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On-demand tutoring app Snapask gets $35 million to expand in Southeast Asia

09:12 | 26 February

Snapask, an on-demand tutoring app, announced today that it has raised $35 million in Series B funding. Earmarked for the startup’s expansion in Southeast Asia, the round was led by Asia Partners and Intervest.

Launched in Hong Kong five years ago, Snapask has now raised a total of $50 million and operates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Its other investors have included Kejora Ventures, Ondine Capital and SOSV Chinaccelerator (Snapask participated in its accelerator program).

Founder and CEO Timothy Yu said Snapask will expand into Vietnam and focus on markets in Southeast Asia where there is a high demand for tutoring and other private education services. It will also open a regional headquarter in Singapore and develop video content and analytics products for its platform.

The company now has a total of 3 million students, with 1.3 million who registered over the past twelve months (including a recent surge that Yu attributes to students studying at home after COVID-19 related school cancellations). Over the past year, 100,000 tutors have applied, taking Snapask’s current total to 350,000 applicants.

Yu says that over 2 million questions are asked by students each month on the platform, with each subscriber typically asking about 60 questions a month, during tutoring sessions that last between 15 to 20 minutes. The majority, or about two-thirds, of the questions are about math and science-related topics.

One thing all of Snapask’s markets have in common are highly-competitive public exams to enter top universities, says Yu. The exams have both a positive and negative effect on education, he adds.

“Students have a very clear objective about what topics they need to study, so that is driving a very lucrative market in the tutoring industry. But I think what Snapask focuses on is that exams are important, but you should do it the right way. We’re about self-directed learning. It’s not necessary to go to three-hour classes every day after school. If you need specific help on a question, you can ask for it immediately.”

While at university, Yu worked as a math tutor, and sometimes spent a total of two hours commuting to sessions that lasted the same amount of time. In markets like Malaysia or Indonesia, many educators chose to work in major cities, leaving students in rural areas with less options. The goal of Snapask is to help solve those issues and connect tutors with more students.

Yu says the average time for students to connect with a tutor after asking a question is about 15 to 20 minutes, which it is able to do because of machine learning-based technology that matches them based on educational styles, subject and availability. Snapask’s matching algorithms are also based on how students engage with tutors (for example, if they respond better to concise or longer, more elaborate answers). Students can also pick up to 15 to 20 tutors for their favorites list, who are prioritized when matching.

Yu says Snapask screens tutors by looking at their university transcripts and public exam results. Then they go through a probation period on the platform to assess how they interact with students. The platform also tracks how many messages are sent during a tutoring session and response times to make sure that tutors are explaining students’ questions instead of just giving them the answers.

Tutors can talk to up to 10 students at a time through Snapask’s platform. Yu says Snapask tutors in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea who spend about two hours per day answering questions usually make about $1,200 a month, while those who work about four to five hours a day can make about $4,000 to $5,000 a month. The company uses different pricing models in Southeast Asian markets, and Yu says tutors there can make about 50% to 60% more than they would at traditional tutoring jobs.

Other study apps focused on students some of the same markets as Snapask include ManyTutors and Mathpresso, whose products combine tutoring services with tools that let students upload math questions, which are then scanned with optical character recognition to provide instant answers. Yu says Snapask is focusing on one-on-one tutoring because it wants to differentiate by creating a “holistic experience.”

“A lot of students come to Snapask after using OCR tools, which we know that user surveys, but they can’t get to certain steps. They still need someone to help them understand what is happening,” he says. “So we try not to use technology for every component in teaching, but to make it more efficient and scalable, and we’re creating a holistic experience to differentiate us.”



UCLA backtracks on plan for campus facial recognition tech

03:07 | 20 February

After expressing interest in processing campus security camera footage with facial recognition software, UCLA is backing down.

In a letter to Evan Greer of Fight for the Future, a digital privacy advocacy group, UCLA Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck announced the institution would abandon its plans in the face of a backlash from its student body.

“We have determined that the potential benefits are limited and are vastly outweighed by the concerns of the campus community,” Beck wrote.

The decision, deemed a “major victory” for privacy advocates, came as students partnered with Fight for the Future to plan a national day of protest on March 2. UCLA’s interest in facial recognition was a controversial departure from many elite universities that confirmed they have no intention to implement the surveillance technology, including MIT, Brown, and New York University.

