--an effort to see if, withsome coaching the tiny team leading it can catalyze a new generation ofsustainable educational technology companies. That experiment will move into anew phase next year, too, as one of its three cofounders moves to a part-timerole to pursue other education interests.

Sofar, Imagine K12's efforts seem promising: of the 19 companies (in the firsttwo cohorts), 13 have won additional funding; two have shut down. Althoughreliable data on incubators is scarce, according the numbers gathered by Seed-DB, Imagine K12 ranks in the top half of incubators basedon the average dollars raised by its startups ($220k per company) and on thetotal dollars raised by its startups (estimated at $3.8 million). By the end ofthe year, they hope the latest startup crop will have funders, too.

Thelong-term impact of these startups, of course, is still very much a work inprogress. "The biggest question for me is [do these products] improvelearning?" asks cofounder Alan Louie. "Signals from investors areimportant. But I want to make sure these products don't fall into line with theedtech products of the last 30 years."

Sofar, those signals are still faint, measured by more proxies such as the numberof teachers who like them. One company, ClassDojo,  boasts 3.5 million usersand a fan following among many teachers: it gives teachers a way to reward (orif they like, punish) students by awarding electronic badges for behavior.Others are building traction more modestly--but still steadily. (See ImagineK12'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.

Whatthe startups who have gone through the program say, however, is that ImagineK12 itself is making a difference by tackling one of the biggest hurdles foranyone who hopes to build products for schools: getting to education customers.  "We were just twotechie guys," says Bharath Madhusudan, cofounder of Secur.ly, one of therecent cohort of startups. They came up with exactly the kind of product thatschools love: a cloud-based way to filter objectionable content not just fromcomputers in the schools but on the laptops and netbooks that students takehome with them. Even so, Madhusudan says, "it's hard to imagine us walkinginto a school to make a sale. They were the catalyst that created our contactswith customers."

It'sbeen a surprising path for the trio of founders.

"When we first got going, wethought, 'Okay, what's going in education on isn't acceptable. But what can wedo?'" recalls Tim Brady, one of Imagine K12's trio of founders."We're three engineers, and we've got just one hammer touse--technology."

Bradywas 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 tobuild companies rather than trying to build a single enterprise on their own.

PaulGraham, one of the cofounders of the biggest incubator on the planet, cheeredthem on. Brady recalls "Paul said, 'I've seen hundreds of edtechapplications but I don't know how to help them." He understood--at leastat an arm's length--the big problem them faced:  "Graham knew the purchasing cycle [for edtech] wasbroken," 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 theteam) and a lot of coaching in exchange for 6% of a startup's equity. Theyweren't entirely sure how they would coach education technology startups. AlthoughLouie had sold enterprise software, none of them had built products for schoolsor teachers before. Ralston says they weren't entirely sure anyone would evenwant to come to the accelerator. "We hung up our shingle, put ourapplication out there and waited. And wondered: Would anyone come? Would theyall suck?"

ImagineK12 got about 100 applications for that first cohort, winnowed it down to 30and ultimately settled on nine teams. (They've kept that 3:1 candidates tofinal team ratio constant since then).

"One of things we look for isentrepreneurs who are solving their own problems," Ralston says."That's usually good example of someone who knows the problem well enoughto solve it." But particular at first, far more of the people whoapproached Imagine k12 to tackle education problems were not teachers--and evenfewer administrators. Instead, Imagine K12 attracted engineers and people withnon-education backgrounds looking for an opportunity to throw their hearts intosomething they cared about deeply.

In some cases, the teams didn’thave quite the right idea when they showed up. When Amy Lin and two colleaguesfrom Microsoft applied to Imagine K12, for instance, they had been working on away that teachers could safely message their students. The Imagine K12 team,however, told her that other companies--including another investment they hadalready made called Remind101--were already tackling that problem.

"They said, 'We really likeyour team. Come and find something else to build.'" They did--and began byinterviewing close to 200 teachers. They realized that many teachers wanted away to collect and present digital resources to their students and so begancreating EdCanvas, which officially launches today.  

Just about all the entrepreneurswho come to Imagine K12 are green: few have ever even worked for a startup.That, Ralston declares, is an advantage: "I really like inexperiencedentrepreneurs," he says. "They have no preconceived notions of whatcan work."

Muchlike YC, the founders set up regular programs for thelir entrepreneurs oneverything from accounting principles for small businesses to how to give a 3-minutepitch. They tapped their network of friends and former colleagues to be mentorsor just give a talk to their entrepreneurs.  They grabbed time from visiting celebrities such as CoryBooker and plunked him down to listen to their entrepreneurs' pitches.

"We'reessentially running a mini MBA, just reduced down to what you need for a year-onestartup," adds Brady. (Applications for the next Imagine K12 cohort aredue October 29.)  

Mostimportant, however, turned out to figuring out how to expose the entrepreneursto teachers--through events such as "educator day," when 150 or moreteachers watch pitches and talk to the entrepreneurs, to having a "teacherin residence" for the summer on tap for consultations.

