U-M Social Venture Fund Picks LearnZillion for Its First Investment

The University of Michigan’s student-run Social Venture Fund recently announced it has made its first investment in an education-tech startup called LearnZillion. The fund, which makes early-stage investments of up to $200,000,  joined a syndicate of 17 investors for a Series A round valued at $2.4 million total. (The Social Venture Fund’s portion was $50,000.) According to a statement from U-M, this also marks the first time a student-led, socially oriented venture fund anywhere has made an investment of this kind.

“LearnZillion’s technology is great,” says Gautam Kaul, Professor of Finance at U-M’s Ross School of Business, who manages the fund with 34 mostly graduate students who have experience in a variety of fields, including technology, finance, and education. “This market will take off and when it does, a few players will be at the table. We hope to be one of them.”

What LearnZillion offers is online video lessons taught by “superteachers” available for download. Teachers can create playlists of lessons that match up with their curriculums, and then share those playlists with students and parents. Each lesson also comes with a short quiz for students to take after they’ve watched the instructional video, which allows parents and teachers to quickly track how well each student has grasped the lesson.

“LearnZillion celebrates teachers by capturing examples of great teaching and then sharing them,” says CEO Eric Westendorf, who co-founded LearnZillion with Alix Guerrier. “Our goal is to build out a learning platform that helps every teacher meet the needs of students. Over time, we want any teacher anywhere who has a great, successful lesson to be able to post to the LearnZillion library.”

Westendorf says the LearnZillion platform was first tested at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., where, despite their best efforts, teachers were “perpetually heartbroken” that crowded classrooms kept them from serving students to the best of their abilities. Westendorf was the principal there, and LearnZillion grew out of a project he embarked on with another teacher to address the problem.

The LearnZillion platform came together after Westendorf and Guerrier spent last summer recruiting a “dream team” of 20 math teachers from around the country, and used funding from the Gates Foundation to fly them to D.C. to create a library of 400 lessons. This summer, LearnZillion plans to recruit another 100 to 200 math and literacy teachers to help build its online library.

“In the long run, our customers will be school districts and parents, and once teachers really start using this, we’ll have a lot of useful data about which lessons work the best,” Westendorf adds. “We can then put that information into a dashboard about how to be strategic with instruction. It’s an opportunity to give parents targeted advice about how to help their kids.”

Kaul says the potential LearnZillion has to help students, especially in underserved or understaffed districts like Detroit, appealed to the U-M Social Venture Fund and its mission to invest in socially or environmentally responsible companies. Westendorf says the students running the fund were incredibly thorough in their due dilligence process—so much so that the information they put together in a 150-slide PowerPoint presentation helped serve as “glue” for other investors.

The U-M Social Venture Fund hopes that other business schools will replicate its model to teach students about early-stage investing. Westendorf, who graduated from Stanford’s business school, says, “I wish they had something like this at Stanford. I actually can’t believe we never thought of it.”

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