In the last six months we have had the successful launch of StartUp Weekend edu and seem some interesting companies at the start-up competition held at Learning Without Frontiers. These show there is plenty of innovation in the UK educational start-up scene, but sadly this isn’t matched by much enthusiasm from incubators or investors.
Of the interesting start-ups I know, four have obtained angel investment (Zondle, Night Zookeeper, MiniMonos and Flooved), but others have had to leave the UK to attract interest including Isaac Moshe’s Academize (AngelPad in San Francisco) and Emily Toop’s Tiny Ears (Start-up Chile). While this small list is hardly definitive, I know the UK education and start-up scene well enough to see that something is seriously amiss.
Perhaps the most striking example of the dysfunction in the start-up scene can be seen at Pearson, the world’s largest and most successful education company whose global head office is in the Strand’ central London. Since investing £1.38m in Blue Duck Education (MangaHigh – hardly a start up) Pearson has (to my rather imperfect knowledge) not invested in a single UK education start up! Compare this to the US where they are a very active investor, mainly though Tom Vander Ark’s, Learn Capital Venture Partners (previously Revolution Learning). Here is a sample of their investments:
OneSchool – $750k, Mastery Connect $1.1m, Verbling $1m, Desmos $800k, Showme $800k, Learn Zillion $2.4m, Class Dojo, Lafafa (China), Formative Learning, SchoolTube, Bridge International Academies (Kenya), Udemy and Chromatik (all undisclosed).
I think you get my point, Pearson who are blanketing the UK education market looking for ideas (sponsor StartUp Weekend edu, TechHub, Teaching Awards, etc), don’t actually invest here. As to why they don’t I can’t really explain why. I tried to ask Marjorie Scardino after her wonderful keynote speech at SXSW edu, but you can’t cover much in 30 seconds (and I was glad of that).
So why are investors chary of the UK edu start-up scene? It’s not for a lack of money, nor because the tax regime (VCTs, SEIS, EIS, etc) nor are incentives are lacking (yes I know Canada and Singapore are better) and VC’s only seem to awake from their corporate slumber if you tell them you’re incorporated in Delaware. As for incubators 500 startups and Imagine K12 have been terrific in supporting US edu start-ups (19 between them). I wrote to Imagine K12 to see if they had any plans to look outside the US and Tim Brady wrote back saying, ‘We don’t have any UK/European plans, although most of the products we incubate have global (English speaking) application’. Local incubator seedcamp (5oo Startups UK partner) has pretty dismal track records in edu, although Jon Bradford and the team at Springboard (with MiniMonos).
So it is really about a lack of vision and understanding? I think they simply see education as too boring and difficult. At SXSW edu I met several start-ups who had raised $400-$900k for ideas that weren’t unique with teams who had almost zero business experience. Good luck to them, although ironically their investors had their own myopia in that they didn’t want them to look at any markets outside the US.
It’s a conundrum. Pearson don’t invest in the UK start-up scene, US companies do, but are isolationist and at the very bottom of the pile is the innovation and creativity of UK edu start-ups who are being starved of early stage funding or forced into economic exile by the pathos of local investors.
My only solution is to try and create my own edu start-up fund in the UK. I have already had some serious interest, but like many start-up ideas, this one will only ever happen when as Rod Tidwell says in the film Jerry Maguire, ‘SHOW ME THE MONEY!’