education's digital future

Ed-tech accelerator to help start-ups bring solutions to market

The educational-technology market is flooded with companies that say their products will “disrupt” or “revolutionize” how faculty and administrators work and students learn. To cut through the noise, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education is launching an ed-tech accelerator that will help start-ups bring their solutions to the market -- if the product lives up to the company’s claims.

And while the Jefferson Education Accelerator, which launches today, will initially only work with a handful of companies at a time, its founders say in the future it could expand to serve as an independent quality control organization -- a Consumer Reports for all things ed tech.

“We want everybody buzzing about the following two phrases: ‘prove it’ and ‘merit, not marketing,’” CEO Bart Epstein said. “We want every conversation at every procurement meeting at every level of education to include a real understanding of ‘What’s the proof?’”

The accelerator is not an incubator, Epstein stressed. It will target ed-tech companies in the growth stage, meaning the start-ups must have figured out certain aspects of how to run a business to qualify. For example, the companies must have generated $1 million in revenue, filled most of their leadership roles and produced some internal data the accelerator can review before being accepted into the program.

On one hand, those requirements disqualify many ed-tech start-ups that may have identified an issue and developed a solution to address it but not established how they will bring that product to the market. On the other hand, they also disqualify established companies whose products are in use at schools and colleges across the country.

“Only companies that add value and help students can and should expect to be around for the long haul,” Epstein said. “Right now, the role of efficacy in the marketplace is not as prominent as many people think it should be.”

Companies will, for a share of their equity, get to choose from a menu of five services that includes access to capital, consulting, efficacy research, faculty-supervised pilots and mentoring. Different companies will require different combinations and periods of engagement, Epstein said.

For the companies interested in testing their products, the accelerator plans to assemble a network of school systems and higher education institutions. In cases where the advisory board lacks the expertise to properly review a company’s data, the accelerator will draw on talent from faculty and teachers in the network....

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