Aug
26
2021
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Workera.ai, a precision upskilling platform, taps $16M to close enterprise skills gap

Finding the right learning platform can be difficult, especially as companies look to upskill and reskill their talent to meet demand for certain technological capabilities, like data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence roles.

Workera.ai’s approach is to personalize learning plans with targeted resources — both technical and nontechnical roles — based on the current level of a person’s proficiency, thereby closing the skills gap.

The Palo Alto-based company secured $16 million in Series A funding, led by New Enterprise Associates, and including existing investors Owl Ventures and AI Fund, as well as individual investors in the AI field like Richard Socher, Pieter Abbeel, Lake Dai and Mehran Sahami.

Kian Katanforoosh, Workera’s co-founder and CEO, says not every team is structured or feels supported in their learning journey, so the company comes at the solution from several angles with an assessment on technical skills, where the employee wants to go in their career and what skills they need for that, and then Workera will connect those dots from where the employee is in their skillset to where they want to go. Its library has more than 3,000 micro-skills and personalized learning plans.

“It is what we call precision upskilling,” he told TechCrunch. “The skills data then can go to the organization to determine who are the people that can work together best and have a complementary skill set.”

Workera was founded in 2020 by Katanforoosh and James Lee, COO, after working with Andrew Ng, Coursera co-founder and Workera’s chairman. When Lee first connected with Katanforoosh, he knew the company would be able to solve the problem around content and basic fundamentals of upskilling.

It raised a $5 million seed round last October to give the company a total of $21 million raised to date. This latest round was driven by the company’s go-to-market strategy and customer traction after having acquired over 30 customers in 12 countries.

Over the past few quarters, the company began working with Fortune 500 companies, including Siemens Energy, across industries like professional services, medical devices and energy, Lee said. As spending on AI skills is expected to exceed $79 billion by 2022, he says Workera will assist in closing the gap.

“We are seeing a need to measure skills,” he added. “The size of the engagements are a sign as is the interest for tech and non-tech teams to develop AI literacy, which is a more pressing need.”

As a result, it was time to increase the engineering and science teams, Katanforoosh said. He plans to use the new funding to invest in more talent in those areas and to build out new products. In addition, there are a lot of natural language processes going on behind the scenes, and he wants the company to better understand it at a granular level so that the company can assess people more precisely.

Carmen Chang, general partner and head of Asia at NEA, said she is a limited partner in Ng’s AI fund and in Coursera, and has looked at a lot of his companies.

She said she is “very excited” to lead the round and about Workera’s concept. The company has a good understanding of the employee skill set, and with the tailored learning program, will be able to grow with company needs, Chang added.

“You can go out and hire anyone, but investing in the people that you have, educating and training them, will give you a look at the totality of your employees,” Chang said. “Workera is able to go in and test with AI and machine learning and map out the skill sets within a company so they will be able to know what they have, and that is valuable, especially in this environment.”

 

Feb
18
2021
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Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech

The rise of “Zoom University” was only possible because edtech wasn’t ready to address the biggest opportunity of the past year: remote learning at scale. Of course, the term encapsulates more than just Zoom, it’s a nod to how schools had to rapidly adopt enterprise video conferencing software to keep school in session in the wake of closures brought on by the virus’ rapid spread.

Now, nearly a year since students were first sent home because of the coronavirus, a cohort of edtech companies is emerging, emboldened with millions in venture capital, ready to take back the market.

The new wave of startups are slicing and dicing the same market of students and teachers who are fatigued by Zoom University, which — at best — often looks like a gallery view with a chat bar. Four of the companies that are gaining traction include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. It signals a shift from startups playing in the supplemental education space and searching to win a spot in the largest chunk of a students day: the classroom.

While each startup has its own unique strategy and product, the founders behind them all need to answer the same question: Can they make digital learning a preferred mode of pedagogy and comprehension — and not merely a backup — after the pandemic is over?

Answering that question begins with deciding whether videoconferencing is what online, live learning should look like.

Ground up

“This is completely grounds up; there is no Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams anywhere in the vicinity,” said Dan Avida, co-founder of Engageli, just a few minutes into the demo of his product.

Engageli, a new startup founded by Avida, Daphne Koller, Jamie Nacht Farrell and Serge Plotkin, raised $14.5 million in October to bring digital learning to college universities. The startup wants to make big lecture-style classes feel more intimate, and thinks digitizing everything from the professor monologues to side conversations between students is the way to go.

