Last fall, when LearnSprout cofounder and one-time Facebooker Frank Chien called up his college buddies Joe Woo, previously with Microsoft, and Anthony Wu, a former Googler, he didn’t necessarily have an education startup in mind.
The trio could have tackled healthcare or energy instead, he said. What mattered was that they go for something big — dent-the-universe, shake-up-the-system significant.
“I [told them], let’s do something crazy,” he said. “We can stay at our jobs forever or we can swing for the fences.”
Not too much later, the three engineers, who met at the University of Washington, quit their jobs. Over the past ten months, they’ve built a startup taking on a major obstacle facing innovators interested in K-12 education: the siloed way in which student data is stored.
In most school districts, information about students — from grades and attendance records, to addresses and more — is stored in Student Information Systems (SISes) that are managed by several different decades-old companies. When developers want to access that data for new learning management systems, assessment programs or other new ed tech tools, they have to go to each district individually to initiate a tedious, error-prone, potentially weeks-long process of importing and uploading CSV files and manually entering data.
APIs for education enable data portability, transparency
The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive and it ultimately not only discourages schools from welcoming new innovation, it makes it difficult for enterprising ed tech startups to scale.
But LearnSprout’s cofounders, who specialize in systems integration, realized that they could build simple APIs for education data to streamline the process and reduce the time it takes to integrate data from potentially several weeks to a matter of days.
“These solutions have existed in your Fortune 500 companies, but no one had taken the time to do this in education,” said Woo. “We saw this growth in enterprise IT for the past decade. We saw what it could do — the power of the data — as it moved from one system to another.”
Since launching its platform in April, LearnSprout, which recently graduated from education startup accelerator Imagine K12, has worked with more than 15 clients and 150 schools and is bringing in revenue. Its basic service is free to schools — which is a boon for their bottom line given schools’ long sales cycles and constrained budgets — and it charges developers once they’ve signed a contract with a school system. To date, the company has raised nearly $1 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Formation 8, as well as other individual investors.
With new products, LearnSprout goes from data integration to data solutions
This week, the company is launching its newest products, which move it from being just a data integrations company to a data solutions company, Chien said.
In addition to its initial data integration tool — which it now calls LearnSprout Connect — the startup is rolling out LearnSprout HallPass, Provisioning and Verify, which give schools a single sign-on for managing multiple tools, help them create accounts for teachers and students to make it easier to introduce new technology and clean up what can often be “dirty data.” LearnPass Verify, for example, gives developers and schools early warnings about incomplete or incorrect data (names in phone number fields, for example) to improve its long-term integrity.
The startup has grown to include seven employees (five of whom are engineers — not a surprise given the nature of their work). And its trajectory is quite impressive when you consider that, when it started less than a year ago, its founders knew virtually nothing about education other than that they wanted to attack it because it was the most “stale” industry of the three they were considering.
Along the way, however, LearnSprout made one key pivot. After landing on education, the founders decided to build a learning management system (LMS) — a software platform that lets teachers deliver content and communicate with students, and track and report progress. But while building the first version of their own LMS, they realized the meta issue involving data, as well as the considerable competition in that space, and switched tacks.
While LearnSprout was early in addressing the underlying data issue, it’s not the only startup going after the problem. Clever, an ed tech startup that will graduate from startup accelerator Y Combinator next week, also wants to be what some have called a “Twilio for education” with a simple API that helps developers tap into student data. But Chien said the companies take different approaches to integrate data, with LearnSprout using multiple techniques to pull out the SIS information.
And, though the company might have toyed with other industries at the very beginning, there’s little doubt that they’re firmly focused on education.
“Teachers and professors have a multiplier value,” said Woo. “If you can improve the efficiency of an individual teacher or professor, that has a trickle down effect.”