Introducing Hla Hla Win and Laurent Boinot of 360edVR (EdTech)
Our second profile is of Hla Hla Win and Laurent Boinot of 360edVR, a startup that aims to conduct teacher training via virtual reality (VR). 360edVR’s content is not focused on subject matter expertise, but rather the pedagogy on how to teach. They use a 360 camera to film experienced teachers; teachers from all around the world (think Myanmar) can immerse themselves in content to truly understand what it means to be a great educator! Laurent was working on a previous startup and Hla Hla was working as a teacher when they met and decided to start 360edVR.
“The biggest misconception about doing tech for good for is that working for social good can’t be for profit and for social good. People always assume that you can’t ask for money. But you can. It’s just that we don’t redistribute dividends; we just invest our profits into our business. This is a sustainable business model. We do want to pay ourselves. Our goal is to have a sustainable business, we are not going to become crazy wealthy but rich enough.” — Laurent Boinot
In 60 seconds, how would you describe your social good initiative?
What we want to do is teacher training via VR. We are focusing on how to actually teach, not the subject matter expertise. A lot of times, new teachers are thrown in the deep end, and they have to teach. That might be acceptable for education, but could be dangerous for other professions. In practice, we see something called shadow teaching, where new teachers shadow experienced teachers to understand what works/what doesn’t when it comes to teaching. What we aim to do in 360edVR is to figure out how these experienced teachers teacher, and make that part more accessible (i.e. cheaper and efficient) to improve educational outcomes everywhere. We use a 360 camera to capture the best classroom experience, and bring teachers into virtual classroom.
Tell us how you were inspired to start your social good initiative.
Laurent: I’ve always been very keen on learning and teaching. From a political and social standpoint, going to a great school is very important for one’s success. A system that provides high-quality education could help free people. I’ve actually taught English and Math in prison. Previously, I’ve done consulting in Hong Kong and Paris. Then I spent some time in Algeria, where I took AI class online on Udacity. It was my first MOOC experience, but it was also the best course I had ever taken at that time. I could not believe that I can go from nothing to knowing how a computer works in 6 weeks, and learned how to code by myself.
I left my job and started a company, similar to Udacity for professional training within corporations. We worked with Europe’s biggest bank for a course on banking regulation. The content for the course was provided to the public for free, but we charged our clients for using it in internal trainings. Eventually, I sold the company, and was lucky enough to meet Hla Hla when we both attended Singularity University.
Hla: I come from a disadvantaged background from a developing country. My parents could only afford to pay for 1 of the 2 girls education, and I wasn’t lucky enough to be that girl. So I went to sewing school while my sister went to school in London and received an accounting diploma. Eventually, I passed my A-levels equivalent English language courses, and started teaching jobs for 3 years in a big international school in Myanmar. Then, I studied for my proper education degree in US. Then, I became a teacher trainer, language school founder, and helped build a teacher training center. Eventually, I got a scholarship to study at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and subsequently went to Singularity University, where Laurent and I met. We decided to work together, and our goal was to have impact 1 billion people in 10 years. This is why we settled on this idea- because education wasn’t something a lot of people were thinking about, but it has a huge impact.
Laurent: While MOOCs completely changed education, it is becoming increasingly commercialized In France, people would use MOOC to ‘sell’ education. Now, thanks to MOOCs, you can sell access to videos. But selling access to videos is nothing new — it is a 15–20 year business. That business model is hugely boring, which is why Hla Hla and I decided not to work on my existing company. For her, it wasn’t mission-driven enough, and we were both itching to play with something new.
Laurent and Hla Hla explaining their venture!
What has been your proudest moment in the past year?
Hla: The fact that I was able to execute on a moonshot idea developed in Silicon Valley. We tested across 128 private schools in Mandalay, and we received lots encouragement from teachers about our technology. In fact, they said it was so immersive, that they almost forgot where they were! We also worked with the Synapse School in Menlo Park, who were also very blown away by the tech implications. We are opening doors and increasing access to those who won’t have chance otherwise. Look at their eyes once they take off their headset; those are delighted eyes, and I feel that I have to continue and I continue to be encouraged.
Laurent: Hearing the feedback from schools in the US. The President of Synapse School was really enthusiastic about it. The Head of International School Network also gave us good feedback. This is a guy who wants good teachers quickly and cheaply, and he really sees the value of VR application for it. If we can get him interested, we can do that for anyone.
