Way back in 2012, I wrote an article “Who’s Investing in Ed-Tech?” It remains one of the most popular posts on Hack Education, even though it’s totally out-of-date. The article explains a bit how venture capital works, and it lists some of the best known investors in education technology, along with a few of the companies they’ve funded. No doubt the popularity of the story reflects how often folks query “who’s investing in ed-tech?”
I wrote an update to the article last year that pointed to other resources for tracking ed-tech investment – CB Insights, Ambient Insights, and Edsurge, for example, which sell reports on the topic, as well as Crunchbase, which (for the time being at least) offers an startup database that’s free to search.
Some Methodological Considerations…
In 2015, I started my own startup database for tracking investments and acquisitions, a research project I’ve continued and expanded this year. See: funding.hackeducation.com.
I created my own database for a number of reasons: I wanted to have access to the raw data, not just to the PDFs and JPGs that most reports offer. I wanted to be able to make the raw data available to other journalists, so that they could draw their own conclusions rather than rely solely on industry analysts. (To that end, all the data – licensed CC-BY – is in the GitHub repo that powers my funding research site.)
Industry analysts’ figures for the total amount of money invested in ed-tech vary wildly, but it’s hard to know why without knowing their methodology or viewing their data. (And that’s why I’ve started tracking this myself: in order to make these calculations, at least on my part, more transparent.) These discrepancies arise because accurate data is hard to come by; companies aren’t always forthcoming about the names of their investors or the amounts of funding they’ve raised. Industry analysts’ figures differ too because of “what counts” as ed-tech.
Here’s how Edsurge recently described the scope of its research in a report on ed-tech funding:
This analysis looks at all investments in US-based technology companies (for-profit or non-profit) that improve education outcomes for K–12 learners from 2010–2015. There were many different companies that didn’t clearly fit into these categories. To give a better understanding of how we made these decisions about individual companies, here are a few examples: Social Finance, a company that provides student loans and other services, is not included in our analysis because it is more a financial company than an education one. We included AltSchool because it uses (and develops) technology to help students learn.
I chuckled at that first sentence, I admit, because it’s really debatable which ed-tech companies, if any, “improve education outcomes.” What does that even mean?! It’s a nice buzz-phrase, but its actual meaning is really not clear.
In my database, I do include those companies that offer student loans, and I’d contend you can’t really understand what’s happening in the education sector if you ignore that these are among the most well-funded companies and most frequently funded types of companies. Investors like Peter Thiel might pay lip service to a disastrous “college bubble,” but at the end of the day, folks like him are still banking – literally – on people going into debt for more education. Furthermore, these private loan companies are also connected to the growth in coding bootcamps – many of the latter have struck partnerships with loan companies as part of their marketing to prospective students. Considering larger debates about student loan debt and for-profit higher education, I think it’s misleading to ignore this.
But it’s not always as clearcut, in my mind, what should or shouldn’t be included. Sometimes companies raise a bunch of money and announce that they’re planning on using the funds to target the education market. Do they now count as ed-tech? Sometimes companies pivot away from education. Should they be removed from the database? Sometimes companies target a certain age market in a way that gets conflated with education – “millennials” as “college students,” for example. Should these companies count? Are recruiting and job placement startups – again, sometimes connected to schools or training programs – education companies? Are those companies that provide products and services for libraries – public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, etc – education companies? What about companies that provide products and services to university researchers and scientists? Do “educational toys” count? What makes a toy or a game “educational”? How much “tech” do they need to possess to be “ed-tech”? (Edsurge’s framework – does it “improve education outcomes” – is, obviously, not that helpful in answering these questions. Admittedly I don’t always have a good answer to “what counts” either, but that’s why I show my work by making the data that powers my analysis available. In a nutshell: I try to consider “education” really broadly so that I have a better understanding of the economic and political landscape.)
So… Who’s Investing?
I’ve only kept a startup database for the past 17 months, but I recently decided to go back to when I launched Hack Education in 2010 and track all investors and all their education investments.
2010 is close to the beginning of the most recent swell in ed-tech funding, a “boom” that by some indications is rapidly turning to “bust.” I’d actually peg the very start of this renewed interest at 2008, but I’ve chosen the launch of Hack Education as the Important Historical Marker here. And I’ll briefly note here, as I’m wont to do, that there’s a much, much longer history: this is a resurgence, not a brand new surge. The ed-tech industry has experienced bubbles (and busts) before.
