LearnLaunch to Embed Edtech Startups at a New England Prep School

[Corrected 2/6/17, 8:29 am. See below.] In trying to perfect their products, tech entrepreneurs often say it’s crucial to receive direct feedback from their end users. That’s not always simple for education technology startups selling products and services to K-12 schools, which can be slow-moving and have a lot of bureaucracy to overcome.

A new program co-led by Boston edtech organization LearnLaunch aims to make it easier for startups to work closely with their product users—students and teachers—by embedding companies inside a school. Today, LearnLaunch is announcing a partnership with Rocky Hill School—a private institution in East Greenwich, RI, for preschool through 12th grade students—that will allow select companies from LearnLaunch’s accelerator programs and co-working space to spend a few months on campus developing and testing their products with the help of students and faculty.

Embedding entrepreneurs in various settings isn’t a new concept—venture capital firms and universities sometimes hire entrepreneurs in residence, for example. But it’s unusual to locate startups inside a primary school.

Rocky Hill is creating an innovation center in a refurbished building on its 84-acre campus, and LearnLaunch will be an anchor tenant, LearnLaunch managing director Liam Pisano says in a phone interview. The details are still being finalized, but he says the plan is four to six LearnLaunch companies will work on-site at Rocky Hill at a time, usually spending two or three months there. The first companies will move into the space in September.

The chosen companies could range from teams of one or two people still developing their first product, to firms that are already generating millions of dollars in revenue, Pisano says.

LearnLaunch runs two accelerator programs. It selects six to 10 early-stage edtech startups for each three-month session of its “Boost” program. Boost invests $20,000 in upfront cash in each company, in exchange for a 6 percent stake; companies are also eligible for a $50,000 convertible note if they hit certain milestones. The “Breakthrough” program, meanwhile, runs shorter boot camp-style sessions for companies that are beyond the seed stage. It accepts four to six companies per session, and each receives a $50,000 convertible note, plus the chance for an additional $70,000 convertible note if milestones are met.

LearnLaunch operates an 11,000-square-foot co-working space in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood. That office usually houses 35 to 40 edtech companies at a time, around half of which are companies LearnLaunch has invested in, Pisano says. (LearnLaunch also has a nonprofit arm that hosts events and other programming for edtech companies.)

The startups that LearnLaunch works with often don’t get as many opportunities as they would like to interact directly with students, teachers, and administrators about their products, Pisano says—even when the startup already has a pilot program in place at a school.

“The ability to get real-time feedback is absolute gold to them,” Pisano says. K-12 schools have “a long sales cycle, and it’s one that doesn’t offer a lot of communication for a lot of different reasons.”

The new program with Rocky Hill aims to help companies improve their products and get them to market faster. “They get to see what’s working and what isn’t, and they can adjust on the fly,” Pisano says.

In addition, the program gives students hands-on experience working with new technologies and learning about business development, Pisano says. Students will have opportunities to intern with the edtech companies, he adds. Rocky Hill has about 300 students, according to its website.

LearnLaunch is working with Rocky Hill in part because its new head of school is James Tracy, who has been LearnLaunch’s senior advisor for more than a year, Pisano says.

“We’ve found the right partner,” Pisano says. “We feel like we’ve got a plan in place that will be beneficial both to the larger edtech community, as well as our portfolio companies.”

If things go well at Rocky Hill, LearnLaunch will consider establishing similar programs at other schools that are interested, Pisano says.

“We’d love for this to be a model that’s utilized across the country,” he says.

[An earlier version of this article’s headline misidentified Rocky Hill as a primary school. We regret the error.]

[The above photo is an aerial view of Rocky Hill School’s campus overlooking Narragansett Bay. Photo courtesy of Rocky Hill.]

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