The Edtech Edge

Local edtech startups are less about disruption as they are about enhancing current models

Back Longreads Nov 26, 2018 By Steven Yoder

In 2015, Shari Anderson wanted to make changes in her school’s traditional computer lab. As the principal at Valley View Elementary in Rocklin, she saw the lab as a place where kids would tinker — “doing a little research or trying out a typing program or something,” as she puts it — but it wasn’t inspiring them to explore technology. So she got approval from the district to tear down the wall between the library and the lab for a single space, then filled it with tech equipment like batteries, motors and circuit boards. By January 2016, the new lab was rolling. She scheduled a weekly class for students to build things with the equipment, hoping to inspire them toward innovation, creativity and problem-solving.

After a year, she realized she needed a more structured curriculum that would push students to improve upon what they’d already learned. Then she ran into Stephane Come, founder of PodPi, at a local science and tech fair. PodPi offers interactive comic books that teach students JavaScript, how to build circuits and create gizmos that work in the Internet of Things.

Anderson bought subscriptions for the lab, and the books have been a hit. She watches students who are quicker to catch on move around the room helping others. That fits with a key goal of the new Common Core curriculum, she says: collaboration, a skill that many employers say graduates lack. And she’s watching the course turn her students into problem-solvers by making failure — and the experimenting needed to deal with it — a normal part of their learning.

Education-technology ventures are often thought of as disruptors that are out to take over how learning happens. But contrary to prediction, massive open online courses (or MOOCs), Khan Academy, and electrode-embedded head caps haven’t yet replaced teachers or professors. Instead, area edtech efforts reflect a sector that’s out to boost teachers’ ability to help students reach academic goals, get youth interested in and ready for college and careers, and hone their problem-solving skills.

Ed Tech, Not Always Hi-Tech

PodPi dates back to 2011 when Come’s 6-year-old son wanted to build a robot. Come has a background in electronics, and as they worked together, Come watched a new world open up for his son. So he launched a Meetup group at Hacker Lab in Sacramento to teach children coding and electronics.

Related: Can a Comic Book Teach Children About STEM?

Related: Startup of the Month: STEMtrunk

Two years in, the group had reached 1,000 members. Come couldn’t keep up; he needed a teaching tool that would replace his in-person sessions. His first iteration of the comic books was online. Kids seemed to enjoy it, but something was wrong: Because they were online and not interacting, they didn’t retain what they’d learned. “It was like they were connected to the Matrix,” Come says. “I’d spent a lot of money on something that was sucking the life out of them.”

So he did the unthinkable, converting the books from a digital format to paper. It worked: The hard-copy books came back to him beat up, with notes scribbled all over. Better yet, in group sessions, students talked about what they were reading and helped each other solve problems, as Anderson later found with her own students. For Come, that was as important as the tech skills. As an Oracle systems architect, he’s seen a lot of software projects get wrecked by coders’ failure to talk to each other or the customer. Come says PodPi is being used in about 40 schools so far, some of them local.

Ed Tech’s Equity Opportunity

Unlike Anderson, many teachers find it tough to integrate new learning tools and software into class given the sheer volume of available options. The number of edtech apps now hovers between 500,000 and 750,000, and teachers are overwhelmed, says Brian Sharp, the Folsom-based CEO of SmartEdTech, creator of an electronic app platform that lets teachers choose apps appropriate to specific learning goals.

It’s an obstacle Aaron Watkins set out to address a few years ago. He’s long headed a Sacramento-based app marketing company called Appency. But on the side, he worked on a product that would let schools and teachers test paid teaching apps for free.

Then he met Jon Corippo of CUE (formerly Computer Using Educators), a Walnut Creek-based nonprofit that helps teachers integrate technology into the classroom. Corippo ran a program that let schools use STEM products donated by manufacturers. But the pro bono nature of it meant there was never enough to go around — he had a long waiting list. That got Watkins attention: Waiting lists mean demand. What if he rented out those products to parents and schools?

That was the beginning of STEMtrunk, a service that Watkins calls the Netflix of STEM teaching gear. Customers pay a subscription for access to the 35 or so “trunks” in the portfolio — coding kits, circuit board toys, droid-building kits, programmable robots — and return them when they’re done. His customers so far are parents, homeschool organizations and contract STEM teachers. The service is designed to make technology available to schools and parents across income categories, while keeping gear that’s no longer a good fit from gathering dust in a closet.
Watkins’ larger goal is to teach kids a systematic way to think about problems. His own undergraduate degree is in neuroscience, which wouldn’t seem relevant to his work at Appency. But he regularly uses those science skills — like A/B testing — to solve business problems, he says.

Creating College Pipelines

Similarly, Navneet Grewal is out to introduce students to the idea that solutions are developed from breaking things and trying again. He’s built a virtual infrastructure that he hopes schools will use to integrate that approach into the classroom. In 2014, his 11-year-old son Ajeet came to him about a place in the cloud to experiment with writing code. So Grewal set up a cloud-based computer lab where Ajeet, and later other children, could deploy and test software products of their own. He’s since built that into an Elk Grove-based nonprofit called Yellow Circle that’s attracted at least 25 corporate sponsors and 10,000 donors. Its online lab has been used by about 80,000 students in 180-plus countries to create 130,000 projects, according to Grewal’s numbers.

