We spend more than $6 trillion dollars a year on education worldwide -- from early childhood through corporate and lifelong learning. That gigantic sum is garnering the attention of entrepreneurs and investors eager to develop and unleash startup education technology (edtech) companies that promise to transform education and capture a slice of that $6 trillion pie.
An impressive roster of those entrepreneurs, investors and others were in New York City this past week for National Education Week at New York University, where 10 selected edtech companies gave on-stage pitches to some of the biggest names in the venture capital and education communities.
EDGE, a new, highly competitive accelerator program for edtech companies, presented the conference, and the 10 presenting edtech companies were the first graduates of their accelerator. According to the EDGE founders, their program is more competitive than Harvard or Stanford -- this year they accepted only 10 companies from more than 560 worldwide applications.
After listening to all 10 pitches, and meeting many more edtech entrepreneurs in the hallways and at cell phone charging outlets, here are five startup or early stage edtech companies that caught my eye. I’m not suggesting these companies are good investments -- I’m no investor, so I can’t possibly say which of these or others could be good financial bets. But as someone who’s spent years working with entrepreneurs and studying and writing about education policy, these five stood out for their inspiring entrepreneurial approaches to teaching and learning.
1. Dream Up
Dream Up wasn’t an EDGE / National Education Week startup, but they are interesting, because they’re putting the space in edtech. Literally.
Dream Up allows students to design their own science experiments -- which the company will launch into space -- to be conducted by actual astronauts. Dream Up is taking advantage of the private, commercial space vehicles pioneered by SpaceX and others. For those who know about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, allowing middle and high school students to design and actually launching space research is pretty darn cool. So far, Dream Up has flown more than 230 unique educational experiments and 40 more are in the pipeline for 2016.
"We love connecting students and teachers to real space-based experiences. Having a project in the zero-gravity environment changes a student forever,” says Patricia Mayes, Dream Up's director.
2. Junior Explorers
Junior Explorers was one of the 10 EDGE accelerator companies, and their mission is simple: Make youngsters eager learners and adventurers, wherever they are. Oh, and to save the planet.
Junior Explorers creates monthly subscription-based online adventures where kids can take a virtual visit to exotic eco-systems to solve challenges, crack mysteries and save animals. Every month, an adventure kit arrives by mail with an online sign-in code to start a new journey. It’s Carmen Santiago meets Indiana Jones to teach geography, science and conservation.
Coachtube is another of the EDGE / National Education Week group and, as Coachtube correctly points out, there are online resources for learning just about anything from knitting to pottery to calculus -- but nowhere online you can go to learn how to improve your golf game or kick a field goal.
Coachtube has in-depth training sessions from some of the best and best-known coaches in 33 different sports and activities including the head coach of last year’s college football national champions, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer or international soccer star Mia Hamm.
“Wealth and geography are no longer obstacles to getting great coaching and advice,” says Wade Floyd, the entrepreneur behind Coachtube. “Through Coachtube, whether you want to learn to hit a curve ball or understand the hurry-up offense, you don’t need to leave your back yard -- the coaches come to you.”
4. Open Online Academy
Open Online Academy is an EDGE / National Education Week company and has made education and certification in engineering, city planning, design and architecture available to anyone, anywhere in world.
That’s a big deal, because a shockingly high percentage of the world’s buildings and communities are not and were not built to modern standards or with contemporary city and social planning. Consequently, natural disasters and health emergencies are more devastating and more costly. So Open Online Academy offers online training in things such as building emergency shelters and constructing resilient schools.
"At Open Online Academy, we provide professional education for the “building industry,” including architecture, engineering, real estate and construction. Our mission is to build a better world," says Ivan Rumenov Shumkov, the CEO of the academy who has a PhD in architecture.
5. Core Learning Exchange
Core Learning Exchange also wasn’t part of the EDGE 10. Core provides content and lesson plans to teachers and but also has a feature which allows teachers to not just buy teaching tools but sell them.
With Core Learning Exchange, innovative or successful teachers can not only share their work with others, they can get paid for it -- allowing teachers, schools and even districts to become education brands on their own. Since every entrepreneur knows financial success and recognition are great innovation catalysts, this company may do a great deal to share teacher-created, classroom-tested wisdom and insights.
I could have listed more companies with great ideas and engaging approaches to improving teaching and learning. But these five are good examples of the diversity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship being applied to education challenges. They are also outstanding examples of why so many entrepreneurs and investors are drawn to edtech -- and why the sector continues to grow.