UCLA student newspaper the Daily Bruin reported on the school’s interest in facial recognition tech last month, as the university proposed the addition of facial recognition software in a revision of its security camera policy. According to the Daily Bruin, the technology would have been used to screen individuals from restricted campus areas and to identify anyone flagged with a “stay-away order” prohibiting them from being on university grounds. The proposal faced criticism in a January town hall meeting on campus with 200 attendees and momentum against the surveillance technology built from there.

“We hope other universities see that they will not get away with these policies,” Matthew William Richard, UCLA student and vice chair of UCLA’s Campus Safety Alliance, said of the decision. “… Together we can demilitarize and democratize our campuses.”



Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

15:00 | 19 February

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.



Facebook backs Indian education startup Unacademy

11:54 | 19 February

Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing education startups, has just received the backing of a major technology giant: Facebook.

The social juggernaut has participated in the four-year-old Indian startup’s Series E financing round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

General Atlantic is leading the round, the size of which is about $100 million, the sources said. It wasn’t immediately clear to us exactly how big of a check Facebook has cut, but a source said it was under $20 million. The round values the startup, which had raised $90 million prior to the ongoing round, at over $350 million, the source said.

Unacademy is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. It allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail.

A year ago, the startup launched a subscription service that offers students access to all live classes. Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy,

earlier this month that the subscription service had become a $30 million ARR business.

This is the second time Facebook is investing in an Indian startup. Last year, it participated in social commerce Meesho’s $125 million financing round led by Prosus Ventures.

Facebook and Unacademy did not respond to a request for comment.

Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market.

“Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.

Indian newspaper Mint first reported in December that Unacademy was in talks with General Atlantic and GGV Capital to raise as much as $100 million. TechCrunch understands that GGV Capital, which earlier this month invested in edtech startup Vedantu, is not participating in Unacademy’s funding round.

Vedantu and Unacademy compete with Byju’s, an Indian startup that counts General Atlantic as an investor and is valued at $8 billion. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Byju’s, but has sold at least some of its stake, according to a regulatory filing analyzed by business outlet Entrackr.

As India’s startup ecosystem begins to mature, it has started to attract corporate giants. Google, Amazon and Twitter also have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.



Tinder founder funds sex tips app Lover

23:26 | 14 February

Want to spice up the bedroom without paying for pills or awkward visits to a sex therapist? A new app called Lover lets you take a sexual personality quiz, explore carnal knowledge tutorials, and discretely figure out which turn-ons you share with your partner. Built by board certified sexual medicine clinical psychologist Dr. Britney Blair, Lover launches today on iOS with $5 million in seed funding from Tinder founder Sean Rad and other investors.

“It is strange that there are such taboos around sex when it is something we all do…whether we enjoy ourselves or not. We think it is time to start the conversation around this important aspect of our health” says Dr. Blair. “We believe Lover can help build confidence, facilitate communication, improve partner connection and just raise consciousness about sex and sexuality.”

A solid portion of Lover’s content is free for the first seven days, including audio guides to oral sex, video explainers on how to be generous in bed, and multi-step “playlists” of content like “Getting Hard, Made Easy”. Lover charges $9.99 to keep using it to dive deeper into themed educational materials like “Coreplay Not Foreplay” and “Fantasy To Reality” that are recommended based on the result of your sexual style questionnaire.

Almost 50% of women and 40% of men have a sexual complaint . . . [but] most people don’t realize how common and treatable their issues are” Dr. Blair tells me. “In our [pre-launch tests] focused purely on erectile dysfunction, 62% of users reported improvements to their erections within three weeks of using the app. That’s pretty wild when you think Viagra’s efficacy rate is approximately 65% and it lasts only five hours.”

With startups like digital pharmacy Ro scoring a $500 million valuation just 18 months after launching by prescribing and selling men’s health drugs like viagra, Lover sees a market for education-based alternative approaches to sexual wellness.

Lover co-founders (from left): Jas Bagniewski, Dr. Britney Blair, and Nick Pendle

Dr. Blair got interested in the space a decade ago after a Stanford grad school lecture illuminated how prevalent sexual problems are but how quickly they can be resolved with learning and communication. She teamed up with her CEO Jas Bagniewski who’d been the manager of Europe’s largest ecommerce business Zalando in the UK, and a founder of City Deal that sold to Groupon. Bagniewski and fellow Lover co-founder Nick Pendle started European Casper mattress competitor Eve Sleep and brought it to IPO.

