Q&A Interview With Ramona Pierson, Co-founder and CEO of Declara
EdTech Times was lucky to be able to sit down with Ramona Pierson, co-founder and CEO of Declara. Declara has raised $9MM in additional Series A funding from Linden Venture Fund and EDBI, thus closing Series A with $25MM in total. Declara builds a technology platform that uses machine learning, search, algorithms and recommendations to develop personalized learning.
Founders: Ramona Pierson and Nelson Gonzalez
Product stage: Market
LinkedIn company page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/declara
Company Twitter: @declara
Founders’ Twitter: @ramonapierson, @nelsongonzalez
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in? Who are your core customers?
RP: Our mission is to change the way people learn by using technology to develop personalized learning paths catered to each individual’s way of learning.
The Declara platform has been adopted by a range of companies in education and enterprise, including the Educational Services Australia network to teach the country’s teachers new skills; SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación), Mexico’s largest teacher’s union, to train 1.6 million teachers and administrators; and Tu clase, tu país in Chile, among others.
ETT: How did you identify the problem you’re addressing? What was your process in identifying it?
RP: Education today does not stop in grade school, high school or university. Continued learning is where the world is going and people must continue to accelerate their learning, be it in government institutions, schools or corporations. We believe we can impact lifelong learning for individuals around the world, helping to close the job skills gap in a variety of industries.
When I was young, I was hit by a drunk driver and had to relearn everything I had already mastered from seeing and hearing to walking and smiling. I had to relearn academics and everything about the world around me. Working with individuals in school districts and VA hospitals made me realize the importance of personalized learning and taught me that each individual learns differently. At the same time, technology was becoming more prevalent in the way we were interacting. The advent of social collaboration and popularity of cloud computing made for a perfect combination to deliver true personalized learning to people.
This got me started on the path to building Declara.
ETT: And how did you develop a solution to this particular problem? What was your process?
RP: I had founded a company called SynapticMash in Seattle, which was acquired by the British firm Promethean. The company focused on early technologies for learning.
I took many of the insights from that experience and of others, such as working in the Seattle School District, to aid in my thinking for Declara.
At Declara, the core of our technology is the CognitiveGraph™, which analyses and observes how users interact with massive amounts of data — including searches, tweets, posts, blogs, videos, likes, recommendations, messages and web content — to create a personalized, cognitive learning map tailored for each user.
ETT: What makes your solution different from the competitors’ – what is that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
RP: Declara combines formal learning – which includes blogs, articles and video – with informal learning – such as likes, tweets and posts – to deliver targeted content to individuals based on their needs.
Our company’s workforce is mainly focused on technology development and we have learning, data science, and machine learning experts to build out our technology. This is very different from other learning companies.
Countries like Australia and Mexico are using our platform to level up their education. Our platform is being used to train the entire teacher network in Australia and these instructors are combining formal learning with informal learning to achieve their goals. Mexico is a country that wants to level up their education and their teacher’s are being trained on our platform. They recognize that the professional development of teachers holds the key to up-leveling the education of teachers, students and parents, ultimately making the entire nation more knowledgeable.
In addition, we recently received an investment from Singapore’s EDBI and are drawing upon their broad network to drive our growth in Asia.
ETT: Please tell us more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12-24 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones.
RP: You can expect to see us broaden our distribution in education in the United States and Asia over the coming months.
From a product standpoint, we will be more feature-rich on mobile devices and build out a lot more tools into the core platform to make learning more personalized.
ETT: Is Declara 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 is that so?
RP: Declara is in the unique position of being able to offer a solution that responds to changes in the learning field immediately and knowledgeably. With our CognitiveGraph, we have proprietary technology that I believe is the first of its kind to offer personalized learning paths to individuals.
Our focus is to build the best products for our market that delight our users and raise the level of lifelong learning for anyone anywhere in the world. I expect we will continue to innovate with products; respond to our customers’ needs; and expand our presence as we build a company that makes an impact on lifelong learning.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
RP: My career began as a neuroscientist at the Palo Alto Brain Center and VA hospitals, which led to my advocating for students with learning challenges in the public school system. In 2005, I created The Source, one of the first online learning solutions for educators, students and parents. It was adopted throughout the Seattle Public School System and I held the role of CIO for the district for three years. In 2007, I went founded an educational software company called SynapticMash, which was acquired by British company Promethean for $10 million. I became their Chief Science Officer leading the company’s expansion into global markets.
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years?
RP: The education technology market is in the best place I have seen in my entire career. There is an increasing awareness around the world that education needs to change and that technology will play a major role in doing that. There is also an understanding that education is the key to a nation’s economic progress and more countries are investing in the field in a very significant manner. Venture capital is pouring into companies; successful public offerings are being seen; and there is a new excitement to the market. Today, we see a lot of young graduates wanting to get into education technology instead of heading to Wall Street. It is truly an amazing time.
ETT: How big of a role is data becoming in education, especially in personalized learning? What are the implications for the education, society, and finally, individual – including the concerns about privacy and security?
RP: Data is becoming an increasingly important component of education. Today, our student and teachers are being deluged with data from all kinds of sources and the key is to analyze, distill and return the best content for an individual’s learning path.
Privacy and security will evolve as they have through the years. I remember a time when we were hesitant to give our credit cards to companies online and now we do it without a second thought. At Declara, we constantly pay attention to the data and security to ensure that the individual comes first.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
RP: This could be the best time to start a company, so jump in. We need the best minds in the world to transform learning and chances are you might be the one to build the first $1 billion company in education.
We at EdTech Times extend our thanks to Ramona Pierson for taking the time to speak with us, and encourage you to learn more about Declara:
Also the article we posted earlier in June 2014: http://edtechtimes.com/2014/06/11/declara-secures-series-funding/
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.