New year, new website, new model

Five lessons from five years — and what’s next for Emerge

Earlier this month, friends and partners from across London’s edtech scene gathered to celebrate our 5th birthday and 50th investment.
When Emerge was starting out, a party like that, with close to a hundred founders from all across London, would have been almost unthinkable.

Five years ago, we set out to replicate in European edtech what seemed at the time like a proven approach. This was what you could call, for lack of a better term, the Y-Combinator model: a small seed investment, followed by a fixed three-month programme, culminating in a demo day. All things considered, it’s worked well, giving us a chance to support such exceptional products as Pi-Top, Wonde, or Primo at the earliest stages of their development.

Since then, we have been tweaking that approach and innovating ourselves. We introduced venture partners into the mix — angel investors and subject experts who have made a commitment to support individual companies on a one-to-one basis. We partnered with major players in the sector, like OUP and Jisc, and made investments outside the accelerator cohorts, like Pobble and Lingumi. And we co-founded Edspace, where edtech startups could mix with fledgling school chains and incredible charities and social enterprises focused on education.

In the past five years, the sector has grown remarkably and we have grown with it. We would not be in the education space if we hadn’t learned a thing or two in these years. Today, we wanted to take this opportunity to share with you five key things we’ve learnt over those five years — and what each means for the future of Emerge.

🙄 1. The accelerator model is not the right fit for education

There is no doubt that outstanding investors like YC continue to create value through their accelerator programmes (as some of our companies, like Peergrade, can attest first-hand).

Increasingly, however, we have felt that the standard accelerator model was not the right fit for what we are trying to achieve in education.

We have found that the value we add to the cohort companies does not simply end at three months. Because of our focus on in-depth expertise and access to networks, the specialist support we give our startups continues long after the programme. Success in education requires more than a small initial investment and a bit of a boost at the beginning of their journey. And we have seen accelerators with an exclusive education focus wind down or join forces with bigger players. Imagine K12 merged with YC. The Jefferson Accelerator has recently announced it’s closing its doors. This is not to deny that there are many great edtech accelerators out there. What we have found, though, is that we want to be more than an accelerator.

So last week, we officially launched our new website and our new model. Emerge Education is no longer just an accelerator. When a startup joins Emerge, they become a lifelong member of our community of entrepreneurs, investors, experts, and key decision-makers. This is what makes us Europe’s most powerful education network.

👯‍ 2. Once we start working with a team, we don’t want to let them go

Some of our amazing founders. Why would anyone want to part ways with them after just 3 months?

The key reason we are making this change is that we want to have the flexibility to support our founders all the way from seed to Series A and beyond. Our mission at Emerge is to create a better education for billions of people by providing exceptional entrepreneurs with the capital, network, and expertise they need to prove their impact and scale their business. We invest a lot of time and care into finding founders that we believe in — like EasyPeasy’s Jen Lexmond, Crehana’s Diego Olcese, or Wonde’s Peter Dabrowa. We love working with them and want to see them succeed. Our formula for their success is a combination of investment and growth services for the portfolio.

The new model makes this possible at larger scale. We will continue to provide seed investments of £40k–£100k, but selection now takes place on a quarterly basis. Each new company will have a bespoke plan developed for it, identifying key challenges and deciding how we can support founders in overcoming them. Instead of a three-month, one-size-fits-all programme limited to one cohort, we will run a series of webinars and in-person bootcamps open to all Emerge companies, so that they can choose which topics are most relevant to them at any point in time. And, as always, we will continue to act as a bridge between key decision-makers in education and our startups through introductions and events — like when we hosted Damian Hinds MP, the new Secretary of State for Education, for presentations from our startups and a roundtable on edtech earlier this month.

→ Later on this year, we’ll do a deeper dive on what each of those components — the capital, expertise, and networks — means in practice. For now, you can find out more about the people supporting our companies on the new website.

🤩 3. Some business models really stand out

We are already rolling out the new approach with companies in our latest intake, EE9: Causaly, Datazar, OpenCampus, TeacherGaming, and Yoto. As with the rest of our portfolio, each of them fits one of two specific business models that, in our experience, have the best chance of succeeding in edtech: building network effects and content unbundling. We have written about both of them before, but to recap briefly:

  1. Network effects: These companies create value by digitising core processes in teaching, learning, and their administration. They sustain value by building large networks of interdependent users and content suppliers and creating large, valuable data sets about those users. Once at scale, these networks and data sets make such companies extremely difficult to displace.
  2. Content unbundling: These companies create value by going beyond the ‘one size fits all’ model, giving consumers or employers access to education in a modular way and using technology to deliver it at scale with consistent quality. They sustain value by building trusted education brands that become household names in certain niche categories.

The new website goes into more detail on each and highlights examples from our portfolio of 50 companies. Go check it out!

🌍 4. Everyone needs support, from the earliest prototypes to established overseas players

Although VC investment in edtech continues to grow, it remains a difficult market to break into. Over the years, we have found this to be the case not only for startups at the seed level at which we invest, but also for more established companies trying to figure out, for example, how to expand to the UK. Increasingly, we have found ourselves working with these kinds of products — like Edval, the Australian timetabling app now revolutionizing the world of flexible working — as well as the main cohorts. And London is a great place to be for an edtech company — in fact, half of our portfolio comes from outside the UK.

The new model allows us to take these kinds of relationships to a new level and provide more value over longer periods of time. Now, there are two paths to joining the Emerge network.

One, for startups raising £50k to £1.5m, is to become an Emerge company by accepting our investment of up to £100k. The other is a programme for later-stage companies looking to expand within the UK.

You can find out more about both paths and apply to join the Emerge network here.

🔹 5. So many companies in education use the same shades of blue

Spot the difference?

Finally, we would be remiss not to mention one other change we have made. In developing the new website, we wanted to find an identity that reflected who we are: bold, human, and a little different. Despite a few tweaks here and there, our brand colour has always remained more or less the same shade of light blue. And as anyone working in education would have noticed, this is a very popular choice in this space. So we opted for something a little different. You’ll see the change here on Medium and rolling out across social media platforms over the next few weeks, but for seeing it in action, nothing beats the actual website — so go see it!