The plan is to combine Dr. Blair’s educational materials with Bagniewski and Pendle’s ecommerce chops to monetize Lover through subscriptions and eventually recommending products like sex toys for purchase. Now they have $5 million in seed funding led by Lerer Hippeau, and joined by Manta Ray Ventures, Oliver Samwer’s Global Founders Capital, Fabrice Grinda, and Jose Marin. The cash will go towards building out an Android app and adding games that partners can play together in bed.

There are plenty of random sex tip websites out there. Lover tries to differentiate itself by personalizing content based on the results of a Myers-Briggs-esque quiz that asks you how adventurous, communicative, and assertive you are. You then receive a classification like “The Muse” with a few pages of explanation, for example revealing how you like to inspire others while being the center of attention.

From there, Lover can suggest guides for mastering your own sexual personality or branching out into new behavior patterns. There’s also a feature copied from another app called XConfessions for figuring out what you and your partner like. You connect your apps and then separately swipe yes or no on questions about whether you’d like “having your partner drip candle wax on you” or “your partner dressing as a strict cop”. If you and they match, the app tells you both so you can try it out.

Overall, Lover’s content is a lot higher quality and more compassionate than where most people learn about sex: from pornography. Having a real sexual medicine doctor overseeing the app lends credibility to Lover. And the design and tone throughout make you feel empowered rather than sleazy.

Still, Dr. Blair admits that “it’s hard to motivate people into behavioral change, people already have subscription apps on their phones and we may run into ‘subscription fatigue'”. People might feel natural paying for viagra because the impact is obvious, the value of a subscription to sex tips might feel too vague or redundant to what’s free online.

To get a lot of users opening their wallets, not just their pants, Lover will need to do a better job of previewing what’s behind the paywall, and offering more interactivity that online content lacks. But if it can give users one unforgettable night thanks to its advice, it may be able to seduce them for the long-run.



India’s Vedantu scores $24M more for its online tutoring service

13:34 | 13 February

Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that operates a learning app aimed at students aged between 12 to 18, has secured an additional $24 million as part of its Series C financing round as it looks to serve more students and make its brand a household name.

The additional fund to Series C, which Vedantu unveiled in August last year, was led by Chinese giant GGV Capital. Some existing investors also participated in the round. The $24 million extension makes the five-year-old startup’s Series C round to be of $66 million in size, and its total raise to date to $82 million.

Vedantu offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses. Students who have enrolled for the interactive sessions are required to answer questions every few minutes by tapping on their smartphone screen or on the desktop. They also can raise their doubts at the end of the session.

The startup, which serves students in grade 6 to 12, offers a large catalog of recorded sessions at no charge to users. It generates revenue from selling subscriptions to live and interactive sessions, Vamsi Krishna, co-founder and CEO of the startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The app has amassed over 75,000 paying subscribers, a figure that Krishna expects to cross 100,000 this year, he said. The cost of these subscriptions can vary from Rs 100 ($1.4) for students looking for sessions around a particular topic, to Rs 50,000 ($700) for long-term courses that focus on training students for undergraduate-level courses. More than 25 million users, in general, come to Vedantu app or website to consume free lessons.

More to follow…



ePharmacy Ro launches doc-approved WebMD rival Health Guide

19:58 | 12 February

‘Whatever your symptom, WebMD says you have cancer.’ It’s a long-running joke that underscores the distrust of perhaps the top source of medical advice, stemming from a confusing site clogged with ads that’s been criticized for questionable information and pushing pills from its sponsors.

Health Guide is the new medical handbook for the internet where 30% of content is written by doctors and 100% is reviewed by them. On a single clean, coherent page for each condition, it lays out a tl;dr summary, what the ailment really is, how to spot the symptoms, and what you need for treatment. Rather the pushing you to nervously keep clicking, it just wants to answer the question.

Health Guide officially launches today. It was built by digital pharmacy Ro, that’s raised $176 million for medicine brands Ro for men’s health, Rory for women’s health, and Zero for smoking cessation. With Ro, patients can get a $15 telemedicine consultation with a doctor, receive an instant prescription, and have it filled and sent to you from the startup’s in-house pharmacy operating in all 50 states. A competitor to Hims & Hers, Ro scored a $500 million valuation last year.

