Note: This blog post was co-written with Joseph Wilson.

Over the past few years, despite the economic downturn, there was one industry that saw drastic growth in investment: education. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, investment in education technology (edtech) companies grew from $146 million in 2002 to $429 million in 2011. 

There are entrepreneurs all over the world disrupting the K–12 education system. MaRS is home to around 50 of them, including those creating educational games, system efficiencies and innovative curricula. Ontario is well positioned to lead change in education through social innovation. In early May 2012, The Atlantic’s feature story was titled “What America Can Learn From Ontario’s Education Success.”

Source: National Venture Capital Association, Thomson Reuters

Also in May, the Software and Information Industry Association showcased two Canadian social enterprises— MaRS clients Heliotrope and KEEN 5X—at its Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco, recognizing these enterprises as two of this year’s most relevant and innovative education tech products. Both ventures offer blended learning products that are designed to foster 21st-century skills, including empathy, creativity and collaboration.

In June, Penyo Pal, a new Next 36 company based in Toronto, travelled to Mountain View, California, for the LAUNCH Education and Kids conference, where the group won first prize in a pitch competition for their app designed to teach children Mandarin.

Many companies experiencing early success in the education market still face a tremendous barrier when scaling their companies as there is no single education market in North America for them to grow into. Rather, there are a whopping 20,000 school districts under the control of a patchwork of federal, provincial, state and local regulators. This makes the scaling of education ventures exceedingly difficult. In response, a number of initiatives based on collaboration, rather than competition, have emerged among education ventures.

Bellwether Education Partners (BEP) is an American national non-profit organization “dedicated to accelerating the achievement of low-income students.” In April 2011, BEP released a report outlining several immense barriers to crucial innovation reaching school districts, including: “an irrational, idiosyncratic philanthropic capital market, massive fragmentation, market domination by a few large publishers, and little pressure from competition or customers to innovate.” BEP calls for “radical collaboration” involving multiple stakeholders using shared technologies and platforms to create optimal impact and efficiency.

Collaboration among stakeholders is the key to scaling innovation in education

A number of emerging initiatives reflect the Bellwether approach.

Shared Learning Collaborative

Shared Learning Collaborative is an alliance of states, foundations, educators, content providers, privacy experts, developers and vendors. It seeks to build an integrated, scalable, shared technology infrastructure, and to aggregate demand in states and districts.

Digital Promise and League of Innovative Schools

Digital Promise is a bipartisan independent 501c3 non-profit corporation authorized by Congress “to support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal.” More specifically its goals are to identify breakthrough technologies and transform the market for learning technologies.

Transmedia Education Cooperative

The Transmedia Education Cooperative (TEC) is a grassroots collective that was formed as a response to the immense barriers for scaling learning innovations. It comprises multiple stakeholders in several cities, including learning innovators, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, school districts, teachers and social enterprises. Co-founders of the TEC include MaRS clients Heliotrope and Keen Learning Group.

This private sector edtech company has been operating in the collaborative enterprise space for a decade. It offers an integrated range of innovative learning resources using a shared platform. There are many other companies now offering similar approaches, such as Education Elements, which just secured $6 million in funding from venture firms specializing in education technology.

In such an exciting industry as education, business models and investment patterns are still being established. The early successes of such socially innovative platforms as these suggest that collaboration is key to aggregating the demand from a fragmented education market. Expect Ontario companies to continue to lead the charge in this space.


Howard B. Esbin

Dr. Howard B. Esbin is the founder of Heliotrope, a social purpose business, and the creator of Prelude, a group learning game that fosters 21st-century skills. Howard has over two decades of senior management experience in international development, philanthropy and the private sector. His work has been published by Education Canada, the International Labour Organization and UNESCO. See more…