Why Your EdTech Startup Should Be Research-Based

When it comes to a child’s development, experts have been coping with a troubling paradox.

On one hand, after decades of research, we know that the secret to an optimised brain development is the quantity and (more importantly) quality of a parent’s early talk.

Specifically — back-and-forth conversations with the child (called conversation turns) as well as the number of words that parents speak to the child are predictive of a child’s success in life.

This alone is revolutionary.

Simply talking and interacting with toddlers have been linked not only to brain growth but also future IQ, school readiness and emotional intelligence.

On the other hand, governments, think tanks, NGOs have been trying to create intervention programs that would ensure this simple truth (spend more high-quality time with the child!) reaches the ears of parents at the right time to make an impact.

Despite best efforts, due to the labour-intensive and often under-funded, work, our society still faces the problem of an attainment gap, poor literacy or speech delays.

“…for lots of parents, as much as they want the best for their children, they lack the support they need to ensure that their children are arriving at school at the same level as their peers.”
Damian Hinds, UK Education Secretary

The topic continues to be on the agenda and many eyes started turning towards impact-driven entrepreneurship and technology to provide new solutions.

This new hope that lies in startup teams comes from their relentless focus on user needs, optimising for accessibility, scalability and personalisation and bringing together passionate, highly-qualified talents into a design thinking process.

With this fresh perspective, we could re-visit some fundamental issues:

How might we help our society move from theory to practice?
How can we make it easier for parents to provide their children with adequate stimulation at home?
Can technology help us scale the impact achieved through community interventions across countries and cultures?

As an employee at an evidence-based, early childhood education & IoT startup, I often interface between parents, researchers and investors.

Based on my experiences from 2018, it seems like the general climate has never been better for testing new solutions to these problems.

On the other hand, given the highly competitive and “noisy”, $10 billion market for baby products, innovators should be strict about providing an evidence base for their educational solutions and keep the best outcomes for families as their North Star.

In this article, I talk about 3 key aspects of being a research-based startup: product development, proving the ROI of R&D to investors and communities where founders can find support.

Research and Product Design

Wondering if you should speak to your baby in “parentese” or as if they were an adult? How to raise a bilingual child? Or decode what different cries of the baby mean?

Good news is that researchers have ready answers to these questions.

The bad news is that parents rarely have time to read through the latest research papers in academic journals or attend niche conferences where these insights are disseminated.

Unfortunately, the information gap only widens as researchers gain access to new technologies (like neuroimaging) and are able to produce more insights into a child’s development process in a shorter time, while we are not doing as much in trying to build communication bridges that would make them accessible and applicable to parents.

Due to their unique perspective between the knowledge and the user, innovators should understand they are in a position to close the gap by staying up to date with the latest research and embedding the learnings into their product/service design.

How? Here’s some examples:

Rachel Romeo — Beyond the 30 Million Words Gap (Harvard, MIT)

Source: MIT News website

Insight: “cognitive scientists have now found that conversation between an adult and a child appears to change the child’s brain, and that this back-and-forth conversation is actually more critical to language development than the word gap.”

Lesson for innovators: How can we use UX research to find out why modern families do not have enough interactions with babies? Is it due to the lack of time or ability? Once we discover this, we could try and create better toys or games which could teach parents how to have more high-quality time with their babies.

Ariel Kalil — Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement: (PACT) Intervention (University of Chicago)

Source: Behavioural Insights and Parenting Lab website

Insight: Using behavioural techniques like goal-setting, reminders, feedback on goal achievement, and social reward, researchers designed an intervention that doubled the time that low-income parents read to their children over a 6-week period.

Lesson for innovators: Mobile technology can offer an opportunity to scale interventions like PACT across communities. Just like in telemedicine, behavioural nudges can work to encourage good habits and human-centric design and machine learning could imitate the customised support parents normally receive from the research staff.

Caspar Addyman, Lauren Stewart — The Science of Baby Laughter(Goldsmiths InfantLab)

Source — Goldsmiths InfantLab website

Insight: “Two Goldsmiths psychologists, and a Grammy Award-winning musician, have helped C&G baby club create the first song to make babies happy, based on scientific research. Top sounds include sneezing (51%), animal noises (23%) and baby laughter (28%).”