What’s a common misconception you’ve realized about doing tech for social good?
Hla Hla: Because tech is super new in Myanmar, people in Myanmar don’t really understand that’s a mission driven educational social enterprise. People tend to think we are profit oriented hardware company.
Laurent: Working in social good can be both for profit and for social good. People always assume that you can’t ask for money, but you can. It’s just that we don’t redistribute dividends; we just re-invest our profits into our business. This is a sustainable business model. We do want to pay ourselves. Our goal is to have a sustainable business, we are not going to become crazy wealthy but rich enough.
Are you in the process of raising capital?
Laurent: We haven’t fundraised yet but we will. Currently, we are making money from consulting fees, and from our teacher training technology, and in the future we want to charge for access to content (i.e. our recurring revenue). We’re still figuring the second part out, especially since we want people to contribute more content. We think the value of our platform will come from something we don’t create ourselves.
Hla Hla: As of January 19th, we have successfully secured $100K and we are optimistic about a longer runway after the pilot project.
What was most difficult about starting your initiative? What did you learn from making that decision?
Hla: In my previous career, I was a teacher and teacher trainer and working with an American liberal arts college in Myanmar. I’ve always been working with teachers and hearing their stories. I cannot turn down their requests, especially when they give me ideas for the platform. Some people have tried to lure me away with big salaries to come work with them, but I’m headstrong and stubborn to the mission of 360edVR.
Laurent: Raising funds. I will be flying to Myanmar and elsewhere regularly to raise money. It’s certainly not really the life I’ve planned, but I’m excited because it’s a calling.
Do you guys work across time zones? What made you decide to do so? How is that like?
Laurent: Yes, we definitely work across two major time zones: Myanmar (where Hla Hla is) and Vancouver (where I am). While the project is not focused on Myanmar, the project is starting in Myanmar because we have a ton of contacts in Myanmar. Myanmar is one of the hardest countries to work in, given the political conditions and presence of technology. So, if our product works in Myanmar, it can work in many other places. We’re already looking to see how to apply across the world. Myanmar is more like a testing ground.
Best advice you’ve ever been given?
Hla: When you need money, ask for advice. When you need advice, ask for money. I have done tons of fundraising before for different education projects, and this is the biggest thing I’ve learned from doing those projects.
Laurent Boinot: The best advice I was given was something Warren Buffett said. He said, “you should choose your life based based on what you would do if you were independently wealthy”; in other words, money shouldn’t be a big consideration in the decision. It’s a tough one to apply. You could be tempted by friends who are in investment banking and have nothing else to show for it except money, but building a business I’ve built, it helped me ask that question- What else was I chasing, besides money? The plan is to have both a decent salary and not live under a bridge in the street.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made at 360edVR?
Hla Hla: Not yet. So easy so far… just kidding :)
Laurent: I had to fire an employee; obvious she needed to go but it was a hard decision.
What wakes you up every morning?
Hla Hla: Meeting with teachers about education in Myanmar in the best teacher’s education school in Myanmar. The potential for feedback and making our product better to have more impact is what keeps me going.
Laurent: Usually I wake up to Hla Hla’s email expecting me to reply soon! :)
Favorite midnight snack?
Hla Hla: Jackfruit.
Laurent: Chocolate foodie. I love homemade and well-made dark chocolate. I also like fruits from other part of the world, like jackfruit and dragonfruit. When I went to Myanmar, there were all of these fruits I’ve never seen before. They taste so complex — it’s amazing!
What are you currently listening to?
Hla: Nursery rhymes, my 2 year old daughter’s songs.
Laurent: I like listening to North European jazz, especially Scandinavian Jazz.
How can people get involved in what you’re working on?
Hla: Find ways to help through our website. You can subscribe for updates, and support us through hardware, software, and financial means. You can also help us by linking us with schools. It would also be helpful for in-kind donations, like to help us fund Laurent’s flights to Myanmar. If any of this sounds doable, folks should reach out to us through our website.
Laurent: We would love to talk to people who have experience with not-for-profit. I’m working on setting up the administrative side of company, and it’s been quite difficult to meet people who have experience setting up not-for-profits. We would love any advice from a legal, administrative, and fiscal standpoint. It would also be useful to have help with the technical side of things will be useful as well. We currently have help from an amazing woman and developer who is also a VR expert. But we could always use more help. If people want to give some of their time to work on their projects, they can reach out to us through our website.