Repost – Why We Invested: NewSchools Venture Fund Early Learning Challenge

August 23, 2017

This post was originally published on Medium, and reposted with permission from Omidyar Network.

Edtech is on track to be a $252 billion global industry by 2020, bringing more innovative education tools to the hands of students, teachers, and families around the world. However, early childhood education (ECE) is a chronically under-resourced area — with fewer for-profit funders, accelerators, incubators, and entrepreneurship competitions than are seen in K-12 and higher education.

Correcting this imbalance is vital because quality early learning is crucial to a child’s later success in school and in life. Eighty-five percent or more of the brain develops before the age of five. But far too many children are not receiving the quality education they need in those early years.

One-third of all US children and more than half of children from low-income communities enter kindergarten unprepared for their K-12 experience. And children who start behind most often stay behind.

With such a clear need, why is there a gap in early childhood funding? We have been exploring this question and hope to be a part of the solution.

To better understand the role technology can play in improving early learning experiences, we’ve been learning alongside NewSchools Venture Fund, a national nonprofit venture philanthropy that has been at the center of PreK-12 innovation in the United States for nearly 20 years.

NewSchools has been investing in schools as well as innovative for-profit and nonprofit education companies since its founding in 1998, having so far invested $250 million in more than 150 teams of educators and education entrepreneurs.

In addition to helping fund the design of innovative new schools, education technology, and recruiting top talent for these efforts, it also established the NewSchools Seed Fund for edtech in 2012, which was spun off in 2015 and today has become its own entity, Reach Capital.

In order to amplify the voices of educators in crucial gaps where technology can be useful to address significant student needs, NewSchools started the Ignite virtual accelerator program in 2015 to continue to invest philanthropic capital into early stage edtech products.

Since its launch, NewSchools Ignite has offered four funding opportunities (“challenges”) and invested $6 million in 52 ventures (40 for-profit and 12 nonprofits) focused on critical areas of student need in science, middle and high school math, English Language Learning, and special education.

NewSchools recently spoke with educators, school leaders, entrepreneurs, and funders, and their early learning market research reveals there are great opportunities for technology to address unmet needs and challenges in early learning, including:

  • Technology can help fuel creativity in young learners, giving them different mediums for both absorption and expression;
  • Parents and caregivers need more opportunities to engage with and reinforce their children’s early learning goals at home;
  • Technology is still less accessible in early learning environments than in later primary and secondary grades, but early childhood teachers are able and eager to integrate it more into their classrooms; and
  • Entrepreneurs need support in navigating the differences between the more fragmented childcare and preschool systems and the more formalized K-2 early elementary system.

What this research tells us: The early childhood ecosystem needs more structures in place to support great entrepreneurs working to solve problems for young children, their teachers, and their families.

That’s why we’re proud to invest in the first-ever NewSchools Ignite Early Learning Challenge — PreK — 2nd grade. The challenge seeks to identify and support innovative early learning tools and solutions that can:

  • Enhance interactions between students, parents, and teachers;
  • Enable engaging, interactive experiences that support academic development while reinforcing essential mindsets, skills, and habits for success in college, career, and life;
  • Thoughtfully consider and optimize students’ screen time while providing teachers and parents with helpful information to guide learning; and
  • Expand opportunities for families to discover and take advantage of developmentally appropriate early learning experiences.

The NewSchools Ignite Early Learning Challenge is accepting submissions until August 31, 2017. In late October, up to 15 for-profit and nonprofit organizations will be selected to receive between $50,000 and $150,000 in grant funding each.

Challenge winners will receive management assistance and targeted support, formative product feedback from researchers and educators, and participation in a community of best-in-class entrepreneurs using different approaches to address the most pressing needs within early learning. Each team will also complete a small-scale research study with support from NewSchools’ research partner WestEd.

To date, ventures supported by NewSchools Ignite have increased teacher and student users by 2.8 million and some of the for-profit ventures have already increased follow-on funding by 5x.

Most importantly, they have inspired a focus on critical unmet needs in education, focusing more tools and solutions on everything from enabling more authentic and culturally relevant language learning experiences to ensuring that students with disabilities have rigorous, high-quality, and accessible academic content.

Given this track record, we’re excited by the potential to bring this same kind of growth to new solutions for early learning. And, with the back-to-school season upon us, we’re starting this new school year with a renewed sense of hope.

We look forward to seeing the early learning solutions identified through the challenge, and encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to pursue this opportunity to have an impact on young learners — which we know results in lifetimes of positive impact.