Rather than aggressively hawking its own products at the end of articles, Health Guide just lists the medications you could take, insists you ask a doctor what’s right, and leaves it up to you to choose where to buy.  Ro founder Zachariah Reitano calls Health Guide “A significant investment in trust. There’s not a clear ROI (return on investment) to it but it’s one of those long-term bets . . . Providing education to patients will serve Ro really well in the long-run.” He acknowledges the suspicions of self-dealing, and says “if we don’t do this correctly, it can hurt more than it can help.”

On Health Guide you can search for specific conditions, browse categories like diabetes or hair loss, and browse featured articles like ‘Proven ways to increase the density of your bones’ or ‘How do you test for gonorrhea’. There are no banner ads, so your search about the flu or testosterone won’t immediately lead to you being bombarded with promotions for Mucinex or dicey supplements. “On these other sites . . you have [advertisers] with unregulated supplements and services that are the highest bidder beside medical information, which creates a lot of distrust.”

The simplicity and accuracy of Health Guide has already attracted a sizable audience. It’s on pace to reach 30 million readers this year, with 25% being women despite Ro’s initial focus on aiding men with erectile dysfunction. It already ranks in the top 10 Google results for 300 medical questions. The no-filler entries come signed by the specific doctors that wrote or approved them, and Ro pledges to have them reviewed and updated at least once per year. At the bottom are links to all the original source material, including peer-reviewed medical journals.

Reitano tells me that the idea from Health Guide came after Ro’s physicians and customer service were bombarded with the same patient questions over and over. The easiest move was to put all the answers on an open site they could send patients to. A major goal was debunk hoaxes other sites often don’t address directly. “For something like vaccines where there is a potential for misinformation, you’ll see us take a strong stance. We won’t let the potential for misinformation spread through Health Guide.”

One thing Health Guide is missing that could keep people coming back to WebMD is a symptom checker. Right now it’s better at research on major conditions or lifestyle choices than figuring out why your throat’s sore. But given it’s day one and Ro has tons of funding, it has plenty of time to improve. There’s sure to be concerns about how it collects data and what treatments Health Guide lists. So as a precaution, it never forcefully makes recommendations besides asking a doctor for personalized advice, and there’s just one button atop the site for visiting its medication marketplace.

Ro is trying to move fast as the ePharmacy space heats up. It plans to launch 10 more products in the next two quarters, with a focus on Rory for women. It just struck an exclusive deal with Pfizer to provide Roman customers with generic viagra, offering clear supply chain transparency around a drug that’s often counterfeited. And thanks to its licenses across all states, it’s helping new weight loss treatment Plenity launch nationwide atop its diagnosis, prescription, and fulfillment technology.

Yet Reitano sees space for multiple startups to succeed in replacing embarrassing and inconvenient in-person trips to the doctor or drug store. “It might be a somewhat cheesy answer but . . . the best thing about competition is it makes everyone build a better experience for patients” he says, citing NURX and PillClub enhancing birth control access. “I think all this innovation in digital health — it’s an absolutely massive market. No one’s taking market share from someone else. We’re raising the bar for care.”



UK’s Tiney raises $6.5M to source, train and connect childminders to improve early-years care

17:04 | 10 February

A shortage of good teachers and carers is an acute problem in the world of education. Getting smart people into the profession is hard when the pay is not great and the stresses coming from above and below are very real and very persistent. And it turns out that challenge is compounded in the early years, before children even enter school: the pay for nursery teachers and childminders is even less than that for K-12 teachers, a fact not helped by the lack of a cohesive institutional system to bring in and bring up talent in an area that has a wide array of permutations (nursery, nanny, family, etc.).

Now, a startup out of London is announcing some funding to tackle that very large early years challenge with a two-sided marketplace of sorts. Tiney — which sources people interested in being childminders (which in the UK means individuals who take charge usually of up to six children depending on age, who apply for and get licenses from the educational authority to operating childminder schemes in the country), trains them to run childcare services out of their homes, and then helps childcare-seeking parents discover them, all while running the admin underpinning that ecosystem — has raised £5 million ($6.5 million) to scale its idea in earnest.