Lesson for innovators: Can we adopt a more scientific approach when creating songs for children so that they do not just entertain but also boost their brain development? This study also shows that strategic PR and collaborations with publicly known figures can be a good way to make the scientific approach look fun and reach the mass market (over 1M views on YouTube!).

Research and Investors

Research base can help entrepreneurs not only gain a competitive edge in identifying new product ideas, but also inform the design of technology with the highest educational outcome in mind.

But there is also a clear reason why research has been traditionally centred inside universities rather than companies, largely because of the slower pace of work and differing objectives of the research process (to explore; always a risk of not getting definitive results) from those of entrepreneurs who want to “fail fast, fail often” and get to revenue quickly.

So the question that I often asked by early-stage founders is how can they include R&D in their budget and how to convince investors about the ROI on building a science-led company.

How to include R&D in the lean startup budget and prove its ROI to investors?

The answer to this question depends heavily on the product each startup is building as well as their stage in the company cycle, but there are top tips that worked for me before:

Turn It Into Your Competitive Edge

If you are convinced that your users will appreciate or trust you more with the science-based narrative, the best thing you can do is be confident about it.

Think about one of the most popular meditation apps, Headspace, backed with $75M funding and 32M users.

Part of demystifying [meditation] is giving people confidence and trust and science is a key way of doing that.
— Andy Puddicombe, CEO of Headspace

They are a great example of how you can make the science behind your product “sexy” and fun — to the point where they even include references at the bottom of their website as if it were a research paper!

It is vital to thread this choice as conscious into your company DNA from the start, when building your Problem Statement in the business plan as well as in your Theory of Change.

When you hire employees, emphasize this as one of your core value and look for people who immediately understand this choice.

Be smart when raising funds and sourcing your Investors — there are many out there who openly admit to prioritising startups which are based on science, like Lux Capital (hear about their approach from the co-founder) or SOSV Indie Bio.

To Do: Build the “science-secret sauce” into your pitch and own it.

Want to know how we pitched it at Oyalabs? Email me on sandra@oyalabs.com and I’ll share with you the seminar I prepared for the OpenIDEO Innovation Network.

Utilise the PR value

If you identify specific research that can support your product development, go deeper. Try to identify most relevant researchers in this area and the Universities which are known to lead the field.

Tip: There are some amazing resources that can help you navigate the research world, like the Digital Promise Research Map, Best Evidence Encyclopedia or EDUCAUSE analyses.

Sample network search related to “early childhood”

Based on my experiences, when reaching out to researchers, they are generally very keen to hear from the people who are genuinely interested in their work and want to know about your projects early on. As a startup, the ideal scenario would be to find a researcher who might want to use your prototype in one of their pilot studies.

Although it takes some planning and tends to have long 3–6 months lead time, such pilots can give you a safe way to test your solution with real users and provide PR opportunities if the results are successful.

Not only will you be able to build trust with your early users by showing signs of university validation (creating a “Science” or “Research” page on your website could be useful!) but you can also use the results to pitch them to journalists and position your brand as science-based.

To Do: Create a list of thought leaders in your research area and try to schedule introduction meetings/calls to hear their feedback.

Keep the Rigour but improve the Process

It can also not be missed that working with the research world comes with its own set of issues. Some researchers you’ll meet won’t necessarily share your view that commercialisation of research findings could bring about social impact and might be suspicious of for-profit initiatives.

In my experiences working with education researchers across Australia, US, EU and Asia, one of the most important things is setting expectations for collaboration very clearly from the start.

When pitching to investors and advisors, founders tend to take an approach of over-promising and focusing on the big opportunity ahead of them, which is effective in having them jump on your bandwagon and showing trust in your vision through financial support.

This strategy won’t work with researchers, as they tend to be very serious about following up on your promises around product development, but at the same time, their research planning cycles are much longer than agile iterations.

Cartoon: Dilbert by Scott Adams

This means that there could be a situation where the product features that got your researcher excited when you agreed to work together, should be the same features that you show to them half a year down the line when they are ready to use them in their study! (sometimes they may even hesitate to use the new and improved version of the product, although it has a superior performance!)

