We hosted the India Education Innovation Conference in London a few weeks ago and although it was the second time we had done so, we had some very new and thought-provoking takeaways.
We had aimed to bring together the skills, education and technology community in the Europe and India to discuss the possibilities and challenges for innovation and collaboration, providing a platform for thought-leadership and explore investment opportunities.
India is largely misunderstood
As an Indian, I know India is big. In fact, it has 1.25 billion people, which is 1.5x that of the whole of Europe. And that means millions of schools, colleges and universities; and tens of millions joining the labour force every year. That’s a big market for an edtech companies, educational institutions and investors from abroad. This still came as a surprise to most of the education community that attended the conference.
At least in part, this is because India does not have an institution in the top 250 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. There are too few international research collaborations, faculty exchanges and real innovation that takes place even in the best of Indian institutions. Some of our Indian speakers emphasized this point too, blaming political interference and lack of a long-term vision.
Indian edtech is largely misunderstood
A decade ago, being an investment banker in London was cool. Now, being in a tech start-up is in vogue instead. Although edtech receives just a fraction of the angel, VC and private equity interest that fintech and medtech does in London (and therefore Europe, given London is such a big financial hub), London prides itself on its edtech community. There are edtech accelerators and coworking spaces in London and even London Tech Week has a big edtech focus.
We had several aspiring edtech start-ups present their products and services, including Learnium which connects classrooms and Klik2Learn which produces English learning content for BPOs. But most edtech companies I’ve seen in London are actually far behind Indian counterparts in terms of engagement, user generation and cost of acquisition. Many offer high-price-low-volume business models, in comparison to India, where low-price-high-volume is the norm.
There is a lot some of the European companies could learn by road testing their products in India – the drive for value is much greater with an Indian consumer than a European one.
There is huge potential for Indian edtech in Europe
If the product has been successful in a high-volume market like India, then there is huge potential to bring it replicate it in certainly the UK. For some. As long as a start-up can understand how the UK market is different from the Indian one. That can only really happen if point number 4 below is understood.
Given London is a global financial centre, there is a potential for fundraising here too, especially as the government provides generous tax breaks for angel investors through the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and Seed EIS (SEIS), and there are substantial R&D tax breaks available.
A good edtech start-up needs to know about both education and technology
If there is one generalization I can make about Indian Edtech 2.0 (say, if Educomp was part of a wave of Edtech 1.0 in India), it is this: start-ups are run by technologists that happen to find a user case in education. In part, a start-up is about creating a profitable business that can scale. But in this sector, it is also about the social utility you can create – are you helping people become better, in a way that will stimulate their mind, make them more rounded, increase their human capital? Are you increasing the usefulness of that user to society?
That social impact isn’t as readily there unless you have input from an educationalist as much as from a technologist. It’s a generalization, but this is perhaps where some of the start-ups from Europe do better.
Edtech is a long way from being ingrained in education
I spoke to the head of a chain of a few hundred schools in India recently. He said that a lot of edtech companies had pitched to him, but unfortunately most suffered from the problem in 4 above. Besides, he said, his teachers were unlikely to use such products, because there was a resistance to adoption. In the UK too, when we spoke to Vice Chancellors of some of the universities ranked at the top of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings to invite them, the response was very much that edtech was in the periphery of what they did, not in the centre.
There is some education of mainstream educators certainly required, but perhaps there is a simpler way to use technology to scale.
The most exciting plan announced at the conference was one for a video-based blended learning model where content is info-tainment channeled through TV and targeted at the bottom of the pyramid in India. The funding would come from Germany, and there is considerable state level buy-in. It’s simple (Doordarshan, Deutsche Welle and the BBC have done it for a long time) and puts the student at the heart of content development.