Using machine learning to improve human learning
Writer: Chris Stokel-Walker
Photos: Pierre Björk
Joel Hellermark founded Sana Labs, the company that has made him famous, based on a the principle that had been burning within him for years.
“We think that the company that defines the category leader for learning could be one of the most important and largest companies on the planet.”
The self-taught engineer was working in an internship at a previous employer of EQT Ventures partner Ted Persson, and began thinking about how to use machine learning to improve education. “I started thinking about how to use it to make more personalised and interactive learning experiences,” says Hellermark. He spent a summer poring over books on neuroscience in collaboration with a researcher at Cambridge University, and began understanding how humans learn on a molecular level.
“Sana was very much founded around that idea: that we could enhance human learning with machine learning, and the business idea has evolved since,” says Hellermark.
The founding principle of Sana Labs was an attempt to redress the imbalance in educational software. Historically, platforms have been built and designed with administration and compliance forefront in mind, rather than developing an interactive learning experience best suited to end users. “We saw the potential of bringing together the best engineers and designers in the world to reimagine the learning platform for the needs of today,” says Hellermark. It was an acknowledgement of a key stumbling block for many businesses today: they grow so fast that they struggle to onboard new employees to a level sufficient to ensure their future, ongoing success. “Arguably, learning is the most important part of an organisation, and we need tools that are fit for their demands,” says Hellermark.
He built a team including engineers and designers from some of the world’s biggest and foremost tech companies, including Spotify, Google and others. The first couple of years were devoted to research and development, studying different go-to-market products and how they worked. In 2019, Sana Labs was launched as an all-in-one, AI-powered tool for enterprise learning. The timing was fortuitous.
The pandemic has affected many businesses in both positive and negative ways, but for Sana Labs and Hellermark, it was a positive. Businesses — and onboarding and education — went online, and Sana Labs provided that service. The company managed to sign up clients including Merck, Klarna and Spotify, and has been growing by an average of 27% in annual recurring revenue (ARR), month-over-month.
“It’s everything from upskilling on data literacy and reskilling to new roles to sales enablement and onboarding,” says Hellermark.
Researchers can learn how to use data to improve their work and leverage it more effectively through personalised courses delivered through Sana. It’s all important because of the way that the world of work has changed — and sped up. The half-life of skills is around five years — but technically skills are outmoded in around half that time. It means that people are having to continuously learn in order to stay relevant and employable. “However, we all start at very different points, and are going in very different directions,” says Hellermark. It’s therefore vital to increasingly personalise that experience to account for everyone’s background. Hellermark compares the current state of online learning within businesses to the internet before Google: there are lots of scattered resources, but no-one to organise and personalise the world’s learning in a way that’s searchable and recommendable. “That’s what we aim to do,” he says.
It’s a promise that lured EQT Ventures into investing in the firm. Persson had been following his former employee with interest, and saw how Sana Labs was developing. “When he was 14 years old, he did an internship at my agency,” says Persson. “Since then, I’ve had him on my radar. He’s a wunderkind: he’s ambitious, and he’s one of those people who has got both the technical chops and the social side, which is pretty rare.”
Persson and EQT Ventures weren’t the only people Hellermark was trying to woo for investment. While seeking cash, he put together a dream list of investors, and began trawling the internet to find their contact details. Among those that Hellermark cold pitched via phone or email were Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Kanye West. “I didn’t have a big network, and was trying to hack the system,” he says.
That wouldn’t be needed for long. EQT Ventures’ interest was a boon for Sana Labs: it not only provided them with vital funding to help grow the business, but crucial connections with some of the world’s most prominent revenue leaders in the industry, as well as world-class product leaders. That allowed Hellermark to build a network of advisers he could call upon to help him whenever issues arose. “It’s about accessing that network of portfolio companies and the broader sphere they’re part of,” says Hellermark.
That helped Hellermark advance and develop the company to meet new challenges, not simply resting on his laurels as the founder of a successful business. “When we started Sana Labs, it was really centred around the personalised learning aspect,” he says. But since, they’ve begun launching a collaborative learning element too — enabling Sana users to have live sessions that allow employees to work alongside colleagues remotely. It offers everything from precise content relevant to an employee’s skill needs, to higher level thinking that helps workers break through new advances by collaborating with each other.
“Sana now is the personalised combined with the collaborative.”
The reason that’s vital is that Hellermark believes lifelong learning within the workplace will become standard forevermore. “We believe that every company beyond 50 employees will have a learning platform in the future,” he says. “And we’re the category leader in that space, changing the way the world learns.” It’s all for the purpose of a bigger goal. “We think that the company that defines the category leader for learning could be one of the most important and largest companies on the planet.”