Learning Curve: 5 Keys To Dublin EdTech Success

Some noble ideas take a four-year-old girl learning to read to spark off. Or to convince her mother, a Machine Learning PhD with a corporate job, to make an entrepreneurial exodus.

But those ideas take a cohesive community to become a sustainable reality. Dublin-based SoapBox Labs is an example of just that. “The statistics for illiteracy are staggering,” says Patricia Scanlon, its founder. “60% of children in US are illiterate. The UK economy will lose 35 billion pounds by 2025 if the country does not raise its current literacy levels.”

Soapbox Labs, a smart proprietary speech-recognition software that enables reading assessments and personalisation for young children could be the antidote to illiteracy. But this isn’t the bombastic narrative that Patricia has been using with VCs or government representatives. What Patricia offers instead is the concept that if six year-old children become more literate, they would fail exams less, and not have to repeat years, which would save costs to schools and decrease pressure upon teachers. That pragmatic approach and immediate value proposition is key for EdTech companies to be successful.

Dublin has the key ingredients to foster that pragmatism. A constantly developing and improved unique mix of commercial savvy, noble passion, successful legacy, strong international relations and a culture of giving are behind the success of SoapBox Labs and a growing number of other EdTech startups. Some of them target the education space and the pitfalls they have discovered – Fishtree, Wriggle, VSware, Realizeit and Adaptemy to name a few, while others focus on the concept of life-long learning – LearnUpon, Logicearth, Learnosity, Empower the User (ETU) and CrewFactors.

Commercial savvy
SoapBox Labs’s pragmatic approach began in Learnovate, a Dublin-based technology centre, created to help researchers and industry work together to commercialise learning technology research. One of the many things its director Martyn Farrows does is to put researchers and big industry partners on the same table. One such meeting match-made Patricia Scanlon with a big Irish publisher. Her exciting journey took off quickly after. “I would probably have not been able to develop my business that fast anywhere else in the world,” Patricia says.

Martyn has engineered similar serendipities for many other Learnovate members – this is but one small part of what the centre does for the Irish EdTech community. The centre has expertise in pedagogy, technology, user experience, learning design and many other key areas crucial to developing EdTech strategies. One particular area where it utilizes all those elements is in identifying the prerequisites for a functioning API economy in learning technologies. APIs and the information they could uncover have the potential to fundamentally change how tutors think about learners in any setting, simply because they will have more information about them. To capture the outputs of their research and demonstrate how they can be applied, Learnovate has created the Learnovate Labs project.

Noble passions
Research in EdTech is nothing new in Dublin. The ADAPT research centre has been aiming to understand how to present the right content to learners at the right stages, while being transparent about it. This is part of the Personalization of the User Experience, an ADAPT theme, led by Dr Owen Conlan. He has focused on that for 15 years. In the past six months, ADAPT has been applying its research in a project with Air Learning, determined to change the way people in the aviation industry learn. The project sees the development of the curriculum and the technology that create an entertaining online learning experience, tailored to each individual learner. “The big puzzle curriculum is divided into small bits,” Dr. Conlan explains. Each bit is formulated to be as uniform as a Lego piece. A model follows the progress of each learner and arranges the following pieces as it sees most fitting. The learner is in the loop of their progress the whole time,”

Pictured: Air Learning Director Darren Finucane discussing his collaboration with ADAPT

There is a legacy of education disruption made commercially successful going back 30 years to primary school teacher Patrick McDonagh. He disliked the industrial style education he was giving to his students. But instead of aiming at the education system, he focused his frustration towards workforce training. In 1983 he founded CBT technologies in Dublin and offered Information technology educational software on diskettes and CD-ROMs. The company became a huge success. From it he spun Riverdeep, which would become the most successful EdTech company in the world to debut on NASDAQ, reaching market capitalization of $1.8 Billion on the day it floated. It eventually became Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a global creator of educational content, whose research and development unit is still located in Dublin.

“Everyone who is in EdTech in Dublin nowadays is somehow related to the companies that Pat McDonagh created,” says Alan Maguire, founder of Versari Partners. Alan and his partner at Versari, Jonny Parks, had been an instrumental part of the rise of ThirdForce, Pat’s business after Riverdeep, which was acquired for $65 million in 2012. Other established companies that have been tapping into the EdTech talent pool for decades include Intuition, number one provider of e-learning services to the financial services market, and Interactive Services, provider of e-learning solutions to an enviable client list that includes Hersheys, Walmart, Diageo and Visa AXA. Other established companies include Enovation, Harvest, Hibernia College, and H2. Companies like BlikBook, a ‘Quora for higher education’ recently acquired by Civitas Learning, have been relocating to Dublin, specifically for the vast amount of EdTech talent to hand.

After their days in Thirdforce, Alan and Jonny increasingly noticed that early stage companies were not disciplined enough in the day-to-day activities, and as a result often failed. The two founded Versari Partners to use their accumulated knowledge in EdTech and help the early stage companies scale properly, remain efficient and commercialise viably. “It’s not the sexy things,” Alan says, “but rather the day to day mundane things that are necessary to succeed and we help with that.” Versari provides its members a hub where 11 companies currently reside and collaborate, and offers them the use of shared services, taking away the hurdle of hiring people early on.

Alan and Jonny also run an EdTech-dedicated Leaf Investment Fund, one that has invested in 8 companies to date. Other VCs do not specifically look at EdTech as a vertical, but the likes of Delta Partners and NDRC have had their fair share of investment in the space.

International relations
What Versari Partners also offers is a strong global network of strategic partners, one that their members can leverage as they pursue other markets. They recently formed a partnership with Learnlaunch, a Boston based EdTech accelerator. Empower the User (ETU) is the first company to avail of the partnership. ETU started off as a Trinity College Dublin spinout, providing a viable solution for corporate learning through role-play; today they enable corporations to build simulations, use them abundantly and assess effectiveness and progress. Their technology is already used by a number of blue chip companies.

Learnovate has similarly focused a lot of their attention on creating international relations, attending international events and bringing members along, with the purpose to foster that all-important outward view. One of those members, Fishtree, recently formed a partnership with Hewlett Packard. Fishtree is an adaptive learning platform that solves the problem of scaling one-to-one instruction: it was recently added to HP’s newest School Pack 2.0, an out-of-the box solution of digital tools and content used on all Windows devices.

A culture of giving
None of these success stories are possible without the tremendous support of the extended Dublin EdTech community. “I have a long list of mentors who have helped me along the way,” says Patricia. One of them is Gavin Cooney, founder of Learnosity, which deals with the complex area of online assessment. “Despite the fact he relocated to Sydney, he will always pick up the phone when I call him. It almost feels like the entire community in Dublin acts as one big company,” she continues.

The openness to share connections and knowledge in Dublin is the final ingredient of an EdTech ecosystem, which spins out not simply noble solutions for educational problems, but actual viable businesses fit for the global market.

To meet the community, stop by the Learning Tech Labs meetup, the Excited Digital Learning Movement, the Versari monthly drinks (every last Friday) – and be sure to check out the Irish Learning Technology Association.

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