Y Combinator’s Newest Batch of Education Technology Startups
There were all the usual trappings of a startup demo day. Caffeinated founders paced the lobby in colorful T-shirts splattered with their company logos, polishing their pitches for their on-stage presentation and meetings with potential investors.
But Y Combinator’s event this week also came with heavy machinery and special snacks. Outside the Computer History Museum, where its 26th demo day was held, an autonomous tractor drove in circles next to a massive 3D printer assembling an office pod. Inside, an industrial-grade drone sat nearby tables offering instant coffee and cannabis sodas. Then there’s Nectome, a “100 percent fatal” startup that boasts the ability to upload your brain for future use.
Back to life and reality, the latest graduating class of 141 will be putting their best foot forward in an effort to woo investors at Demo Day. Eight education startups are among them, and all but one are focused on helping learners develop chops in programming and artificial intelligence technology.
“Interactive curriculum is the next wave” of opportunities in the education market, says Tim Brady, a partner at Y Combinator, in an interview with EdSurge. Brady has now overseen 11 cohorts of education technology startups over the past seven years. He co-founded and help run Imagine K12, a startup accelerator dedicated to the education sector, before the group merged with Y Combinator.
Don’t expect coding and AI tools to be in vogue for long—at least in education. Eventually there comes a point where the market becomes saturated with one class of products. Today, from Brady’s perspective, “the space for teacher productivity tools is pretty crowded,” he shares. These were the kinds of tools that used to make up a sizable portion of Imagine K12 cohorts.
What he has yet to find—but which he says Y Combinator would be willing to invest in—are companies that can help support and run new school models. He’s also on the lookout for tools that “unlock the black box of a child’s learning” for parents.
You won’t find those companies in this batch. Here’s what we saw instead.
Delphia is developing AI tools that aim to help people make complex life decisions—such as which college to attend and which major to choose. A high-school student can take a 40-question survey and see results about the schools and programs that may be the best “fit” for him or her.
Andrew Peek, the Canadian company’s chief operating officer, says Delphia’s system has been trained to make these recommendations based on survey data from recent university graduates. And if users doesn’t like the suggestions, they can let Delphia know, and the system will recalibrate its recommendation system.
Education is only one of several industry verticals that Delphia provides its services for. It’s licensed its surveying tools to media companies like Vox for stories where this data comes in handy. (Here’s an example of a story about the 2016 election that used a tool built by Delphia.) Peek envisions that a similar kind of partnership could happen with universities or an education group that may be interested in leveraging its survey tools. Prior to joining Y Combinator, Delphia raised money from Golden Venture Partners.
Edwin is an AI-powered English tutor. The company’s CEO, Dmitry Stavisky, claims there aren’t many good solutions for students who want to learn English for standardized tests like the TOEFL.
Founded in 2016, the San Francisco-based company currently offers a “Tactics & Practice” course for TOEFL that combines Edwin’s AI tutoring with that of professional English instructors. Stavisky says it’s a short, intensive course that can take between one to three months to finish. It’s normally priced at $250; however, there’s currently an early access price of $50. Since the course’s launch on March 15, about 1,300 students have started the course, according to Stavisky.
The company also has a free vocabulary course. Students can learn up to 20 new words per day. Stavisky says that last year, that course had 750,000 users.
For now, students have to sign into Facebook Messenger to use Edwin. It will then ask a series of questions designed to get a sense of the users’ current language skill level, and how much time they plan on committing to using the tool. Currently, Edwin supports Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Hindi speakers. Stavisky says the company is also developing for Google Assistant.
This Huntsville, Ala.-based company wants to help K-12 schools and districts tackle an age-old problem: leverage data from disparate sources to help educators better align their spending and resources to improve student outcomes. In the words of its co-founder Adam Pearson: “We want to help district leaders maximize student outcomes with limited resources—whether it’s human resource or a product—by making sure that every dollar is aligned with activities that are effective for students.”
Pearson claims the company can hoover up data from a number of places, including student information systems, financial management tools and student achievement records, to help inform whether a particular product, strategy or other expenditure is delivering improvements in student learning.
The company charges districts on a per-student basis, and currently has six of them paying to use the platform. In Morgan County District Schools in Alabama, Glimpse is currently being used to evaluate more than 50 products on the basis of their effectiveness in improving student outcomes.
Prior to joining Y Combinator, Glimpse has raised $435,000 in funding. It is not alone in trying to help schools better understand the ROI from their spending; other companies in this space include BrightBytes and Schoolzilla.