Engageli is a videoconferencing platform in that it connects students and professors over live video, but the real product feature that differentiates it, according to Avida, is in how it views the virtual classroom.

Upon joining the platform, each student is placed at a virtual table with another small group of students. Within those pods, students can chat, trade notes, screenshot the lecture and collaborate, all while hearing a professor lecture simultaneously.

“The FaceTime session going on with friends or any other communication platform is going to happen,” Avida said. “So it might as well run it through our platform.”

The tables can easily be scrambled to promote different conversation or debates, and teachers can pop in and out without leaving their main screen. It’s a riff on Zoom’s breakout rooms, which let participants jump into separate calls within a bigger call.

There’s also a notetaking feature that allows students to screenshot slides and live annotate them within the Engageli platform. Each screenshot comes with a hyperlink that will take the student back to the live recording of that note, which could help with studying.

“We don’t want to be better than Zoom, we want to be different than Zoom,” Avida said. Engageli can run on a variety of products of differing bandwidth, from Chromebooks to iPads and PCs.

Engageli is feature-rich to the point that it has to onboard teachers, its main customer, in two phases, a process that can take over an hour. While Avida says that it only takes five minutes to figure out how to use the platform to hold a class, it does take longer to figure out how to fully take advantage of all the different modules. Teachers and students need to have some sort of digital savviness to be able to use the platform, which is both a barrier to entry for adoption but also a reason why Engageli can tout that it’s better than a simple call. Complexity, as Avida sees it, requires well-worth-it time.

The startup’s ambition doesn’t block it from dealing with contract issues. Other video conferencing platforms can afford to be free or already have been budgeted into. Engageli currently charges $9.99 or less per student seat for its platform. Avida says that with Zoom, “it’s effectively free because people have already paid for it, so we have to demonstrate why we’re much better than those products.”

Engageli’s biggest hurdle is another startup’s biggest advantage.

Built on top of Zoom

Class, launched less than a year ago by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, integrates exclusively with Zoom to offer a more customized classroom for students and teachers alike. The product, currently in private paid beta, helps teachers launch live assignments, track attendance and understand student engagement levels in real time.

While positioning an entire business on Zoom could lead to platform risk, Chasen sees it as a competitive advantage that will help the startup stay relevant after the pandemic.

“We’re not really pitching it as pandemic-related,” Chasen said. “No school has only said that we’re going to plan to use this for a month, and very few K-12 schools say we’re only looking at this in case a pandemic comes again.” Chasen says that most beta customers say online learning will be part of their instructional strategy going forward.

Investors clearly see the opportunity in the company’s strategy, from distribution to execution. Earlier this month, Class announced it had raised $30 million in Series A financing, just 10 weeks after raising a $16 million seed round. Raising that much pre-launch gives the startup key wiggle room, but it also gives validation: a number of Zoom’s earliest investors, including Emergence Capital and Bill Tai, who wrote the first check into Zoom, have put money into Class.

“At Blackboard, we had a six to nine month sales cycle; we’d have to explain that e-learning is a thing,” Chasen said, who was at the LMS business for 15 years. “[With Class] we don’t even have to pitch. It wraps up in a month, and our sales cycle is just showing people the product.

Unlike Engageli, Class is selling to both K-12 institutions and higher-education institutions, which means its product is more focused on access and ease of use instead of specialized features. The startup has over 6,000 institutions, from high schools to higher education institutions, on the waitlist to join.

Image Credits: Class

Right now, Class software is only usable on Macs, but its beta will be available on iPhone, Windows and Android in the near future. The public launch is at the end of the quarter.

“K-12 is in a bigger bind,” he said, but higher-ed institutions are fully committed to using synchronous online learning for the “long haul.”

“Higher-ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step,” he said. “Whereas with a lot of K-12, I’m actually seeing that this is the first step that they’re taking.”

The big hurdle for Class, and any startup selling e-learning solutions to institutions, is post-pandemic utility. While institutions have traditionally been slow to adopt software due to red tape, Chasen says that both of Class’ customers, higher ed and K-12, are actively allocating budget for these tools. The price for Class ranges between $10,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on the number of students in the classes.

“We have not run into a budgeting problem in a single school,” he said. “Higher ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step, whereas K-12, this is the first step they’re taking.”

Asynchronously, silly

Engageli and Class are both trying to innovate on the live learning experience, but Top Hat, which raised $130 million in a Series E round this past week, thinks that the future is pre-recorded video.

