How I Approach (Post-)Pandemic EdTech Seed Investing
By Josh Slayton
September 14, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic cast a spotlight on issues within our education and workforce systems that well preceded the outbreak but have the potential to exacerbate its economic impact now and into the future. To address structural issues and inequities in our society, we must think differently about how we approach and deliver an education and training ecosystem that meets the needs of all constituents while building an infrastructure that invests in problem-specific, outcomes-focused solutions.
But just as the pandemic cast a spotlight on these issues, it also drew attention to innovative solutions addressing them, with many early-stage companies filling gaps in the ecosystem and positively impacting students, workers, companies, and our communities.
Where We Are At
Consider Paragon One, which aims to bridge the divide between education and workforce through remote/virtual externships, giving learners the opportunity to develop job skills in a flexible environment. This offering removes the necessity of an in-person experience and opens up work opportunities for a broader set of underserved learners and, by doing so, improving access and equity. SkillCat is also bridging the gap by providing assessments and virtual training simulations that prepare and connect learners for skilled trade jobs–some of the most in-demand workers across the country. Investing in this training solution allows us to bridge skills gaps and address labor shortages effectively. And SimiDigi helps specific sectors cut costs while upskilling and reskilling their workforce through 3D and virtual reality technology. By removing the need for an in-person learning experience, the simulations create more flexible learning and growth opportunities for a broader set of learners and workers, providing access and training where they’re needed most.
These three companies, as well as BeeReaders and ChalkTalk – which also focus on eliminating equity gaps and deliver learner-first solutions in K12 – recently received an investment as part of the inaugural OnRamp Education and Workforce Innovation Accelerator developed by my organization, ECMC Group, through our Education Impact Fund, in partnership with gener8tor, to seed innovation in education and workforce solutions. The accelerator provides both investment and holistic business strategy and support over a three-month period and is part of a broader OnRamp program that we view as a critical platform for connecting edtech and workforce startups to capital during a time when many similar venues have disappeared.
Nuance Hiding in Trends
While edtech investing increased in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, initial funding that helps startups get off the ground saw the largest decline in the fourth quarter of 2020, highlighting trends where mega-financing rounds account for a disproportionate share of financing. At the same time, investments in female-founded companies dropped in 2020, and the percent of founders of color that receive funding is still in the single digits. This highlights why we see our accelerator, like many others, as such a critical catalyst for innovative solutions and promoting equity – not only for students and workers, but for entrepreneurs as well. The more-than-525 applications for the first annual cohort had over 80% of the companies identifying as having diverse founders or teams. That is why we are so excited about the five companies selected this year, which include one female-led and four BIPOC-led start-ups.
Through the accelerator and across our organization’s efforts, we are working to develop educational pathways that work for all constituencies by helping students recognize and realize their potential and their best pathway by investing in, creating and providing innovative technology-enabled education solutions. Our goal is to meaningfully increase access to education and training and improve student outcomes, particularly for historically underserved populations. We believe strongly that education and workforce must align to develop students and workers to improve career pathways, offering innovative programming and training, and ultimately, to improve student ROI.
Over the past year, we have seen the impact the pandemic has had on our society, our workforce and industries across the spectrum. For all the challenges, it has provided us a catalytic moment to reshape our approach in many areas, including how we best train the workforce of tomorrow. If we rise to the moment and invest in and support solutions that sit at the intersection of learners, workforce and industry, we can help reshape the landscape to be more inclusive, productive and equitable for all.
Josh Slayton is the senior vice president of corporate development and impact investing for ECMC Group where he oversees the organization’s Education Impact Fund. It invests in a mix of impact driven, education and workforce-focused early-stage companies.
Featured Image: Markus Spiske, Unsplash.