Education technology (edtech) startups could have innovative solutions for your university or college’s strategic challenges, such as improving the student experience and boosting the administration’s efficiency.
And institutions often enjoy significant benefits when they choose a startup over a longer-established supplier, such as greater responsiveness, enhanced customer support and the opportunity to set the future direction of a new product or service.
As an institutional leader you could consider taking the lead in seeking out and championing innovative new companies to partner with, paving the way for your university or college to tap into the benefits.
The institutions below are great examples of this:
Swansea University and Unitu
Unitu’s student voice platform is enabling Swansea University to collect, analyse and act on student feedback in real time, and to deliver the student experience that individuals say they want.
Unitu founder Anish Bagga says his platform’s unique selling proposition (USP) is that the startup builds the solution around an institution’s existing student rep system.
Unitu has helped Swansea to identify and act on various concerns and students now enjoy more buses and improved learning spaces, for example.
Dr Patricia Xavier is Swansea’s engineering academic student engagement lead. She said:
“Unitu has taken the time to understand how Swansea works and that’s invaluable. We’ve got direct access to developers and they’re very responsive.
"Unitu has enabled us to ramp up the pace of change. Now, we can put student comments in front of senior management easily and that’s really powerful."
University of Roehampton and BibliU
BibliU (previously known as Bibliotech) - an institutional subscription service for e-textbooks - has a business model that co-founder Dave Sherwood says is unique; when libraries purchase their e-books, there’s no limit to the number of students who can use them.
BibliU integrates with all existing library and university systems, and Dave says it’s the only core e-textbooks solution that has COUNTER accreditation.
Andrew Knight is collections manager, library services at the University of Roehampton. He says the library chose BibliU after looking at a number of options, because the platform’s intuitive with some great accessibility features:
“It’s app-based and students like that because they don’t have to download and save files. We like it because the BibliU team are responsive and open with us.
"I’d advise a university that’s thinking of working with a startup to explore it with an open mind. The product may not be fully formed yet, but this allows you to build a partnership that creates exactly what you want.”
Goldsmiths, University of London and Blackbullion
Blackbullion’s learning platform teaches students about getting their finances under control.
Founder Vivi Friedgut says the Blackbullion solution is unique because it’s digital and it enables students to learn when and wherever they like, for free. It provides tools that help students budget, make decisions about credit cards and loans and maximise their income.
Pewist Osman, head of student support at Goldsmiths, University of London, says:
“Helping students manage their money has a huge positive impact on their wellbeing and their programme of study, reducing their stress levels and ensuring they can get involved in student life.
"The Blackbullion approach teaches students through interactive quizzes and videos, so the content is very engaging. The founders have worked with us to adapt the tools around the needs of our students and they are committed to working with us on continuous improvements.”
Coventry University and Aula
Aula’s communication platform builds active learning communities, creating dedicated spaces for individual groups or classes to foster engagement and collaboration.
The platform is designed to help people develop networks that support their wellbeing and boost their engagement.
The solution is still at pilot stage and Coventry University is one of several institutions working with the startup on its development.
Simon Launder, deputy chief digital information officer at Coventry University, said:
“Most universities have student relationship platforms but they haven’t evolved as students’ lives have changed.
“We wanted to develop ours and Aula have taken on much of the heavy lifting for us. Working with them is a breath of fresh air. Whatever we ask for the answer is always ‘we’ll make sure it happens’.”
Working with startups brings significant benefits for universities and colleges. You should expect to enjoy some, or all, of these benefits:
Early access to cutting-edge approaches
Edtech startup founders are often motivated by gaps they see in how students experience education and how institutions operate. Their products can enable institutions to take new approaches and they can create a transformative effect that brings benefits across several strategic institutional challenges at once.
Lower cost and financial risk
In almost all cases where a startup’s solution competes directly with an established vendor offering its product will cost less to buy, integrate and support – sometimes dramatically less. And, as startups have few customers, they are keen to make sure their product is actually used at each institution – whereas large vendors often leave institutions to get staff and students to use their system(s). That means that, with a startup, you’re less likely to spend money on something no-one uses.