San Francisco-based Hunter2 teaches developers how to write secure code through interactive online lessons. The company sells subscriptions to its lessons to companies interested in training their developers. Fleischer says there’s interest from companies in security-sensitive industries such as healthcare and cryptocurrencies.
“The breaches you hear about today like Equifax happened because hackers are able to exploit vulnerable code,” the company’s CEO, Fletcher Heisler, tells EdSurge. “So the best way to prevent hacks is to train developers how to recognize and fix insecure code.”
Hunter2’s platform launched three weeks ago, and has 15 paying companies. Heisler declined to share more pricing details other than that it’s a monthly fee based on the team’s size and volume of usage.
With Juni Learning, co-founders Vivian Shen (CEO) and Ruby Lee (CTO) aim to provide a service that taps the market demand for online tutoring services and computer science education.
Founded in 2017, Juni currently offers nine courses in computer science, each of which focus on a specific programming language. The curriculum is built by the company, and programming exercises span the gamut from making games in Scratch to working with APIs and large data sets using Python.
The company’s target age range are kids between the ages of 8 to 18, but the co-founders say there are users as young as 5 and as old as 50. Current pricing options include private, weekly 50-minute sessions with an instructor that cost $250 per month, and small-group weekly sessions (capped at 3 students) that cost $160 per month. Instructors, who are often computer science students or recent graduates, generally end up taking home 50 percent of the tuition, says Shen.
Juni piloted the program last June and July with families in Palo Alto, and today says there are “hundreds” of paying customers, according to Shen. She claims that the company is “quite profitable.” In the future, the company looks to expand its catalog of courses to more advanced topics like cybersecurity and machine learning, as well as other subjects.
NextGenT is an online academy that wants to train network, cybersecurity and systems engineers. The San Jose, Calif.-based company’s typical customers are 25-30 year olds who are either in entry-level IT jobs and want to move up, or looking to switch into a career in tech.
The main program (called “Zero to Engineer”) is designed to be finished in around four months, but students can take anywhere from three to six months to finish. This program includes a series of courses that introduce students to the IT industry and help them build routing, wireless and other foundational networking skills. Afterwards, they’re expected to build a complete full-stack network.
Once they’ve done that, students work on getting two IT certifications, and then embark on their job hunt. Hess says throughout the entire program, the students get coaching and mentorship. The program comes with a $12,500 price tag, although there are discounts available.
So far, about 180 students have gone through the program at their own pace. About a third of them have finished, and of them about half reported getting a new job or a wage boost.
In May, the company will launch a cohort-based program where up to 100 students will be taking classes at the same pace. Also on the company’s roadmap are plans to build out partnerships with employers to create a network of job opportunities that students can tap into.
There are some 18-22 year old customers as well, but founder and CEO Terry Kim says the company has not yet targeted them. In the future, he thinks NextGenT can “absolutely be an alternative to college or a bridge from college to the sector.”
San Francisco-based Repl.it offers an online programming environment and computing platform that allows users to write and deploy apps from their browsers. That may sound a tad technical and wonky, but don’t tell that to the teachers and students who are using the tool in their computer science classes.
Founded in 2016, the team behind Repl.it didn’t build the tool specifically with the education market in mind. Yet more than a million students worldwide, including those in New York City’s Department of Education, have used it for programming assignments and deploying apps, according to its co-founder and CEO, Amjad Masad. The company offers a learning management system where teachers can manage and grade assignments, and where students can collaborate on projects.
Repl.it has been charging K-12 users $5 per student per year, but Masad says it plans to scrap the cost and offer the basic tool for free later this year. (For those who do want to upgrade to access extra storage and computer power, however, it’ll cost $1 per student per month.) The company does charge a per-seat license to higher-ed institutions. Prior to joining Y Combinator, the company had raised $1.5 million from Bloomberg Beta, Y Combinator’’s co-founder Paul Graham, and Reach Capital. (Disclosure: Reach is also an investor in EdSurge.)
SharpestMinds claims to be building an online community for graduate and undergraduate students studying AI and machine learning. But it resembles more of a jobs matchmaker for these roles, as the Toronto-based company aims to match students with relevant internship and career opportunities.
To get in, students first have to apply and take a quiz. If they score well, they then undergo a technical interview, coding test, and submit an application project. Only after they’ve passed will they get access to the job opportunities. Over 60 members have been placed to work with various companies, according to its FAQ.
Interested companies can post openings on SharpestMinds for a fee, and they pay an additional fee if a student gets placed in the company.