Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

Imagine K12 Bringing Tech Closer to Schools

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.  

It 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.

So 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.

The 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."

So 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.

What 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 with customers."

It's 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 use--technology."

Brady 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.

Paul 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 all suck?"

Imagine 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 can work."

Much 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.

"We're 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.)  

Most 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.

The 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.

"We 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.

"We 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.

The 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.

"The 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.

Which 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.

Perhaps 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.

Brady 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.

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