On the upside — a friendly researcher can bring scientific rigour into your product development. In the end, they are experts in the field you’re trying to enter and will give you a better sense of what the problems in the research community are and give a clue about what might be the ripest area for innovation. Make sure you keep this rigour to improve your idea but stay committed to the startup iteration cycle to test the hypotheses with the users.

To Do: When committing to a research collaboration, ensure mutual and consistent agreement on specs, scope and timelines. Ideally, have a fresh graduate or a PM to lead regular communications with the researcher to keep the expectations in check as your product evolves.

Research-led Startup Communities

All this can sound overwhelming and make you think that there is a lot of time and additional money that you’ll need to spend in order to become a “research-based startup”.

Luckily, there are incredible communities out there who are ready to support innovators like you and help you build an academic network.

Below are three, which I have personally participated in and can attest to the value they bring for early-stage startups:


The program was founded under the UCL Institute of Education, which is ranked #1 for education worldwide since 2014 and is run by the staff at the Knowledge Lab.

EDUCATE is a unique program that combines academic rigour with business advice and mentorship. EDUCATE grew out of an idea of a professor, teacher, but and the founder of an Institute for AI in Education, Prof Rose Luckin, who understood the potential that technology could bring into learning, but also knew how difficult it is for innovation to permeate into the lives of parents, learners and teachers. The proposed solution was to help EdTech startups use research to validate the efficacy and impact of their innovations in order to build trust and increase the adoption of solutions that work.

Prof Rose Luckin on the Bett stage — January 2019

The program is funded by the EU government and has already nurtured more than 300 education startups over 7 cohorts, making it the largest such community in the UK.

In order to join, your startup must be incorporated in London and cannot have received more than 2M in funding. (if you’re a non-UK team, you can open up a subsidiary in London and send over your representative to take part in the 3-month workshop-based program).

A new EDUCATE cohort opens every 3 months and you can apply via F6S.

Promise Venture Studio

The Promise Venture Studio was officially launched only in late 2018 but has already created a stir in the early childhood development innovation world with their Early Futures conference.

Supported by the likes of Omidyar Network, Sesame Workshop and LEGO Foundation, Promise is a non-profit venture studio that attracts, supports and connects founders in the early childhood space and is currently nurturing the first batch of top 50 startups (we’re proud to be a part of it!)

Source: Big Ideas, Little Learners

Apart from insights (see the just-released Omidyar report “Big Ideas, Little Learners”), closed Slack group and periodic events, the Promise team is currently working on a more structured mentorship program.

So if you’re an ECD innovator with your sights on the US market, make sure to REACH OUT to the team to be considered for the next intake!

University-based incubators, i.e. Stanford StartX

Lastly, it’s also the world-class universities that had to catch up in the startup race to make sure that they have the right processes and ‘innovation labs’ in place to nurture and keep their best entrepreneurial and engineering talents in-house.

Especially if you’re so lucky as to be (or to have) a founder who attended one of them, you should look back at what your alma mater is offering to grow your Next Big Thing. For instance, Stanford grads can apply to StartX, a no-equity (sic!) accelerator and fund.

“You don’t have a time limit, you don’t give up equity, and it’s not a boot camp with mandatory events. StartX is a collection of serial entrepreneurs, industry experts, tenured Stanford professors, and well-funded growth-stage startups.”

Sounds tempting? And there are similar programs coming out of Harvard, Yale or Oxford and many other top universities.

Joining a university-based program can be a great decision for early-stage founders who are working on EdTech solutions specifically focused on areas where being science-based is key, like child development, skill assessments or tools and services inspired by the neuroscience of learning.

Sometimes just being able to use the logo of a well-known university as a stamp of support on your website can build trust towards your product and help convince the first partners to work with you.

A good example of using university logos to build trust in the product’s value — CenturyTECH

To conclude, in the highly competitive education space, being an evidence-based company can boost your core value proposition, attract more funding and open the door to some of the communities and incubators existing under world-class institutions.

If you enjoyed the article, please send some 👏 my way and share it with an EdTech founder you know!

I also tweet about startups, EdTech and mindfulness @sandra_sobanska

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