TheImagine K12 team connects its startups with educators who are already excitedabout technology, notes Amy Lin of EdCanvas. Starting with an upbeat group ofcustomers has helped EdCanvas already spread from the original teachers whoattended Educators Day to more than 1,000, she adds.

"Weexpect the market for education technology to change dramatically in fiveyears," says Brady. He pointed to Edmodo--not an Imagine K12 company--butan example of how companies are reaching teachers directly rather than tryingto navigate the traditional district purchasing channels.

"Wesaw the same fundamental change in enterprise software sales, where the[decisions about purchasing] was taken out of the exclusive control of the CIOand put in hands of people who want the technology," Ralston says. In thatcase, everyone in the company is a "customer" not just a pawns thatwait while you win and dine the CIO. "That model looks like it could bevery effective in schools, " he adds.

Theproducts winning the most success are in schools where the teachers have takenon the evangelist role and are sharing the tools they have with theircolleagues," says Karen Lien, a director at Imagine K12 who previouslydirected college relations at nonprofit QuestBridge.

"Theold model was monolithic," says Louie. "Freemium" models aredesigned so that the initial version of the software is free--something thatmakes it possible for teachers to try out. "It won't be freeforever," he notes. "Freemium implies up-selling."  Products will either have to be inexpensiveenough that teachers can purchase them--or they will have to be adopted by somany teachers that the school will feel compelled to buy the morefully-featured version. Louie says he believes that will happen. He describeshow Imagine K12 got a call from a district that wanted its help in getting all1,500 of its teachers up and running using Class Dojo.

Whichpoints to the second change that Imagine K12 is helping usher in: edechproducts as simple as an iphone--so intuitive that they won't require educatorsto take professional development just to keep up with the technology. "Thebest designed, most intuitive product wins. That’s the design ethic that we'rebringing to education," Brady notes.

Perhapsbecause Imagine K12 has gained momentum, Louie says he feels comfortable takinga 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 ineducation, 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 becomea sort of talent scout for Imagine K12, finding teachers with great ideas andnudging them toward the incubator, toward learning how to build a company.

Bradyand 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 beself-sustaining," Ralston said. "We have reason to be optimistic thatit will be self-funding. We'll only stop funding if no one is interested incoming to us to create the next great edtech startup."

Editor's note:  Over the next few days, we'll describethe 11 companies graduating from this third group of Imagine K12.

Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

By Betsy Corcoran     Oct 16, 2012

Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

In some ways, Imagine K12 feels a bit like an overgrownkindergarten classroom. You can draw on the walls with color markers. Thetables 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, ImagineK12 will even host a graduation ceremony of sorts: launching its third cohortof 11 freshly formed education technology companies in the market and takingapplications for its next class.  

Itis an experiment on several levels: the companies, for instance, areexperimenting to see if their ideas will find traction with educators andstudents. And Imagine K12 itself is an experiment--an effort to see if, withsome coaching the tiny team leading it can catalyze a new generation ofsustainable educational technology companies. That experiment will move into anew phase next year, too, as one of its three cofounders moves to a part-timerole to pursue other education interests.

Sofar, Imagine K12's efforts seem promising: of the 19 companies (in the firsttwo cohorts), 13 have won additional funding; two have shut down. Althoughreliable data on incubators is scarce, according the numbers gathered by Seed-DB, Imagine K12 ranks in the top half of incubators basedon the average dollars raised by its startups ($220k per company) and on thetotal dollars raised by its startups (estimated at $3.8 million). By the end ofthe year, they hope the latest startup crop will have funders, too.

Thelong-term impact of these startups, of course, is still very much a work inprogress. "The biggest question for me is [do these products] improvelearning?" asks cofounder Alan Louie. "Signals from investors areimportant. But I want to make sure these products don't fall into line with theedtech products of the last 30 years."

Sofar, those signals are still faint, measured by more proxies such as the numberof teachers who like them. One company, ClassDojo,  boasts 3.5 million usersand a fan following among many teachers: it gives teachers a way to reward (orif they like, punish) students by awarding electronic badges for behavior.Others are building traction more modestly--but still steadily. (See ImagineK12'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.

Whatthe startups who have gone through the program say, however, is that ImagineK12 itself is making a difference by tackling one of the biggest hurdles foranyone who hopes to build products for schools: getting to education customers.  "We were just twotechie guys," says Bharath Madhusudan, cofounder of Secur.ly, one of therecent cohort of startups. They came up with exactly the kind of product thatschools love: a cloud-based way to filter objectionable content not just fromcomputers in the schools but on the laptops and netbooks that students takehome with them. Even so, Madhusudan says, "it's hard to imagine us walkinginto a school to make a sale. They were the catalyst that created our contactswith customers."

It'sbeen a surprising path for the trio of founders.

"When we first got going, wethought, 'Okay, what's going in education on isn't acceptable. But what can wedo?'" recalls Tim Brady, one of Imagine K12's trio of founders."We're three engineers, and we've got just one hammer touse--technology."

Bradywas 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 tobuild companies rather than trying to build a single enterprise on their own.