Students’ expectations of their user experience satisfied
Today’s students grew up ‘digital first’ with high expectations of the user experience. Modern startups are often led by younger teams so they tend to understand these trends and working with them helps institutions connect better with students and remain relevant to their lived experience.
Ability to help shape the product
A startup’s first customers have a lot of influence on future product development. Issues are likely to be resolved much sooner and new suggestions will feed directly into the roadmap so the product can evolve quickly in line with users’ needs.
Enhanced reputation for innovation
Wider adoption of the solution will mean that the institution’s approach to the problem becomes recognised as best practice in the sector, positioning the university or college among peers and prospective students as a leader. Engaging with startups can also help foster a culture of innovation within the institution itself.
While these benefits are significant, it can be hard to know where to start and which companies will succeed and grow. So, working with Emerge Education and an advisory board of senior leaders in higher and further education and industry, we’ve identified four key factors that contribute to an edtech startup’s long-term success.
An edtech startup with growth potential has:
- Identified a real, keenly felt problem and found an innovative way to resolve it
Its founders should be able to explain how their product helps address your strategic challenges, and to understand the significance of these challenges to the wider sector
- Built a strong, experienced team
The quality of the founding team is often the best predictor of success for early products that have few business metrics. They should have a track record of building a successful business, strong technical background and deep, personal understanding of the problem they are trying to address
- Developed a useful product that’ll work with existing systems and that you can help to shape
Alongside their knowledge of the problem founders should have strong customer empathy so they can build a product users keep coming back to. On a technical level, products should be able to integrate with key existing systems and have a roadmap that your institution’s IT team can provide input for
- Gathered evidence that there’s market demand
The product should be able to attract other customers. Look for testimonials from other early adopters and external funding is a good sign too, as investors carry out their own due diligence and sometimes provide ongoing support and coaching
But there are particular challenges, too, both for institutions and for startups themselves. Some of the most significant ones are:
Institutional risk aversion
Most universities and colleges in the UK have to approach potential partnerships with caution, and technology startups are inherently risky propositions. Faced with a choice between becoming an early adopter of untested technology or maintaining existing approaches and systems, institutions often opt for the status quo. In fact, although there are risks involved in finding and rolling out a new solution from an edtech startup, many of these are the same for startups as they are for established suppliers. And startups are often more flexible in their approach, offering to pilot solutions before purchase and on more favourable contract terms (for example, in terms of length).
Even small and specialist institutions tend to have complex hierarchies and decision-making structures. It is often unclear to outsiders, whose businesses don’t fit into neat categories, who they need to talk to within the university or college.
Educational institutions tend to move slowly and often rely on multi-year purchasing cycles. By contrast, many startups only have enough funding for several months and they need to find sources of revenue quickly, or they run out of cash and shut down.
Lack of information about available products
Because startups lack large marketing budgets, word-of-mouth is still one of the main ways educators find out about new technologies. Decision-makers are often unaware of many solutions on the market until they gain significant market share.
We’ve drawn up a register of potential risks involved in working with startups, and the actions you can take to mitigate them both for your institution and for the fledgling business. The result, we hope, is that startups can address any deal-breaker issues sooner and so make a strong start to what could become a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship.
|Risk||What this means||Mitigation|
As an early stage business, the startup may fail, leaving the product and its users unsupported.
- Look for external references that provide confidence in team, product, roadmap and future market potential
- Be selective about startups you engage with
- Be prepared to provide guidance and support to startups early on
- Discuss arrangements for ongoing support rights in case of business failure
Mitigated impact/likelihood: medium/medium
|Technical issues and compatibility|
Early iterations of the product are unlikely to be fully compliant with the standard technical requirements from IT and procurement.
- Prioritise understanding IT integration requirements early on
- Agree with IT which requirements are ‘must-haves’ and communicate this to startup
- Work in partnership with the startup to address obvious issues and involve IT services early on
- Seek out expert advice from organisations like ALT, Emerge Education or Jisc on which startups meet key requirements
Mitigated impact/likelihood: low/medium
Quality of support
Small teams may not have a lot of manpower dedicated to support and would struggle to match established vendors on paper (eg 24/7 availability).
