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Learning to scale: future unicorns to explain edtech’s rise

By Callum McCaig, Portfolio Lead at Hotwire Global

It’s a curious time to work in tech. While we continue adjusting and working through a global healthcare crisis of unthinkable proportions, it feels crass to speak of “positives”, champion funding rounds or point to trends accelerated by COVID-19.

Yet, it’s the responsibility of technology sectors to help us adapt and move forwards. It will be technology’s job to keep goods moving with a new supply chain; to find cures through AI and big data, and deliver remote services in the cloud; to keep us watching and learning and spending through eCommerce and the digital high street. This pandemic is a human tragedy we will cope with, analyse, learn and economically recover from, through technology.

The role of healthcare in this current crisis is clear, and rising investment in health-tech has been well-publicised for a decade. But for education, the other societal pillar entrenched in legacy architecture and governance, things are suddenly heating up.

Despite the  false starts, an ‘unbundling’ of education has been quietly taking shape – mirroring the fintech growth arc, with thousands of technology startups picking apart and re-packaging aspects of learning that were controlled and delivered by longstanding institutions. EdTech investment surged 91% in the UK last year, as funds began diversifying fintech-heavy portfolios.

Now, a sudden boom in remote learning is pouring rocket fuel on that underlying growth trend. Global investment in EdTech rose 22% in the first quarter of 2020, as short-term ‘remote learning’ needs and long-term disruption potential drew investors in.

It may prove a smart choice as we enter recession, with price inelasticity likely to protect education – alongside other essential industries like healthcare and logistics. Analysts at Dealroom suggest the sector is on the cusp of a “breakthrough”, concluding “EdTech could well explode this year.

With EdTech representing just 3.6% of the global Unicorn club, what will the next cohort of EdTech Unicorns look like – and what can they teach us about the 21st Century re-shaping of education?

The importance of accessible upskilling

E-learning platforms have evolved dramatically, since the early MOOCs (massive open online courses) broke through. A great example is Irish scale-up Shaw Academy.

Already scaling up in multiple regions with its easy-access, at-your-own-pace upskilling proposition, the pandemic triggered a surge in sign-ups on top of an already growing user base – a 795% rise in sign-ups and millions of new customers in weeks, according to the company’s latest announcement. It seems we may have only scratched the surface, when it comes to growth in this category. 

Focusing on employer bundling

We’ll see another cluster of scale-ups dive deeper into domain-specific upskilling. A Cloud Guru is one example, smartly hijacking the global trend of digital transformation with an IT education platform for enterprise. The site has already helped hundreds of businesses put employees through their paces in all aspects of cloud, as an employee engagement initiative that supports their own IT modernisation in the process.

Another UK scale-up, Immersive Labs, highlights the variety we’re seeing even within this cluster of scale-ups – leading with an employer-driven proposition, future-proofing enterprises by rolling out cyber-threat awareness education initiatives to workforces.

‘New stack’ enablement

As we reach a tipping point in accessibility of low-cost, high-performance IT infrastructure – 5G-enabled chipsets, cloud, data integration and analytics, affordable AI and ML – there is huge potential to re-model how on-the-job learning and enablement is delivered. Look out for more innovators in highly technical industries, like Digital Surgery, which scaled up with a ‘surgical training and simulation’ app – and took it one step further, with an AI-driven platform for operating rooms. 

Over-the-top platforms

Among the many parallels between finance and education as industries undergoing disruption, heavy reliance on outdated infrastructure may be the most scalable opportunity for new entrants – if they can find ways to connect together existing systems in a way that quickly improves end-user experience. Aula is a great example of this, providing a social learning platform that acts as “a digital campus that complements an institution’s physical campus”.

Hardware and hands-on learning

Even in a new normal defined by remote-everything, there is still a role for hands-on learning at every stage of education. Few scale-ups have tapped into that continued demand with more creative flair than Kano – with its educational computer kits, modular accessories and, through brand tie-ins with the likes of Disney, even a “wand that teaches kids how to code”.

For a sector whose disruption potential is so huge, we have under-indexed on EdTech investment and recognition for too long. That is surely about to change. Right now, we need every good news story we can get – and the arrival of this long-anticipated EdTech boom will be good news for everyone.