Best edtech accelerators, VC funds, and consultancies for your startup
Foodtech startup? Check out my list of food & ag funds instead.
Not a day goes by without another headline about this or that edtech startup raising millions and millions in venture capital funding.
I know, it’s tempting to see that as a mark of success. But remember:
Funding is a means, not the goal.
Most of the well-funded startups you read about in the news will fail, and taking outside investment may not just accelerate, but lead to their fall.
By raising money, you not only risk optimizing the business for your investors, over your customers, but impose on yourself growth expectations that could be unrealistic given your product or market.
Before you seek investment, ask yourself the following questions:
- How long and by how much can you grow without outside funding?
- Can outside investment speed up that growth?
- Do you know exactly how you would spend the funds?
- Can you achieve the growth VCs expect? Will it interfere with your goals and values?
Support can come from many places
“But I’m in it for support, not the money!”, I hear you saying.
If the primary benefit you are looking for is mentorship and connections, stop binging on accelerator promo videos and alumni interviews, and think about other ways you could get access to the same benefits without giving up equity.
Join an incubator/accelerator
Accelerators can be a great way for someone with no startup experience to quickly learn basic business skills, adopt the right lingo, and build their initial network.
But think of them as a business school:
- Their landing pages will overpromise, namedrop experts who are only indirectly involved.
- You’ll likely overpay for the privilege, especially with lesser known programmes (different accelerators tend to take similar amounts of equity, yet provide completely different value).
- If you are an avid self-learner, you can master the curriculum faster, and in your own time.
Before you apply to an accelerator, or accept their offer, make sure to call up companies from their portfolio that were in a similar position to yours when they started. They’ll usually be happy to share their experience with a fellow entrepreneur, and explain how the accelerator did or did not help during and after the programme.
Find a co-founder
If you’re missing skills core to your business, and don’t mind giving up equity, consider finding a co-founder first.
It is much easier to grow a business if you have a trusted partner by your side, ready to supplement your skills, challenge mistakes in your reasoning, and keep the company running if you get sick.
Sure, you’ll have to give up a large chunk of the business, but unlike an investor, your co-founder will be there with you 24/7, throughout the life of your startup (if you haven’t worked together before, you can agree on a vesting schedule — stagger the equity over time).
As a two-person team, you’ll also find it much easier to raise outside investment when you need it, and at a better valuation! Many funds expressly avoid investing in solo founders.
Form an advisory board
You’ll be surprised how many genuinely busy, important people are happy to help you for free if you approach them politely, with an interesting question or project.
The key here is to be concise, and keep in mind what your mentor will get out of the interaction (this can be financial benefit, insight into a new industry, prestige of being associated with an impactful project, or even just enjoyment of helping an aspiring entrepreneur).
If you don’t have a mutual contact who could introduce you to relevant experts, consider joining local interest groups and meetups, or pay by the minute for expert advice on Clarity (prices tend to range between $2–10/min, so asking a clear, concise question is critical).
If you target a market with multiple stakeholders, you may need regular expert help on your project.
For example, a startup working on an app that helps international students feel at home in their university town would benefit from advice from a local government policy expert, a serial founder of software for universities, and an international student advisor.
Consider creating a formal board of advisors, with a set time commitment, meeting schedule, and a small amount of equity for each mentor (usually 0.2–1%), vested over the course of 1–2 years.
Pay a startup consultancy
The word ‘consulting’ may conjure up an image of overpaid, underslept suit-and-ties, milking their corporate clients for every penny. In reality, there are many small, specialist consultancy firms, working with startups and individual entrepreneurs at all stages.
For example, our team at Edulift Consulting helps early-stage edtech startups turn pedagogical innovation into thriving businesses, and Japan Intercultural Consulting helps companies expand into the Japanese market.
A good consultancy will:
- Provide many of the same benefits as an accelerator, but tailored to your needs, and on your own schedule.
- Give you access to a range of specialist mentors, and introduce you to relevant third-party contacts and potential clients.
You can expect to pay a daily rate of ~$500–2,000, or a monthly retainer. This may sound like a lot, but if you are clear and upfront about the advice you need, the focused help and highly relevant contacts can be an excellent value for the money.