- Agree expectations early on and establish clear communication channels to founders
- Organise workshops and onboarding sessions for staff or other users at your institution
- Involve IT services so they can provide some of the support
Mitigated impact/likelihood: low/low
|Poor experience or negative impact|
Founders’ claims about the impact of the product may not match real outcomes, which is especially problematic when rolled out live to student cohorts.
- Agree success metrics, measures of desired outcomes or ROI criteria in advance
- Ask to see the product roadmap (see above) to understand which features are missing but in the plan – and when to expect them
- Consider piloting the product in stages with smaller groups of users and track the relevant metrics for each group
- Establish user groups to encourage ownership of problem-solving and product development iteration
Mitigated impact/likelihood: low/low
Startups do not have large legal teams and may not always be aware of all relevant legal requirements.
- Agree ‘must-have’ requirements with procurement and communicate these deal-breakers in advance
- Provide support to the startup in addressing these issues
- Consider connecting the founding team to legal advisers your institution knows and trusts
Mitigated impact/likelihood: medium/low
Startups may not be able to satisfy data and information security and general data protection regulation (GDPR) requirements.
- Establish what cyber security standards are ‘must-have’ from the outset
- Look for external validation of the solution’s security (such as penetration testing or cyber security certificates)
- Ensure that that the terms of service cover GDPR requirements and data security (for example, location of data and hosted services)
Mitigated impact/likelihood: medium/low
The key question should always be about the problem the product is solving. If the problem isn’t clearly defined or doesn’t resonate with you, the rest of the conversation won’t lead to a partnership.
1.1 What problem does the product solve?
To succeed in the market, a product needs to be addressing a real, significant problem that the startup’s founders can explain in detail.
They should describe their target audience, define its size and tell you what motivates their users. They should also be able to show their approach is superior to existing alternatives.
Be wary if you get a long list of product features, and if the problem is real but only affects a small number of potential users. The startup is unlikely to find significant long-term growth and you should look elsewhere for a solution.
1.2 How will we know the product is working?
Agree success metrics at the outset so you can track your return on investment and assess its impact. Founders will often agree to small-scale or free pilots.
Some startups use ‘engagement metrics’ but this is a flawed approach. Discuss what student or staff engagement means to you and what other data could be used to demonstrate it.
In the early stages of a product the team behind it is the main determinant of future success.
2.1 Who's in the team and what experience do they have?
Successful teams typically have a blend of previous experience and skills. Look for people who have previously worked in senior roles at startups, especially ones backed by angel or venture capital investment.
A lack of any startup experience in the team could lead to issues down the line, though it should not disqualify the startup if they come across as driven, knowledgeable and competent. If founders have participated in accelerator programmes this can mitigate some of these issues
2.2 Are they responsive to customer needs?
Look for empathy and understanding of your challenges and a willingness to adapt to meet your needs.
A background in education is great but the startup’s team also needs a set of business skills so they can act on their insights.
2.3 Does at least one founder have strong technical expertise?
If they do, it will help them avoid common mistakes and build a secure product that you can rely on from the start.
Teams with no first-hand technical expertise will need to recruit a dedicated, experienced chief technology officer.
A technology solution’s success depends on its ability to engage and retain users over time, so focus on the engagement metrics for existing users. The mindset and processes adopted by the startup give an idea of how quickly developers can respond to user feedback or meet technical requirements.
3.1 Are users engaging with the product?
The startup’s founders should be able to answer questions about how they approach user engagement and the metrics they are using to track it.
A lack of understanding of why these metrics matter is not a good sign. Even if it’s too early to have data, founders should still be able to tell you how their product is designed to drive engagement.
3.2. Does the product meet basic technical requirements (and what would it take to get there)?
Where the product falls short of your IT team’s expectations, the startup’s developers should be in a position to work towards them.
What to look for: For early-stage products, adopt a pragmatic view of what is absolutely necessary for the system to function within your institution and discuss a roadmap for meeting additional requirements. Key legal requirements like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will matter more than the breadth of technical integrations. Ultimately, teams following the agile development methodology, where user feedback determines the roadmap, will be in the best position to meet your requirements quickly and in the right order.
Don’t expect early-stage products to conform to the same standards as established, widely used IT systems. Given time and guidance, a responsive team will get there on schedule. However, a product that has been built by an external team and is no longer being actively developed is not likely to succeed in the long term.
