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Education tech start-ups: No longer the 'sleepy' crowd

Ed tech start-up companies are creating serious buzz and investments for a serious problem: education. But can innovative tech lead to innovative education?

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However, education is a notoriously underfunded industry, and ed tech isn’t known to generate massive returns. Hammond admits ed tech companies likely won’t see a huge payout on the scale of a Pinterest or Facebook, but can attract a number of moderate returns since there are so many niches. More so, she says “there is a lot of interest in this generation about meaningful work.”

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“No one gets into ed tech for the money,” says Mr. Levy of eduCanon.

But people are willing to invest money in ed tech. Ed tech funding boomed in 2012, topping $1.1 billion in investments, according to CB Insights, a venture capital database. In the first half of 2013, more than $481 million has been invested, and the number of investment deals are up by 10 percent over the first half of 2012. 

This investment interest has caught the eye of big-idea entrepreneurs looking for financial support, which some worry dilutes the do-good mentality that seems to set ed tech apart.

Reynol Junco, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and associate professor of library science at Purdue University, has been vocal about his skepticism of ed tech start-ups. The problem is cultural, he says, pointing out many ed tech start-ups believe their role as innovators is to swoop in and solve the problem, rather than collaborate with educators. In addition, he says they don’t provide evaluations that measure classroom effectiveness, which misses half the equation.

“It’s not about the tool, it’s about how the tool is used,” he says.

And it remains to be seen whether an increase of technology in education actually makes a difference. A 2013 study of technology in schools by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress found that no states had performed a return-on-investment study, and that most students were using their computing technology for basic needs, such as math problems, rather than sophisticated learning, like experiments and analysis.

But for now, it is full steam ahead in the ed tech world. Back at LearnLaunchX’s Demo Day, T-shirt-clad entrepreneurs chatted with well-heeled business people. Each start-up talked with a steady stream of curious event attendees. The mood seemed cautiously optimistic, intrigued by what these innovations could mean for the future of education and technology. Dean Millot, the K-12 partner at education consulting company Good Harbor Partners, says he doesn’t see why Boston shouldn’t be the “Silicon Valley of education.”

Tarlin Ray is managing director of late-stage start-up advising company Triple Threat Advisors, once worked at Kaplan Test Prep, serves on a charter school board, and is the son of a teacher. Having seen education from all sides, he says the technology was impressive but the real test will be selling to often-fragmented districts. The key to success? Access the teachers looking for solutions, and let them convince the rest.

“There are 3.6 million teachers and how do you attract them?” he asks. “[Start-ups] are servicing one unique niche. If they can get [a] share, I think they have a shot.”

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