The funding is being led by Index Ventures, with LocalGlobe (founded by former Index partners Saul and Robin Klein) and JamJar Investments (the investment firm linked to the founders of Innocent Drinks) also participating. Hannah Seal, a principal from Index Ventures, is joining the board with this round.

The startup is the brainchild of Brett Wigdortz, a London-based, American-bred ex-McKinsey consultant who has already started and grown two celebrated non-profit organisations to tackle teacher shortage problems in K-12 public education.

In the UK, he started Teach First, which recruits recent university grads take jobs as teachers in state schools — with a particular focus on disadvantaged school catchments — as their first foray into the job market. (It is now the single biggest employer out of Oxford and Cambridge.) Buoyed by that growth, he then took the idea international with Teach for All, co-founded with Wendy Kopp, who had built a similar teachers corps in the US called Teach For America.

As with Teach for All, Wigdortz, who is the CEO, has a co-founder for his latest effort: Edd Read (CTO), who previously had been the founder of Graze, the healthy snack company that sold to Unilever last year, is Tiney’s other founder, which makes JamJar’s investment an interesting one. Healthy-but-fun foods are essentially focused on products to improve the well-being of families and kids; and in a sense, so is Tiney.

The problem as Wigdortz sees it is one of quality and quantity.

On the quality side, that there has been, relatively speaking, more focus on children once they enter school — a focus he himself cultivated with his previous organisations — with a lot of neglect of the years preceding that time. But when you look closer, you can chart a good part of children’s outcomes starting before they ever entered school. One part of the problem is that early-years care is not often thought of as early-years education, and in keeping with that, the people providing that care are often thought of as more than just babysitters rather than educators, with little in the way of providing ongoing training and support for best practices around fun activities that help with child development.

“The big gap was that kids weren’t getting good preschool educations,” he said in an interview. “We were finding that a lot of kids in year one [kindergarten age in the US] weren’t verbal and just weren’t ready for school. In some cases, parents are working all the time or really struggling.” And on the part of the providers, “they weren’t treated as professionals,” he continued. “They just didn’t get good professional development or support. Realising how broken it was is what got me interested in the sector.”

On the quantity side, well, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2000, there were 100,000 registered childminders in the UK. Today, there are only 40,000.

What caused that massive drop? Apart from having less interest in a field that isn’t respected much and has a lot of stress associated with it, there is the problem of simply proactively recruiting people and making childminders easy to find.

While each local authority (how a lot of social services are administered in the UK) provides directories to parents of childminders in a given region, the system is not ideal for sourcing much information beyond names, contact details and addresses — making it a daunting task to use to find someone to entrust with your young person.

On the part of the childminders themselves, a process does exist today that sits within the public system — you get a paediatric first aid certificate; you complete a short training course approved by your local authority; you join the Ofsted Early Years Register and get a criminal record check for anyone over 16 living with you; you get a home inspection and you get insurance. Childminders subsequently keep journals on each child to communicate progress on early-years targets both to parents and the authorities.

But Wigdortz notes that while that looks like a simple enough list, it’s at the same time actually a long and bureaucratic process and any recruitment of new people is virtually nonexistent because of all the cutbacks local authorities have faced.

Going the usual route is also not ideal in terms of providing any kind of continuous training or monitoring of the childminders once they have completed the final step. 

Tiney is taking a tech approach to solving what is essentially an analogue challenge.

It is trying to “streamline the process,” in his words, while at the same time create a platform for more enriched training — which involves both in-person and online coursework — before people get started as childminders; and subsequent to that, it provides more continuous development, and a way of tracking progress online that is easily monitored by the parent compared to a hand-written journal.

When childminders are ready to work, they get listed on Tiney’s site, are booked through there, and Tiney handles all of the messaging and invoicing between childminders and parents after. While all of the training, onboarding, development and ongoing support are free, Tiney makes a 10% commission on every job/contract booked through its platform. It’s a formula that is currently attracting more people than it has room to handle: only about 20% of applicants to Tiney’s program get accepted to complete the training, Wigdortz said.

The system is not just about bringing in more people into the childminding profession, but about making the whole concept and opportunity more open to more people. The average age today of a Tiney minder is early thirties, with about half of the population classified as “BAME” with a good dose of immigrants, but also white professionals, he said. “We have bankers who are taking career breaks when they have kids, and some have worked in nurseries before and now want to do something more independent,” he said.

