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3 Ways to Set Your Edtech Startup Apart

Anne Wintroub

Director of Social Innovation, AT&T

The edtech industry is booming by all accounts.

According to EdSurge, in the first quarter of 2015, investment in U.S. edtech companies topped $630 million — $185 million more year over year.

Every year, edtech companies sell more than $1.3 trillion in K-12, post-secondary, and adult and professional learning products and services, and that amount is only expected to rise.

What is the difference between the edtech companies that succeed and the ones that don’t? As with any startup, it’s not necessarily the best product or service that rises to the top.

In the first AT&T Aspire Accelerator class, which launched in January 2015, we saw the blood, sweat, and tears that five organizations put into their ideas and the passion they have for helping students of all ages succeed. Each of the five organizations had distinct business models and technology platforms, but all five shared three characteristics that set them apart from many of their competitors.

#1 Simplicity

While the innovative technologies behind successful startups are hardly simple, it’s important that the solution itself is — in its essence — simple. The best ideas are the ones that solve complex problems with the most simple solutions.

GradGuru, based in San Francisco, California, is critical, yet simple. The software service and mobile application guides and motivates students enrolled in community college to take actions and engage in behaviors that lead to higher and faster completion rates. GradGuru sends push notifications to help students keep track of deadlines; better understand the milestones they need to hit; learn what behaviors lead to academic success; take advantage of existing student support and financial aid resources; and share these lessons with one another.

Another example is MindBlown Labs in Oakland, California, an edtech social enterprise that creates highly engaging, experiential learning tools to empower teens and young adults with financial capability skills. MindBlown Labs’ first product was Thrive ‘n’ Shine (TnS), a fun mobile- and web-based financial capability game that provides students with the freedom to practice making numerous financial and life decisions.

#2 Market Necessity

An old adage that remains true in any line of business: know your audience. Simply put, companies that have identified the needs of their audiences and have acted upon those needs are at sizable advantages. Educators and administrators work within a unique, ever-evolving space, and understanding the nuances and requirements of that space is critical for achieving success.

For example, with the exponential growth of edtech, school districts and administrators need to be able to track technology use in classrooms, while simultaneously giving teachers a voice in proclaiming which tools are effective in the classroom. That was the impetus for designing Lea(R)n, a tool that allows educators to create “report cards” on essentially any technology tool. Lea(R)n empowers educators and their schools to know and manage which technology products are best for their classrooms.

Similarly, increasing class sizes and a widening opportunity gap prove the classic teaching model of “one size fits all” no longer works. PlayPosit (formerly eduCanon) is based in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. and is a freemium platform that empowers teachers to create and share interactive video lessons. Teachers use PlayPosit to harness the power of video in an engaging, rigorous, and student-directed manner.

#3 Personal Experience

We’ve seen that some of the most innovative ideas come from the minds of those who have actually experienced the problem they are solving. Whether an educator or a parent of a student, if you’ve been on one side of the problem, you can best envision the solution like the English professor who inspired Quill. She gave proofreading assignments at the beginning of each semester to determine each of her students’ grammatical strengths and weaknesses, helping to identify where they may need extra help.

Now, Quill gives every teacher these insights and personalized feedback — instantly. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Quill is a platform for web applications that teaches writing, grammar, and vocabulary skills to K-12 students. Quill creates strong, effective authors by providing students with instant feedback and personalized activities. Additionally, teachers can save time grading homework and easily generate differentiated learning paths.

As we look towards the second AT&T Aspire Accelerator class, being selected as we speak, we know that these three characteristics will be important components of each. Stay tuned in the coming months to learn about the winning ideas and the impact they’re having on students and educators nationwide!

Anne Wintroub

Director of Social Innovation, AT&T

Anne Wintroub is the Director of Social Innovation for AT&T, specializing in ed-tech and workforce development.  She leads the AT&T Aspire Accelerator and the Nanodegree collaboration with Udacity, as well…