PaulGraham, one of the cofounders of the biggest incubator on the planet, cheeredthem on. Brady recalls "Paul said, 'I've seen hundreds of edtechapplications but I don't know how to help them." He understood--at leastat an arm's length--the big problem them faced:  "Graham knew the purchasing cycle [for edtech] wasbroken," 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 theteam) and a lot of coaching in exchange for 6% of a startup's equity. Theyweren't entirely sure how they would coach education technology startups. AlthoughLouie had sold enterprise software, none of them had built products for schoolsor teachers before. Ralston says they weren't entirely sure anyone would evenwant to come to the accelerator. "We hung up our shingle, put ourapplication out there and waited. And wondered: Would anyone come? Would theyall suck?"

ImagineK12 got about 100 applications for that first cohort, winnowed it down to 30and ultimately settled on nine teams. (They've kept that 3:1 candidates tofinal team ratio constant since then).

"One of things we look for isentrepreneurs who are solving their own problems," Ralston says."That's usually good example of someone who knows the problem well enoughto solve it." But particular at first, far more of the people whoapproached Imagine k12 to tackle education problems were not teachers--and evenfewer administrators. Instead, Imagine K12 attracted engineers and people withnon-education backgrounds looking for an opportunity to throw their hearts intosomething they cared about deeply.

In some cases, the teams didn’thave quite the right idea when they showed up. When Amy Lin and two colleaguesfrom Microsoft applied to Imagine K12, for instance, they had been working on away that teachers could safely message their students. The Imagine K12 team,however, told her that other companies--including another investment they hadalready made called Remind101--were already tackling that problem.

"They said, 'We really likeyour team. Come and find something else to build.'" They did--and began byinterviewing close to 200 teachers. They realized that many teachers wanted away to collect and present digital resources to their students and so begancreating EdCanvas, which officially launches today.  

Just about all the entrepreneurswho come to Imagine K12 are green: few have ever even worked for a startup.That, Ralston declares, is an advantage: "I really like inexperiencedentrepreneurs," he says. "They have no preconceived notions of whatcan work."

Muchlike YC, the founders set up regular programs for thelir entrepreneurs oneverything from accounting principles for small businesses to how to give a 3-minutepitch. They tapped their network of friends and former colleagues to be mentorsor just give a talk to their entrepreneurs.  They grabbed time from visiting celebrities such as CoryBooker and plunked him down to listen to their entrepreneurs' pitches.

"We'reessentially running a mini MBA, just reduced down to what you need for a year-onestartup," adds Brady. (Applications for the next Imagine K12 cohort aredue October 29.)  

Mostimportant, however, turned out to figuring out how to expose the entrepreneursto teachers--through events such as "educator day," when 150 or moreteachers watch pitches and talk to the entrepreneurs, to having a "teacherin residence" for the summer on tap for consultations.

TheImagine K12 team connects its startups with educators who are already excitedabout technology, notes Amy Lin of EdCanvas. Starting with an upbeat group ofcustomers has helped EdCanvas already spread from the original teachers whoattended Educators Day to more than 1,000, she adds.

"Weexpect the market for education technology to change dramatically in fiveyears," says Brady. He pointed to Edmodo--not an Imagine K12 company--butan example of how companies are reaching teachers directly rather than tryingto navigate the traditional district purchasing channels.

"Wesaw the same fundamental change in enterprise software sales, where the[decisions about purchasing] was taken out of the exclusive control of the CIOand put in hands of people who want the technology," Ralston says. In thatcase, everyone in the company is a "customer" not just a pawns thatwait while you win and dine the CIO. "That model looks like it could bevery effective in schools, " he adds.

Theproducts winning the most success are in schools where the teachers have takenon the evangelist role and are sharing the tools they have with theircolleagues," says Karen Lien, a director at Imagine K12 who previouslydirected college relations at nonprofit QuestBridge.

"Theold model was monolithic," says Louie. "Freemium" models aredesigned so that the initial version of the software is free--something thatmakes it possible for teachers to try out. "It won't be freeforever," he notes. "Freemium implies up-selling."  Products will either have to be inexpensiveenough that teachers can purchase them--or they will have to be adopted by somany teachers that the school will feel compelled to buy the morefully-featured version. Louie says he believes that will happen. He describeshow Imagine K12 got a call from a district that wanted its help in getting all1,500 of its teachers up and running using Class Dojo.

Whichpoints to the second change that Imagine K12 is helping usher in: edechproducts as simple as an iphone--so intuitive that they won't require educatorsto take professional development just to keep up with the technology. "Thebest designed, most intuitive product wins. That’s the design ethic that we'rebringing to education," Brady notes.

Perhapsbecause Imagine K12 has gained momentum, Louie says he feels comfortable takinga 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 ineducation, 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 becomea sort of talent scout for Imagine K12, finding teachers with great ideas andnudging them toward the incubator, toward learning how to build a company.

Bradyand 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 beself-sustaining," Ralston said. "We have reason to be optimistic thatit will be self-funding. We'll only stop funding if no one is interested incoming to us to create the next great edtech startup."

Editor's note:  Over the next few days, we'll describethe 11 companies graduating from this third group of Imagine K12.

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