Wigdortz came at this problem from the perspective of being able to source more talent and get it into the early-years caregiving and education pipeline. But the reason why it, and other programs like it — which include the likes of nanny service Koru Kids (also coincidentally started by a McKinsey alum) and Wonderschool in the US, which like Tiney also focuses on the ‘home-based childminder’ running small ad hoc nurseries format — are needed and will hopefully succeed is because they are filling a critical gap with parents and guardians.

On that side, three of the issues that Tiney is helping to address are discovery, trust and affordability.

When you are a working parent, securing good childcare can be one of the more stressful aspects of raising your kids when they are young. Choosing from many options (nursery? nanny? au pair? family? quit job and hang with kid yourself because the options are too expensive or scary?), and then finding people who you trust will understand and nurture your kids, is not easy. And throwing money at the challenge doesn’t necessarily help, and if money is an issue, that comes with its own set of problems.

In the UK, the childminder option is one that cuts across those famous British class lines, I’ve found. Those with financial means might opt for it to give their kids a more social experience than a one-per-family nanny or au pair but without the more institutional feeling and class numbers of a full-on nursery. Those with less means will consider childminders because they might be on par with the price of a nursery (and will be coverable by the same vouchers they might use if they’re on income support) but, again, provide more of a home-based environment that will feel more comfortable to a child under the age of 5, or for pre-secondary school aged kids in the after-school hours.

Tiney is currently adding around 25 new childminders per week, Wigdortz said, which is small but growing. The idea is that with this funding, it will be able to onboard more and grow faster.

“After improving primary and secondary education for millions of children through Teach First, Brett is now tackling some of the biggest challenges parents, children and the society face in the very early years,” said Seal at Index Ventures. “For parents of young children, sorting out childcare is often a struggle with limited often-costly and inadequate options. For educators, there is not always an easy path to a career in early years education, which has led to rapidly declining numbers of childminders across the UK. We’re excited to partner with Brett to address this growing crisis and create a system that puts more focus on children during the most critical years of development.”



Indian education startup Byju’s raises $200M from General Atlantic

14:26 | 7 February

Indian education startup Byju’s said on Friday that General Atlantic, an existing investor in the startup, has pumped additional money to join the new financing round. While the startup did not disclose the amount of the funding, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that it had invested $200 million in the new round at a valuation of $8 billion.

The announcement today comes weeks after Tiger Global committed to invest about $200 million in the nine-year-old startup, which claimed to have reached profitability.

More to follow…



Top Hat raises $55M Series D for its higher ed learning platform

14:00 | 4 February

Toronto-based Top Hat, a company that makes a number of software tools for teachers in higher education, today announced that it has raised a $55 million Series D funding round co-ed by Georgian Partners and Inovia Capital. All of the company’s previous investors, including Union Square Ventures, Emergence Capital and Leaders Fund, also participated in this round, which also includes debt financing from BMO Technology and Innovation Banking Group.

According to Top Hat, about 2.7 million students are currently enrolled in courses that use its tools and schools that use its services include 750 out of the top 1,000 colleges and universities in North America.

“Higher education is undergoing a sea change brought on by the massive price of a degree, combined with an economy undergoing radical transformation,” said Top Hat founder and CEO Mike Silagadze. “This has created a demand to raise the impact of educational outcomes. With the support and confidence of our investors, customers, and employees, Top Hat will continue building on the exponential growth we’ve achieved to empower professors to work smarter and more effectively so they can improve the educational return on investment for their students.”

The company, which has now raised a total of just under $105 million according to Crunchbase, plans to use the new funding to expand its efforts around digital textbooks and course materials. That’s a process the company started in 2017 when it moved beyond its quiz and feedback system for in-class use to becoming more of a platform that included textbooks and other tools for teachers and students. Today it has exclusive partnerships with textbook publishers Fountainhead Press and Bluedoor Publishing.

As of last year, Top Hat is bundling its products into a single platform to provide teachers with a comprehensive set of tools for managing their classes.

“As university students rebel against ridiculous textbook prices much as music consumers did in the early 2000s, Top Hat has emerged a visionary leader by bringing students and educators together in a collaborative digital teaching and learning experience that improves outcomes while reducing costs,” said Inovia Capital partner Shawn Abbott. “My partnership is proud to be part of the massive societal impact of building an enduring, trusted platform on which our children are being better educated, affordably.”


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