Top Hat digitizes textbooks, but instead of putting a PDF on a screen, the startup fits features such as polls and interactive graphics in the text. The platform has attracted millions of students on this premise.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies putting emphasis on creating a virtual classroom,” he said. “But replicating the same thing in a different medium is never a good idea…nobody wants to stare at a screen and then have the restraint of having to show up at a previous pre-prescribed time.”

In July, Top Hat launched Community to give teachers a way to make class more than just a YouTube video. Similar to ClassDojo, Community provides a space for teachers and students to converse and stay up to date on shared materials. The interface also allows students to create private channels to discuss assignments and work on projects, as well as direct message their teachers.

CEO Mike Silagadze says that Top Hat tried a virtual classroom tool early on, and “very quickly learned that it was fundamentally just the wrong strategy.” His mindset contrasts with the demand that Class and Engageli have proven so far, to which Silagadze says might not be as long-term as they think.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest that’s generated in people signing up to beta lists and like wanting to try it out. But when people really get into it, everyone pretty much drops off and focuses more on asynchronous, small and in-person groups.”

Instead, the founder thinks that “schools are going to double down on the really valuable in-person aspects of higher education that they couldn’t provide before” and deliver other content, like large lecture-style classes or meetings, through asynchronous content delivery.

This is similar to what Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, told TechCrunch in November: Colleges are going to re-invest in their in-person and residential experiences, and begin offering credentials and content online to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve been on the journey to create a more and more complete platform that our customers can use since almost day one,” Silagadze said. “What the pandemic has brought is much more comprehensive testing functionality that Top Hat has rolled out and better communication tooling so basically better chat and communication tooling for professors.”

TopHat costs $30 per semester, per student. Currently Top Hat has most of its paying customers coming in through its content offering, the digital textbooks, instead of this learning platform.

College spin-out

InSpace, a startup spinning out of Champlain college, is similarly focused on making the communication between professors and students more natural. Dr. Narine Hall, the founder of the startup, is a professor herself who just wanted class to “feel more natural” when it was being conducted.

InSpace is similar to some of the virtual HQ platforms that have popped up over the past few months. The platforms, which my colleague Devin Coldewey aptly dubbed Sims for Enterprise, are trying to create the feel of an office or classroom online but without a traditional gallery view or conference call vibe. The potential success of inSpace and others could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

InSpace is using spatial gaming infrastructure to create spontaneity. The technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they walk, or click, away. When applied to a virtual world, spatial technology can give the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Similar to Engageli, inSpace is rethinking how an actual class is conducted. In inSpace, students don’t have to leave the main call to have a conversation during inSpace, which they do in Zoom. Students can just toggle over to their own areas and a professor can see teamwork being done in real time. When a student has a question, their bubble becomes bigger, which is easier to track than the hand-raise feature, says Hall.

InSpace has a different monetization strategy than other startups. It charges $15 a month per-educator or “host” versus per-student, which Hall says was so educators could close contracts “as fast as possible.” Hall agrees with other founders that schools have a high demand for the product, but she says that the decision-making process around buying new tooling continues to be difficult in schools with tight budgets, even amid a pandemic. There are currently 100 customers on the platform.

So far, Hall sees inSpace working best with classes that include 25 people, with a max of 50 people.

The company was born out of her own frustrations as a teacher. In grad school, Hall worked on research that combined proximity-based interactions with humans. When August rolled around and she needed a better solution than WebEx or Zoom, she turned to that same research and began building code atop of her teachings. It led to inSpace, which recently announced that it has landed $2.5 million in financing led by Boston Seed Capital.

The differences between each startup, from strategy to monetization to its view of the competition, are music to Zoom’s ears. Anne Keough Keehn, who was hired as Zoom’s Global Education Lead just nine months ago, says that the platform has a “very open attitude and policy about looking at how we best integrate…and sometimes that’s going to be a co-opetition.”

“In the past there has been too much consolidation and therefore it limits choices,” Keehn said. “And we know everybody in education likes to have choices.” Zoom will be used differently in a career office versus a class, and in a happy hour versus a wedding; the platform sees opportunity in it all beyond the “monolithic definition” that video-conferencing has had for so long.

And, despite the fact that this type of response is expected by a well-trained executive at a big company in the spotlight, maybe Keehn is onto something here: Maybe the biggest opportunity in edtech right now is that there is opportunity and money in the first place, for remote learning, for better video-conferencing and for more communication.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story claims that TopHat’s community platform cost $30 per student, per month. TopHat has clarified since that the community platform is free, but its core product is sold for this cost. An update has been made to reflect this clarification.

