The second wave of “edtech” is here, and Utah is ready
On November 13, 2015, Utah’s burgeoning technology sector hit a huge milestone. Flanked by company executives on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, serial entrepreneur Josh Coates rang the bell to open the day’s trading session and commemorate Instructure’s initial public offering.
It was a pinnacle moment for Instructure, the scrappy education technology company founded by BYU graduate students Devlin Daley and Brian Whitmer in 2008. It was also an emphatic moment in education technology. A Utah company had built a market-leading learning management system — basically an online learning platform — that became ubiquitous in K-12 and higher education. Edtech put Utah on the map for millions of students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
Five years after Instructure’s IPO, Utah is once again primed to make a name for itself in the education technology industry. A generation after Instructure upended how schools deliver educational courses, a young crop of Utah startups is changing how services like counseling, therapy, and even contact tracing happen at educational institutions nationwide.
Riding the wave
A decade ago, education technology’s singular focus was taking instruction online. Companies like Instructure and Blackboard knew that the “hybridization” of education was inevitable, and even in-person instruction required an online portal for communication and organization. In addition, the so-called “massive open online course” movement hit a fever pitch, with some wondering if online education would totally replace in-person learning.
This focus on online instruction was the theme of education technology’s first wave. Now, a generation later, the second wave is about to arrive.
This second wave focuses on all the vital areas of education that are in orbit around instruction. We often take for granted that students rely on counselors, therapists, administrators, health professionals, and more to obtain a well-rounded education. As with instruction, technology promises to improve and democratize each of these important parts of how we educate our youth.
When COVID-19 began barreling through the US in early 2020, many companies and industries were financially decimated as consumer activity hit the skids. Not so in education technology, where the need to provide online or hybrid services actually accelerated many Utah startups’ businesses.
I founded eLuma, a Lehi-based startup, in 2011 to solve the supply-side problem of matching K-12 schools with qualified speech, occupational, and mental health therapists. We had a growing business before COVID, but we’ve hit another gear as schools and districts across the country scramble to deliver these vital services during the pandemic. Access to these services is especially important at a time when students’ social emotional health is a top concern.
It’s been a similar story for Salt Lake-based ConexEd, which enables colleges and universities to provide online counseling services. Imagine the challenge of trying to ensure you’re on track to graduate when college counselors are under the constraints of social distancing. ConexEd’s platform solves an access problem that was growing before COVID, but now it’s a critical service for many institutions with student populations who can’t, or won’t, get access to counseling services on the physical campus.
Even Utah startups that didn’t start in education are finding their way into this suddenly red-hot market. Salt Lake-based Blyncsy, a startup that tracks human movement data to understand consumer trends, recently rolled out a contact tracing solution called Mercury that is being marketed to educational institutions and businesses alike. The startup also hired Sunny Washington, an early Instructure employee and edtech veteran, as its first chief operating officer.
Investors follow momentum
During edtech’s first wave, Utah companies like Instructure, Pluralsight, and MasteryConnect attracted hundreds of millions in private venture capital to Utah. We’re still enjoying the benefits of this cash infusion. In addition to accelerating corporate growth, those dollars delivered high-paying jobs and tax revenue across the state.
Now, a startup generation later, the second wave promises to bring a similar tsunami of cash into Utah. According to venture capital tracker Crunchbase, the first half of 2020 saw VCs write $4.1 billion in checks to edtech startups — an all-time high. This news comes on the heels of a record for edtech investment in 2019. Utah is in a prime position to attract a meaningful amount of that investment.
Private capital is the lifeblood of growth-stage startups. It’s a good thing for Utah to have a new crop of companies that are positioned to bring some of this money into the state. Like any business ecosystem, “Silicon Slopes” will only continue to rise if we create an ever-expanding network of talent, technology, and capital.