Not only do you avoid dilution that comes with joining a startup accelerator, the help you get will also be more adapted to your particular situation. And compared to individual advisors, consultancies tend to be both more flexible in the assistance they can provide, and substantially cheaper — $500 is the price you’d pay for a two-hour call on Clarity.
Accelerators for early-stage edtech companies
If you decide to go the accelerator route, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to join one that targets your particular field, or a more general programme.
If you have a more established project with traction in some educational field, and you know it’s unlikely your product could make more impact in a different industry, an edtech accelerator can open doors to institutional clients, and connect you with mentors with years of industry experience.
Other projects straddle two or more categories (HR and education, healthcare and education…), or could potentially find application in a way you haven’t even imagined when you first started.
- LearnBoost raised $2.8M to build a lesson planning service, but after failing to monetize, pivoted into a file sharing service Cloudup in an effort to move into a broader market.
If your startup falls into this category, you should consider going with a generalist fund which can support you across different industries, and follow you through every pivot.
If edtech is where it’s at for your project, here’s a list of some of the leading incubators and accelerators that specialize in early stage educational startups:
Imagine K12 (part of Y Combinator)
Redwood City, CA
This education accelerator provides strategic advice, mentorship, and funding to startups working in the education market. The founders’ previous startup and tech experience fuelled Imagine K12’s growth and rise to prominence. Accelerator’s stellar track record encouraged Y Combinator to incorporate Imagine K12 in 2016 to form a specialised edtech focused vertical. Imagine K12 provides $100,000 of initial funding.
Notable alumni: Codecademy, Panorama Education, Remind, ClassDojo, NoRedInk
AT&T Aspire Accelerator
Redwood City, CA
AT&T Aspire runs a variety of programs in the education sphere which makes it a firmly established player in the field. The AT&T Aspire Accelerator is focused on companies catering specifically to the student market . They support solutions that empower students, and enable them to navigate the ever-evolving work landscape. The accelerator utilises its vast network of connections to support companies that bring innovation to the field of education. The 6-month program provides $50,000 of investment.
Notable alumni: CareerVillage, Quill, Earshot
A less known player on the edtech map, xEdu is one of the rare reputable accelerators based outside of the major startup centres such as Silicon Valley, London, or Berlin. Its hands-on program capitalises on Finland’s superior standing in the field of education innovation, and the vast network of connections accessed through the Global Accelerator Network. Applicants can receive funding of up to €500,000.
Notable alumni: Mightifier, LUPO
Established in 2014, Emerge Education is one of the most seasoned accelerators dedicated to the field of education. Its program accommodates needs of applicants at all stages of product development. Located in one of the leading European start-up hubs, London, Emerge enjoys the benefit of close partnerships with experienced mentors, and an established connection with a network of high-profile VCs and Angels. Emerge Education provides between £40,000 and £100,000 of initial investment.
Notable alumni: Lingumi, Datazar, Crehana
Venture capital firms that invest in edtech
There’s only a handful of VC firms that specialize in education. Below is the top 10 fund by the number of edtech investments (data from CB Insights).
Notice how some of the best known edtech startups are nowhere to be found on the list, which just shows you how capital becomes less specialized in later rounds.
NewSchools Venture Fund
A non-profit VC focused on K-12 education with a goal of making education available to all children regardless of their background. NewSchools supports both entrepreneurs and teams with money raised from donors and charitable funds. Applications are evaluated based on their alignment with one of the fund’s investment strategies, and must focus on transforming preK-12 public education.
Notable investments: BrightBytes, ClassDojo, NoRedInk, EdSurge
One of the most prestigious VC seed funds from Silicon Valley, 500 Startups boasts a multinational team supporting investments in over 60 countries. The fund has an excellent track record and experience in supporting education start-ups, exemplified by several prominent edtech companies included in its portfolio.
Notable investments: ELSA, Springboard, OKpanda, CultureAlley
One of the few VC firms that exclusively funds educational companies. Both founders are serial entrepreneurs who combine strong background in business and product development with experience from work in education-focused companies.
Notable investments: Coursera, Udemy, AltSchool, General Assembly, ClassDojo, NoRedInk
Education is one of the key focus-fields for Kapor Capital, an investment fund with a mission to generate positive impact on the lives of others. The partners are especially keen to support entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds, and female-led companies constitute 42% of their portfolio.