Grewal wants to help schools transform their students into creators, not just consumers. He laments how children are handed a smartphone or tablet but not taught until after high school, if ever, how the machines really work or how to build their own content. He blames in part the expense of setting up a school computer lab, particularly because teachers have to be trained to walk students through these assignments. By offering the Yellow Circle lab, along with videos and tutorials that guide students through lessons, Grewal says schools can skip those personnel, software and curriculum costs. All they need is an internet connection and computer access.

While venture capital funding for edtech startups rose 50 percent from 2013 to 2017, it’s going to fewer firms. The actual number of startups being funded dropped from about 230 to just 126 in that period.

He’s also expanded the organization’s mission, offering free tech camps for high school students. In June, he organized a cybersecurity bootcamp at Cosumnes River College and in October another at Folsom Lake College. Now he’s building on those with a $50,000 grant from the City of Sacramento: Starting in 2019, Yellow Circle will be hosting cybersecurity boot camps in Sacramento’s eight council member districts for about 100 students each, with the goal of boosting their interest, and increasing diversity, in a fast-growing field. Grewal is aiming to hold boot camps every year, tackling a different topic each time.

But the subtext of these events is college. They’re being held on area campuses because Grewal wants to give students exposure to higher education. He says it’s too early to have outcome data on how the camp concept affects college choices because the first camp was just this summer. But of 14 high school seniors who attended the June camp, nine are enrolled in an area community college, he says. “The most exciting part for me is that we have kids who have never been on a college campus who realize that they can live at home with mom and dad and still attend a community college right around the corner,” he says.

Funding the Future of Education

Money to launch edtech ventures isn’t easy to come by. Nationally, while venture capital funding for edtech startups rose 50 percent from 2013 to 2017, it’s going to fewer firms. The actual number of startups being funded dropped from about 230 to just 126 in that period, according to an analysis by edtech resource site EdSurge. And the number of those firms getting seed-stage and angel funding fell from 133 to just 56.

Though the first iteration of PodPi was digital, founder Stephane Come says students retain the information better with hardcopies of his comic books. (photo: Fred Greaves)

The local edtech ventures haven’t pursued venture funding. Come says that he’s bootstrapped PodPi with his own money because he wants more control over the company’s direction. While the company needs to be cash-flow-positive, “I’m in this because of the impact,” he says. He says the company has been cash-flow positive for the last four months, and in September he signed a contract to create content for a Chinese firm that sells science and inventor kits.

STEMtrunk has also been bootstrapped thus far, thanks to friends and family and an Indiegogo campaign that wrapped up in April, Watkins says. To allow him to focus full time to STEMtrunk, he says he needs to seek outside investors to raise another $250,000.
Grewal set up Yellow Circle as a nonprofit in order to serve resource-challenged students: 95 percent of the students who use the platform are free users, he says. In addition to grants from the City of Sacramento, he’s gotten corporate donations from Google, Quest Technology Management and IBM.

Helping Students See the Endgame

Indeed, for edtech projects that aim at accessibility, nonprofit or publicly funded models like Yellow Circle may be the only ones that work, given the built-in revenue constraints.

Another organization that illustrates that route is Capital Region Academies for the Next Economy, a consortium of school districts from 13 counties in the greater Sacramento region trying to connect students to careers.

CRANE is out to help students glimpse where their education could lead, and one way to do so is a face-to-face chat with an industry pro. But setting up those meetings involves a big ask of time-crunched employers. That goes double for rural schools, says CRANE’s Louise Stymeist.

So in 2016, CRANE seized the chance to sign on with a Texas-based tech company called Nepris that sets up these virtual classroom conversations. Since then, through CRANE’s Nepris subscription, about 100 local teachers have connected their classes with about 40 area industries, Stymeist estimates.

One of those professionals is Christopher Gresens, senior medical director at Vitalant’s Mather office. Vitalant is one of the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit transfusion medicine organizations, and last November, Gresens live-streamed a Nepris-powered presentation to students from Oakmont High School in Roseville — part of a yearlong curriculum that let them explore health-care and medtech careers. Convincing more students to take up a health career would be a win for them and the local economy, given that the number of health-care jobs in the region has increased by more than 20 percent since 2012 at a time when the number of students getting health-related degrees has fallen by more than 5 percent.

In a video of the session available on Nepris’ website, Gresens runs through a PowerPoint about Vitalant’s work, describes the science of blood, and talks about how to break into a medical career. Then he stops for questions. “I’d like to know what a regular day for you is?” asks a teacher. Students want technical details: “You mentioned washing red blood cells. How do you do that and why?” “In the case of a hemophiliac, do you use preventive medicine, like giving them transfusions of platelets, or do you wait till there’s an incident to do so?”

In a video that CRANE produced about the event, one Oakmont student says that beyond the technical material, it was valuable to get to know Gresens because, “his experience inspired us to finish college and do what we want to do,” she tells the camera.

Now CRANE’s experiment is about to reach more students with the help of another economic development nonprofit. Align Capital Region brings together volunteers to tackle systemic challenges to the region’s economic well-being. In October, the organization launched Nepris-enabled virtual classroom presentations by local industry leaders in 10 schools and is recruiting more schools and professionals to join.

Even before the streaming tech platform, Align had already facilitated interactions between about 5,500 students and industry professionals, says David Inniss, Align’s interim president and CEO. Now that it’s in place, he says, “My goal is to multiply that number by 10.”