Here are the most active ed-tech investors – and a sample of their portfolios – since Hack Education (VC-free 4 life) was founded. (These are the investors who have made 20 or more education-oriented investments since 2010 – about one per quarter over the last 5.5 years):
500 Startups: Apptuto; Chalkable (Acquired); Cheddar Up; Chromatik; Codementor; Colingo; CultureAlley; Descomplica; eSpark; Experiment; Floqq; Internmatch; Kiwi Crate; Mindsnacks; Mom Trusted; Monkimun; Mystery Science; Okpanda; OneSchool (Closed); OnlineTyari; Platzi; Springboard; Stickery; Storypanda; Studypool; Taamkru; Timbuktu; Tinkergarten; Tynker; Udemy; Veduca; YongoPal (Closed)
Accel: Collegefeed (Acquired); Educreations; eduK; Edupristine; Fidelis; FreshGrade; Grovo; Knewton; Lynda.com (Acquired); Osmo; ResearchGate; Vedantu; Wyzant
Deborah Quazzo: BridgeU; CampusLogic; Clever; Degreed; Dreambox Learning; Educents; Gojimo; Handshake; Luvo; MasteryConnect; Nearpod; Parchment; Raise.me; Ranku; Smarterer (Acquired); Speakaboos; ThinkCERCA
First Round: Abl Schools; AltSchool; Bloc; CareDox; Civitas Learning; Earnest; Kiwi Crate; Knewton; Kno (Acquired); Koru; Raise.me; Remind; SchoolFeed (Closed); Upstart
GSV Capital: Chegg (IPO); ClassDojo; Clever; Course Hero; Coursera; Curious.com; Declara; Dreambox Learning; Edsurge; Fullbridge; General Assembly; Grockit (Acquired); Knewton; Kno (Acquired); Parchment; rSmart; Tynker
ImagineK12: AdmitSee; Blendspace (Acquired); Bloomboard; ClassDojo; Classkick; CodeHS; DigitWhiz; Edsurge; Education Elements; Educents; Educreations; Eduvant; Front Row; Goalbook; Hapara; Kaizena; Learnsprout (Acquired); NoRedInk; Nunook Interactive; Panorama Education; Raise.me; Remind; SchoolMint; Securly; Showbie; Socrative (Acquired); Studyroom; Teachboost
Kapor Capital: Allovue; Chromatik; ClassDojo; Classkick; Clever; CodeHS; Constant Therapy; Curriculet; EdCast; Educents; Engrade (Acquired); enuma; Fidelis; Front Row; Hopscotch; Inkling; Internmatch; Mytonomy; Newsela; NoRedInk; NovoEd; Okpanda; Piazza; SchoolMint; Schoolzilla; Student Loan Genius; Tinybop; UniversityNow; WriteLab; Zeal Learning; Zoobean
Learn Capital: Acceptly (Closed); AltSchool; Andela; Bloc; Bloomboard; Brainly; Bridge International Academies; BrightBytes; Chromatik; ClassDojo; CodeHS; CourseHorse; Coursera; Desmos; Edmodo; Edsurge; Educents; eSpark; Experiment; Learnzillion; MasteryConnect; Mystery Science; NoRedInk; NovoEd; OneSchool (Closed); popexpert; Rockit Online; Savvy; ShowMe; Udemy; Verbling; VersaMe; WriteLab
New Enterprise Associates: BenchPrep; Bridge International Academies; Coursera; D2L; Duolingo; Edmodo; Everfi; Guidespark; LearnUp; MasterClass; Quad Learning; Tynker; Upstart
NewSchools Venture Fund: BetterLesson; BrightBytes; ClassDojo; ClassWallet; CodeHS; Curriculet; EdCast; Edsurge; Education Elements; Educreations; Ellevation; Engrade (Acquired); enuma; eSpark; FreshGrade; Goalbook; Grockit (Acquired); Kaizena; Kidaptive; Learnzillion; MasteryConnect; Mystery Science; Mytonomy; Nearpod; Nepris; Newsela; Readworks; SchoolMint; Socrative (Acquired); Tales2Go; Tuva Labs; Tynker; Zaption
(In 2015, NSVF spun its investment vehicle out into a new for-profit fund, Reach Capital: Abl Schools; BetterLesson; ClassDojo; Edsurge; eSpark; Gradescope; Nearpod; SchoolMint; Volley; WriteLab; Zeal Learning)
Rethink Education: 2U (IPO); Ace Learning Company; Allovue; Bridge International Academies; BrightBytes; Civitas Learning; Degreed; Education Elements; Ellevation; Engrade (Acquired); Everfi; General Assembly; Hapara; Neverware; Noodle Education; NoRedInk; Pathbrite (Acquired); Smarterer (Acquired); Straighterline; Voxy
SV Angel: Boundless (Acquired); ClassDojo; Clever; Codecademy; Course Hero; Experiment; Hullabalu; KidAdmit; Kno; LearnUp; Panorama Education; Piazza; ShowMe; Skillshare; Tutorspree (Acquired); Verbling; WayUp
Beyond “The Most Active” Investors…
But a list of the “most active investors” really only gives you a partial glimpse into who’s investing in ed-tech. One of the reasons I started my own startup database is that I was interested in questions beyond “who’s making the most investments” or even “who’s making the biggest investments.” Like, who’s invested regularly in companies that have had “successful exits”? Who hasn’t? Who hasn’t made any education investments at all lately? Which trends do investors seem to cluster around? How has that changed over time? Which education CEOs are investors in their own startups or in others? What’s in the portfolio of celebrity investors – folks like Mark Cuban, Peter Thiel, Mark Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, John Doerr, and Ashton Kutcher – and/or those who loudly push particular narratives about “the future of education”?
What does the network of education technology investment look like?
An Ed-Tech Investor Graph
This last question is particularly interesting to me (although, I confess, social network analysis is outside my wheelhouse).
I’ve taken those “top” education investors listed above and created a graph that shows the relationships among them and their portfolio companies. This is, once again, just a partial glimpse at the roughly 3500 ed-tech investments that have happened since I launched Hack Education.
Pretty! And pretty frustrating too, isn’t it, when you don’t have all the data, and you have to rely on someone else to interpret what's going on. Lucky for the ed-tech industry, right there at the center of the graph’s middle cluster: Edsurge.
I’ll be digging into this data some more, and I’ve made it openly available so that others can too. Coming soon: What does the ed-tech investor graph look like for the MOOC trend? For the coding bootcamp trend? For “personalized learning”? And who's investing in these investment funds?