Q&A with Oliver Beattie, Co-founder/CTO of Ellumia
Oliver Beattie, co-founder and CTO of Ellumia, was graceful enough to set aside his time and share with EdTech Times his unique perspective on launching an edtech start-up in Europe, and the challenges associated with it. Ellumia is a startup that develops an app to help adults get affordable, personalized, and effective learning.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Oliver Beattie (Co-founder/CTO+Product); Katharine Osborne (Co-founder/Content)
Category: Mobile learning, adult learning
Product stage: Beta
LinkedIn company page: http://www.linkedin.com/company/2998995
Company twitter: @ellumia
Founder twitter: @obeattie
Here are some product screenshots shared with us by Oliver:
ETT: Where were you based geographically before becoming part of Emerge Labs program? What makes London more attractive compared to other locations such as Berlin, the U.S., or Singapore, etc.?
OB: I was already living in London; prior to Emerge I was the CTO of an entertainment startup here. London is a great place for startups, with excellent connections to Europe and most of the rest of the world.
ETT: Where do you plan to focus geographically first? Any interest in coming to the US – why/why not?
OB: To begin with, we are focusing on the graduate skills gap in the UK and Europe – millions of young people are unemployed, and paradoxically more than half of employers can’t find enough skilled entrylevel candidates. We’re helping close this gap by making crucial skills education accessible, convenient, and affordable.
Beyond this, we have our eye on emerging markets, where mobile technology is really the only way to bring education to people on the scale that is needed. We feel our platform, with its personalised, social experience, and support for lowend devices and unreliable connections is wellsuited to the developing world.
ETT: What makes the startup environment more/less challenging in London vis-à-vis say, Berlin or the U.S.?
OB: There is less seed stage investment available than in Silicon Valley, but there is still a lot of money available here. Investors are definitely more cautious at the early stage, but recent government initiatives (SEIS/EIS) are trying to help with that. It’s rarer to see wild amounts flung around here, but in some ways that’s a good thing when you’re not afraid of a challenge.
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in?
OB: Adult skills learning. Of course this is a very broad market! We are a platform though, not a publisher or educational institution. We aim to provide a method of delivery suited to a wide range of content, learners, and localizations.
ETT: Why did you start a company, or build a product, in this particular segment?
OB: My business partner has worked as a teacher of adults for over a decade, and mostly online. Ellumia originated in our discussions about her frustrations with the tools available to teach online, but has evolved a lot from there. Current methods are all geared to support the teacher’s schedule, not the learner’s, which makes some sense in a classroom setting but none online. There are so many things that can be done to optimize the learning experience, but we’ve seen few other people even thinking about learning and technology in this way. Khan Academy has done great things in teaching mathematics in particular, but we believe we can deliver any kind of content with our platform.
ETT: What customer need or market gap do you aim to address?
OB: There is a huge gap in serving adults consistently and affordably, and that’s the gap we intend to fill. Adults are often left out of the education conversation, yet learning is something that happens all our lives. Increasingly it is impossible to gain all the skills you will need through your entire adulthood during your childhood education, and if you are lucky, during any formal education you have as a young adult. Many adults, especially in the developing world, are struggling to adapt without access to continuing education. Whole economies depend on working adults being suited to the jobs available. It’s definitely important to provide adequate education to children, but the results can take a decade or two to be felt in an economy. Providing education to adult learners can have a much more immediate impact.
ETT: What makes your product/business model different from that of your competitors?
OB: We understand how to make content truly mobile, and have developed technology to allow us to put educational materials on any smartphone, anywhere in the world. We don’t rely on long, boring video lectures, and know from decades of research that a social experience is crucial to effective learning. Because we gather incredibly detailed information about each student’s interactions with our platform, we can build a very granular picture of who knows what. We use this to team students up to help one another when they get stuck.
ETT: Are you a disruptor, and why so? Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in near foreseeable future or become a more mature company? Why?
OB: We definitely see ourselves as disruptive. We believe there’s far too little focus on bettering the educational experience for adults. In a world where people change careers every five years, a four-year degree in someone’s early 20s is insufficient to equip them for the road ahead. In developing nations, there’s no need to wait decades for huge campuses with expensive infrastructure to be built. There are other ways forward, and we’re up for that challenge.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
OB: More or less my entire working life has been spent working with startups. I began my career at 16 when I went to work with a photo sharing startup in Hawaii, that did some really cool stuff with facial detection. Since then, I’ve worked for a time at Nokia, and had a CTO role at an online parking marketplace and a karaoke service (of all things!) Ellumia is my first time as a founder, though.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?
OB: Many people at Emerge have been mentoring us, and it’s been tremendously helpful. A few people from our own network have also been advising us in various capacities.
ETT: Please tell us more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your next milestones.
OB: We are in the beta stage, and therefore still testing a lot of ideas and technology. We need to ramp up our range of content so we have a breadth of knowledge to keep people coming back. Expect to see Ellumia on more platforms, in more places, and with a wider range of subjects.
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years?
OB: The education technology market is hugely diverse, so there are many directions that it’s going in. On the software side, expect more personalization. All the base technology exists to record large amounts of granular data on learners. It just remains for companies (or governments) to create software that makes sense of the data in a way that helps learners. This is one of the things that we’re working on. There’s also significant debate on assessment, and this applies primarily to governmentfunded education. Teachers find that education is compromised by “teaching to the test” rather than teaching a subject in whole. Governments are finding that standardized tests aren’t producing the results they hoped for. I would expect there will be efforts to create more relevant and unobtrusive assessment (again, something we’re addressing at least peripherally with Ellumia).
On the hardware side, I would suspect that current trends will continue – even if detrimental. A lot of money is being spent on devices like digital whiteboards, or bulk purchased tablets, that fail to deliver over nonelectronic alternatives. A better solution has been emerging though, and this is the bringyourowndevice trend in schools. This may leave out some students in the near term, but overall it reflects how we are now using devices to learn and do research in our everyday lives.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
OB: It’s bloody hard. And for us, a constant challenge is breaking people out of the mindset that learning only happens in a classroom. The advice I’d give isn’t specific to the education technology market, but applies to all startups. Solve a problem that needs solving – don’t just do something because it seems cool or it’s something you know how to do already. This probably means you need to stretch yourself more and you’ll be on a steep learning curve for a long time, but at the end of the day you’ll be helping people improve their lives.
EdTech Times thanks Oliver Beattie for such comprehensive interview with us, and we recommend you check out Ellumia at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.