Dec
15
2020
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Vista’s $3.5B purchase of Pluralsight signals a maturing edtech market

On Monday, Pluralsight, a Utah-based startup that sells software development courses to enterprises, announced that it has been acquired by Vista for $3.5 billion.

The deal, yet to close, is one of the largest enterprise buys of the year: Vista is getting an online training company that helps retrain techies with in-demand skills through online courses in the midst of a booming edtech market. Additionally, the sector is losing one of its few publicly traded companies just two years after it debuted on the stock market.

The Pluralsight acquisition is largely a positive signal that shows the strength of edtech’s capital options as the pandemic continues.

Investors and founders told Techcrunch that the Pluralsight acquisition is largely a positive signal that shows the strength of edtech’s capital options as the pandemic continues.

“What’s happening in edtech is that capital markets are liquidating,” said Deborah Quazzo, managing partner of GSV Advisors.

Quazzo, a seed investor in Pluralsight, said the ability to move fluidly between privately held and publicly held companies is a characteristic of tech sectors with deep capital markets, which is different from edtech’s “old days, where the options to exit were very narrow.”

Dec
14
2020
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Vista acquires IT education platform Pluralsight for $3.5B

The hectic M&A cycle we have seen throughout 2020 continued this weekend when Vista Equity Partners announced it was acquiring Pluralsight for $3.5 billion.

That comes out to $20.26 per share. The company stock closed on Friday at $18.50 per share on a market cap of over $2.7 billion.

With Pluralsight, Vista gets an online training company that helps educate IT professionals, including developers, operations, data and security, with a suite of online courses. As the pandemic has taken hold, it has breathed new life into edtech, but even before that, there was a market for upskilling IT Pros online.

This trend certainly didn’t escape Monti Saroya, co-head of the Vista Flagship Fund and senior managing director at Vista. “We have seen firsthand that the demand for skilled software engineers continues to outstrip supply, and we expect this trend to persist as we move into a hybrid online-offline world across all industries and interactions, with business leaders recognizing that technological innovation is critical to business success,” he said in a statement.

As is typical for acquired companies, Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard sees this as a way to grow the company more quickly. “The global Vista ecosystem of leading enterprise software companies provides significant resources and institutional knowledge that will open doors and help fuel our growth. We’re thrilled that we will be able to leverage Vista’s expertise to further strengthen our market leading position,” Skonnard said in a statement.

In a 2017 interview with TechCrunch’s Sarah Buhr, Skonnard described the company as an enterprise SaaS learning platform. It goes beyond simply offering the courses by giving professionals in a given category such as developer or IT operations the ability to measure their skills and abilities against other pros in that category. He saw this assessment capability as a big differentiator.

“Our platform is ultimately focused on closing the technology skills gap throughout the world,” Skonnard told Buhr.

Pluralsight, which was founded in 2004, raised more than $190 million before going public in 2018. The company has 1,700 employees and more than 17,000 customers. The acquisition is subject to standard regulatory oversight, but is expected to close in the first half of next year. Once that happens, the company will go private once again.

Apr
08
2019
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Online university degree provider 2U acquires Trilogy for $750M to expand into tech bootcamps and training

As more universities turn to offering online degrees to expand their student bodies by way of cyberspace, one of the pioneers in enabling that trend has made an acquisition to expand into new territory around skills training and continuing education. 2U, which helps build online degree programs for a number of top universities, is paying $750 million to acquire Trilogy Education, which creates online and in-person “boot camps” — continuing education programs — in collaboration with universities to train those already in the workforce with tech skills in areas like coding, data analytics, UX/UI and cybersecurity.

The deal, which is expected to close in the next 60 days, is coming in a combination of cash and shares — $400 million in cash and $350 million in newly issued shares of 2U common stock — the company said. It’s a decent exit for Trilogy, which was valued at $545 million (according to PitchBook) when it raised $50 million in June 2018. Its investors include Highland Capital, Macquarie and Exceed, among others.

2U, meanwhile, has a market cap of $3.85 billion and is publicly traded on Nasdaq.

The acquisition helps 2U consolidate its university footprint, which will get bumped up to 68 from its previous 36. And it presents an obvious opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell: those who are already jumping into building degree programs can diversify into more skills training, while those who have yet to build full degree services but have created skills training programs now might consider how to parlay that experience into degrees — all from one provider, 2U. This also opens more generally a bigger window for 2U to expand into the continuing education market, which it estimates is worth some $366 billion.

It also helps it better compete with other companies that have already built a dual-track approach to online education, building degrees as well as short courses, like Coursera (Udacity and Udemy are among those that have focused on further education).

