Welcome to Canada: An education innovation hotbed

Welcome to Canada: An education innovation hotbed

Viewed through a comparative lens, Canada is a small nation. While we get lost in the vastness and beauty of this land, our un-large population of 35 million people nestles us in a cozy place between Algeria and Uganda, a bit further behind Poland and not far ahead of Uzbekistan. A Brazil we are not.

When conceived and executed well, small-ish countries can be hotbeds for big-ish opportunities. In the education innovation space, for example, we shine. In the past year, Canada has leapt into the global spotlight with companies such as Desire2Learn ($80 million) and Top Hat ($11 million) garnering not only world-class investment, but also serious market share. Trailblazers they are, and there are many more poised to follow.

Canadian entrepreneur by choice

Photo credit: Mike Gabelmann

James Colliander is a tenured University of Toronto mathematics professor who identified a serious pain point in grading papers. He conceived of a technology that amplifies the human touch in grading student work, eliminating the inefficiencies associated with shuffling papers and empowering teams of instructors to interact and boost learning. The resulting company, Crowdmark, which raised a $600,000 seed round, launched at the end of June in Silicon Valley at the LAUNCH Education & Kids conference. It is considered by many to be the company best poised to disrupt a massive market.

A Texan by birth, James is an entrepreneur in Canada by choice.

“With its emerging startup ecosystem, diverse population and very strong education system, Toronto and Canada have been an ideal launchpad for Crowdmark,” he says.

James believes it’s important to not build in isolation. He sees “Crowdmark—combined with other education technologies—producing a thousand-fold increase in global learning over the next 10 years.”

Adaptable to a global market

Another Canadian player in a huge market is Edsby, a social-learning platform that enables private schools and public school districts to move securely into the cloud and transforms how their teachers, students and parents engage. While Edsby has been developed here in Canada, it has been carefully designed to be easily adaptable to other languages and other pedagogical approaches.

“This is key to our long-term success since we already have deployments in the United States, the Caribbean and in Sweden,” explains John Myers, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Edsby is already generating more revenue from outside of Canada than from within Canada.”

Always with an eye on the needs of the user, John and his co-founders designed the product to be flexible for a global market, which requires “careful attention to the design and good collaboration with representatives from the target markets,” he says. Edsby continues to demonstrate that this can be done from right here in Canada.

Leveraging cultural diversity

Part of the beauty of building an education company in Canada is the opportunities that come from diversity. Laurelle Jno Baptiste, co-founder of ScholarLab, hails from Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean Sea. She built a platform for multimedia e-learning and authoring: a virtual classroom with real-time collaboration merged together in a single, intuitive toolset.

“The ScholarLab team truly reflects the cultural diversity that makes Canada what it is. Our Toronto office alone is home to employees from Dominica, France, Korea, Pakistan, Jamaica, Germany and, of course, Canada,” says Jno Baptiste.

From the beginning, the ScholarLab team built their technologies for a global market.

“We built multilingual capabilities into our products during beta testing and continuously improved our service offerings and technologies by leveraging the expertise and learning styles of our culturally diverse employees. Because of this, we have been able to compete globally and develop superior technologies,” Jno Baptiste explains.

A track record of success

It’s not all about big education plays or big fundraising, as Canadians always have room in our hearts for the tinier things. Enter Tiny Hearts, a digital product studio based here in Toronto. Tiny Hearts makes truly beautiful, playful and useful products, including Pocket Zoo, which is a No. 1 education app in the Apple App Store.

Founder Robleh Jama has bootstrapped Tiny Hearts, handcrafting successful products such as the Wake Alarm to fund the building of his children’s apps. Born in Djibouti, Robleh is a true global gent.

“Canada is my home base but I build for a global education market,” he says. “While the headquarters is in Toronto, my mind and heart are always set on solving global problems.”

This mentality is the fabric of Canadian education innovation, launching game-changing companies from Canada with not only the potential to make real changes throughout the world but also with a firmly established track record of doing so.