Notable investments: Voxy, Brilliant, Chromatik, ClassDojo, NoRedInk, OKpanda
An education-focused VC seeking to support innovative teaching solutions. Rethink Education connects starting entrepreneurs with experienced mentors in both business and academic world to help them scale their products. The partners are actively involved in the field of education, participating and hosting conferences on the topic.
Notable investments: Voxy, General Assembly, Degreed, NoRedInk
The mission of Global Silicon Valley (GSV) Capital is to redefine growth investment by being the first VC to offer publicly traded securities to investors. The fund supports companies in the growth phase and some of its top investments are in the education sector.
Notable investments: Coursera, General Assembly, Chegg, Course Hero, EdSurge
New Enterprise Associates
The fund invests in companies at all stages, primarily those rooted in the fields of healthcare and technology. Focused on supporting transformational investments, over the 40 years of its operation, NEA has funded many edtech projects as part of their technology portfolio.
Notable investments: Duolingo, MasterClass, Edmodo, Coursera
TAL Education Group
TAL is an leader in advancing education project in China. Years of experience in providing tutoring to Chinese students give the company an edge in supporting initiatives seeing to enter this market. It has a track record of funding later stage companies.
Notable investments: The Minerva Project, Volley Labs, DaDaABC, Knowbox
This diverse investment team is driven by a vision to empower entrepreneurs and assist them in solving the world’s most challenging problems. Social Capital’s aim of democratising access to basic resources manifests itself in a number of investments in the healthcare and education sectors.
Notable investments: FreshGrade, Brilliant, Remind, NoRedInk
This VC firm supports both early-stage and growth-stage companies leveraging its international network of mentors and over 30 years of experience. Accel supported business such as Dropbox, Facebook, and Slack; with innovation being core to the fund’s mission, edtech companies are not foreign to its portfolio.
Notable investments: Lynda, WyzAnt, ResearchGate, FreshGrade, Grovo
A relative newcomer, Owl Ventures is a venture capital fund that invests exclusively in education technology companies. They back entrepreneurs with solutions that seek to meaningfully drive improvement in student achievement, and take a hands-on approach in helping entrepreneurs scale their businesses.
Notable investments: Quizlet, Abl Schools, Panorama Education, BetterLesson
Edtech & startup consultants
Just as accelerators, consultancies can be either generalist, or specialized in a particular field.
Unlike when you join an accelerator, or accept VC investment, you are not wedded to a consulting firm, and can switch away or break up any time. This means them not being able to help you after a radical pivot, or as your needs change over time, is not a pressing concern.
This is why we recommend working with specialized consultancy firms, or independent consultants best suited for your current needs. A good firm will be happy to refer you to a different consultant if you need help outside their field of expertise down the line.
Below is a list of consultancies that work with edtech startups, or specialize in fields that can be relevant to your needs as you expand:
Our team at Edulift helps early-stage startups and solo founders make impact in edtech. We will work with you every step of the way, to turn your pedagogical innovation into a thriving business.
Our team has over 8 years of experience in education technology, having launched a range of language learning products, built a CMS used by major universities, and consulted successful educational startups in publishing, healthcare, and augmented reality.
Price Intelligently, the company behind the popular financial analytics and customer retention tool ProfitWell, specialize at one thing only, but it might just be the most important aspect of your edtech business: Pricing.
Their team has worked with startups including Wistia, Zapier, and New Relic, and can guide you from initial customer research, through implementation of an effective pricing page, to ongoing analysis and optimization. Expect to spend very good money, but you get what you pay for.
Recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under 35 by the United Nations, Neil Patel is one of the best known experts on online marketing.
His team has worked with startups including Airbnb and Facebook, and can help you with every aspect of digital marketing including paid advertising, search engine optimization, and social media. Like with Price Intelligently, Neil’s services aren’t cheap, but easily best in class.
Japan Intercultural Consulting
Asia is the second largest, and the fastest growing e-learning market in the world. This means most educational startups will seek to expand into the region as they grow.
Rochelle Kopp and her team are some of the most respected experts on Japanese business culture. They have helped countless startups expand into Japan, and authored Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley to help beginner entrepreneurs understand startup jargon.