“[Trilogy Education] is a natural strategic fit and growth driver for 2U that will extend our reach across the career curriculum continuum, deepen our relationships with new and existing partners, drive marketing efficiencies, and open a more direct corporate training and enterprise sales channel for the company. We expect the addition of Trilogy to accelerate our path to $1 billion in revenue by one year from 2022 to 2021,” 2U co-founder and CEO Christopher “Chip” Paucek said in a statement. ?“Increasingly, universities are attempting to add practical, technical skills to their degrees. We simply future-proof the degree by adding this type of technical competency.”

The presence of commercial companies building educational courses for nonprofit universities, and taking a cut in the process, has seen more than a little controversy. The business spin that is put on education through these programs not only calls into question how and what schools (and their partners) prioritise in the curriculum, but they raise issues around how higher education is priced, and who profits from these degrees — which sometimes can still cost more than $60,000, despite no physical time in classrooms. (There is an excellent dive into the issue here in the Huffington Post, featuring an interview with the co-founder of 2U, John Katzman, who also founded the Princeton Review.)

To be fair, some of the issues around higher education — such as the exorbitantly high cost in some countries, and the fact that it still feels like a largely elitist endeavor with the odds of students gaining acceptance and achieving in top universities still in favor of too-small a privileged subset of families — cannot be completely tied to the development of online learning courses powered by for-profit companies.

And you could also argue that this was bound to be the next step, given how technology has evolved across all of education, and the fact that edtech is not a core competency for many institutions.

One of the potential positives that comes out of online degree programs is that it gives opportunities to a much wider group of would-be students, and mass market is something that Trilogy knows: it has to date already provided courses for 20,000 people and 1,200 instructors across 120 programs, it says, with an emphasis on practical skills to bring up local workforces, and working with universities to build these courses and connecting with big companies — customers include Google, Microsoft and Bank of America — to deliver them.

“By joining forces with 2U, Trilogy Education can empower universities to reach more students, in more places, throughout more of their lives, while driving positive economic ?impact in their local regions,” Trilogy Education CEO and founder Dan Sommer said in a statement. “Trilogy and 2U share a belief that universities are critical to lifelong learning and to meeting the workforce development needs of local economies both domestically and internationally, and we’re proud to further our mission and continue this important work as part of the 2U family.

Jan
25
2017
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Teachable books $4 million to turn everybody into educators online

A user sets up an online course via Teachable.com Education tech startup Teachable (formerly known as Fedora) has raised $4 million in a Series A round of funding according to CEO and founder Ankur Nagpal. The company provides a platform that’s like a Shopify or a SquareSpace for tutors or teachers. Its platform allows subject matter experts to quickly construct online courses and sell or give them away to their followers, setting their… Read More

Oct
20
2016
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Securly raises $4 million to put guard rails on the internet for K-12 students

schoolbus Thanks to the Childrens’ Internet Protection Act, schools in the U.S. that provide internet access to their students must also generally use web filtering systems that block them from accessing obscene or harmful content online. The law, enacted originally in 2000 and updated in 2011, left school districts’ IT departments scrambling to adapt enterprise solutions that were built… Read More

Oct
12
2016
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Noodle Partners raises $4 million to help colleges deliver degrees online

graduates Noodle Partners Inc., a new education venture from the founder of The Princeton Review and 2U Inc., John Katzman, has raised $4 million in venture funding to help colleges and universities deliver high-quality certificate and degree programs online. Philadelphia-based Osage Venture Partners led the investment in Noodle Partners and was joined by New Markets Venture Partners, 500 Startups… Read More

Jul
20
2016
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Dreamit accelerator ditches demo days, unveils 25 new health and education startups

Dreamit Ventures' CEO Avi Savar Dreamit Ventures’ accelerator has ditched the demo day, according to Chief Innovation Officer Steve Barsh. That’s not the only change the early-stage venture firm and accelerator has made of late.
Today, Dreamit unveiled a list of 25 new health and edtech startups launching from its revamped programs. A full list of those companies provided by Dreamit follows at the end of this… Read More

Jun
18
2016
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Flipping the office telepresence model

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 14: Toronto Star reporter Jonathan Foryani uses a telepresence robot in the offices of PwC in downtown Toronto.        (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images) What if I told you that you could visit three continents in one day without leaving your office and truly feel like you were there in person? That you could move down a hallway or across a stage, make eye contact and feel, well, more like a human being than just a face on a screen? Read More

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