5 Different Ways Tech Startups Are Taking on Education



Education is crucially important as a tool to prepare workforces, for personal development and for self-fulfillment. In economic terms, it represents a huge market in two dimensions: 1) in the US and around the world, many people are engaged in education; and 2) people are engaged in education for a large percentage of their lives, so potential customers are almost always potential repeat customers.

As traditional markets and social structures are disrupted by novel technology, education is becoming more important than ever for people who want to get ahead in their careers and stay connected. The following list takes a look at the education vertical through five tech startup concepts, each using a different technology to approach the industry from a new angle:

Self-improvement through brain training: Lumosity

Nintendo perhaps first made the concept of brain-training technology popular when it released Brain Age for the Gameboy DS in 2005. Around the same time, California-based Lumosity was founded around a similar concept and its own research. Lumosity provides a web and mobile app that customizes a learning program. The software asks users which mental capacities they want to improve, then guides the user through a set of mini-games which are intended to measure and improve performance in five dimensions: Speed, Memory, Attention, Flexibility and Problem Solving. Users can track their score in each dimension, watch it improve over time, and compare it to the average of other groups of users. The learning program is based on research about how human cognition works and uses gamification to motivate users. Lumosity is a big believer in big data—they recently released a study which demonstrates that analysis of learning (as determined by success rate at the mini-games) shows how adjustments to the software can result in faster learning.

Language Acquisition: Memrise

Traditionally, the best way to learn a language has been to actually live in a place and talk to locals. Taking a class, or using audiotapes or books, were also options. One of the earliest companies to use interactivity, cognitive data and innovative technology to improve at-home language education was Rosetta, founded in 1992, and which continues to offer language learning software for personal, educational, government and corporate customers. More recently, Memrise, which launched in 2009, offers a much more lightweight SaaS platform to provide intuitive, easy to use flashcards to teach languages or concepts. It uses a proprietary algorithm to optimize learning and retention, based on the user’s previous responses. It also encourages mnemonic devices to improve retention. Many courses are free, and anyone can create one. Like Lumosity, Memrise incorporates a gamification element, which allows users to compete against each other and themselves.

Adaptive eLearning: Smart Sparrow

Smart Sparrow, founded in Australia in 2010, is making moves towards the US and other countries. They call their technology Adaptive eLearning, and it is designed to help customize educational content. With the teacher at the helm, the software provides analytics and helps teachers develop tailored learning programs for each student. Unlike purely software-based services, Smart Sparrow implicitly leverages the human factor: a skilled teacher who can drive the whole process.

Interactive Textbooks: Kno and GoBoundless

Kno is a provider of electronic textbooks, but unlike other ebook stores, they have selections with interactive elements, which can be leveraged by schools to make learning more engaging. Kno partners with educational institutions to customize and deploy sophisticated elearning solutions. The smart textbooks include assessments and social sharing tools and incorporates analytics platform for administrators and teacher to assign, manage and monitor students. Kno was recently purchased by Intel for an undisclosed sum.

Whereas self-learning programs like Memrise and Lumosity attempt to open up new markets or take market share from existing institutions, both Smart Sparrow and Kno turn educational institutions and teachers into partners. This model is a bet on a future in which the internet and technology never entirely displaces teachers and educational institution. Both companies clearly believe the role of teachers is indispensible.

Student Loan Management: Tution.io

Finally, one of the most innovative ideas in education isn’t related to content at all—but to financing. Tuition.io launched last January and is already making waves as an easy-to-use tool to aggregate information from multiple lenders. The founders, who are dealing with student debt of their own, saw the complicated mess of many different bills, websites to log into, and repayment terms. They decided to create a platform that would allow borrowers to deal with all their education loans in one place, and to identify consolidation or other options, where appropriate. Student debt has been getting steadily higher and more complex. Tution.io has shown that they can save the average borrower $1,700 a year, so it seems that they have hit on a potentially very useful product. If you didn’t notice that the web address means “Tuition I owe,” it’s OK. Most people don’t get it the first time.


Education is a huge and growing market. The traditional players—primary schools and universities—are highly fragmented, fundamentally brick and mortar, and except for the most top-level institutions, only serve locals. There is a significant upside for disruption by new entrants with innovative technology that can reach and be used by many people. Many educational institutions are awake to this reality and are preparing their own programs to stay competitive and monetize new technology. Many are even offering courses for free. But even capturing a tiny portion of the worldwide demand for education could easily become a billion dollar business, and as these startups demonstrate, there are many ways to get in on the action.

About the author: Adam Masser

Adam L. Masser is a business lawyer specializing in Private Equity and M&A transactions with a background in network infrastructure and software development. He is passionate about technology and its ability to enable creative destruction to generate new business opportunities.

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