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This Edtech Aims To Be the Netflix Of Mathematics Bhanzu is an edtech startup that works to end 'mathphobia' and promote the much-maligned subject as a fun mind sport among students

By Soumya Duggal

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Neelakantha Bhanu, CEO, Bhanzu

Have you ever felt dumb and pitiable before your local grocer while struggling to calculate the bill in your head? Have you then proceeded to use your smartphone's calculator and found yourself melting into a puddle of sweat and tears under the derisive gaze of fellow shoppers? This feeling—'mathphobia', as some call it—is well-known to several generations of students.

On the other end of the math spectrum, however, is Neelakantha Bhanu, the Ussain Bolt of mathematical calculation, or so the BBC observed in 2020. He was merely 20 years old then, not yet legally permitted to drink or marry in India. Three years prior, when he was 17 years old and still a minor, Bhanu broke four world records in calculation, becoming the world's fastest human calculator. At 23 years old today, he runs Bhanzu, an edtech startup aimed at ending 'mathphobia' and promoting the much-maligned subject as a fun mind sport among students.

"Over the last few years, I've travelled and taught math across 24 countries, including India, and discovered that three out of four students are afraid of the subject in some way or another. This is contrary to how I've ever perceived math," said Bhanu, CEO, Bhanzu. To remedy the situation, he devised a unique math curriculum for his startup.

Mathematics, to him, isn't merely an academic subject to be studied for passing an examination. Nor is it a symbol of a shallow kind of intelligence that impresses on paper but serves no purpose in the real world. "Math is everywhere; the whole world can be perceived through its lens. When we teach a child trigonometry just to solve a particular question, we miss putting forward a picture where trigonometry can solve everyday problems," explained Bhanu.

Devising the right pedagogy to offer students a holistic image of the mathematical world has been a key challenge for Bhanzu to overcome. "Initially when we started with our pilot classes, we were struggling to communicate with students as they felt our approach was counter-intuitive. However, well-thought-through communication and messaging have paved the way towards enriched student life cycles and learning outcomes. Since then, the student's response has been tremendous and there has been no looking back," stated Bhanu.

Despite the ups and downs in the Indian edtech industry in the last few years, Bhanu is optimistic about the sector's potential in expanding learning opportunities for the country's students. "Bhanzu, particularly, builds math confidence and cognitive development, facilitating a modern exploration of the STEM fields and redefining what learning means. Our curriculum is not merely a bridge between supply and demand but is the outcome of over four years of expansive research," claimed Bhanu.

According to him, training in mental calculations or any other mind sport has the primary goal of improving cognitive ability, which cannot be done through studying courses like KUMON, Vedic math or Abacus as they teach shortcuts alone to solve math problems. "The appeal of mind games is that the process of problem-solving is more important than the solution itself. Bhanzu accomplishes this by emphasizing upon practical applications and telling amusing stories," explained Bhanu.

In September this year, Bhanzu raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Eight Roads Ventures. It plans to use a large portion of the funds to hire highly effective tech teams to develop the learning ecosystem. While the startup's current priorities include customer acquisition, tech implementation, and growth, it plans on expanding to multiple geographies in the future, having begun with the Middle East and South-east Asia most recently.

"I want Bhanzu to become the world's largest math learning organization in the next three to four years—the Netflix of math, if you will—where a tech-enabled recommendation system tells students what they need to learn based on their performance," stated Bhanu.

Soumya Duggal

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