4. Market demand
Surveys suggest that the inability to find the right market is a bigger cause of startup failure than poor design or issues in the founding team. There’s a number of factors you can consider when you’re exploring a startup’s longevity.
4.1 Is the product finding the right level of traction?
If a product has current customers or users, there’s evidence of a viable market. Context is key – a product that targets students will have more users than one aimed at professional services staff.
Customer numbers should be aligned to the stage of the company’s development. A very new venture will only need to demonstrate that it has started to validate market demand through conversations, but you should ask searching questions if a five year-old company has struggled to find or retain many customers.
4.2 What do my peers think?
In the early stages of a product current users are likely to have a lot of insight into its development process, the characteristics of the founding team and whether the founders’ claims stand up to reality – so ask them what they think.
Discuss the product with peers in other institutions to understand whether they would find the proposed solution compelling.
If peers you trust don’t see the problem the product claims to address, the startup may struggle to attract customers. Founders who refuse to introduce you to any current users have probably failed to build relationships with them, which does not bode well.
4.3 Is the product backed by external funding?
Where a startup is backed by angel investors or a venture capital fund the investment would usually have required a significant level of due diligence. This provides additional validation.
The absence of external investment is not in itself a red flag – often, founders make a conscious decision not to seek investment. But inexperienced entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed if they have the backing of knowledgeable investors.
Definition of key terms
Edtech is specialised software and, in some cases, associated hardware to improve learning, teaching and professional services. In recent years the edtech market has seen significant growth with over $25bn invested in edtech startups.
In this guide, an edtech startup is any team with a solution for the education market that is still evolving as a service and has the potential for growing at a high rate – but is yet to be adopted widely by the sector.
A roadmap sets out the startup team’s long-term vision and goals for the product. A good roadmap gives a high level description of the future iterations of a product (such as major new features) and is clear about priorities, objectives and projected timelines. It’s good practice to give customers access to the roadmap for increased transparency; so is regularly reviewing it in light of user feedback.
This approach to project planning takes into account the unpredictable nature of software development. All incoming tasks are organised in a list known as a ‘backlog’. Developers work in ‘sprints’ (usually two weeks long), with a meeting at the start of each sprint to decide which tasks to prioritise. As new requirements are identified through user feedback, developers can respond to them quickly.
User experience/user interface design
One of the key trends among modern technology products is a focus on user interface (UI) design and a superior user experience (UX). This design process is heavily dependent on user interviews and continuous feedback loops (the agile approach). By testing new design elements with customers, startups can rapidly identify problems and remove them, making the experience more satisfying and welcoming for users. This approach enables the best modern edtech products to fit well with the expectations of the current generation of students and make the lives of staff easier.
Venture capital (VC) investment is a common source of funding for high-growth technology startups. To minimise their exposure to risk, VC investors run thorough due diligence processes to vet startups. They often provide companies in their portfolio with additional support through coaching, connections and business services.
The following people form the Jisc and Emerge Education HE/FE board, and they developed and refined the content for this report. We thank them for their time and expert insight.
Members of the board
- Mary Curnock Cook OBE, chair
- Katie Bell (CCO, Middlesex University London)
- Cailean Carvalho (head of sales, UCAS Media)
- Chris Cobb (COO, University of London)
- Stephen Dudderidge (registrar and secretary, University of Brighton)
- Dave Hall (registrar and COO, University of Leicester)
- David Hughes (chief executive, Association of Colleges)
- Gerry McDonald (CEO and group principal, New City College)
- Wyn Morgan (vice-president for education, University of Sheffield)
- Ian Pretty (CEO, Collab Group of Colleges)
- Ben Sowter (director, QS Intelligence Unit)
- Cheyne Tan (former founder, BlikBook, and former MD international, Civitas Learning)
- Alex Waters (edtech policy lead, Department for Education)
- Sue Attewell (head of change, Jisc)
- Andy McGregor (deputy chief innovation officer, Jisc)
- Peter Scott (former director, membership engagement, Jisc)
- Jo Cruse (consultant, Emerge Education)
- Alexander Iosad (projects and partnerships, Emerge Education)
- Jan Lynn-Matern (CEO, Emerge Education)
- Nic Newman (partner, Emerge Education)