Where are the giants of edtech in K-12 education in Europe?

We’re committed to playing a leading role in renewing education for the next generation and believe we can add value by supporting pupils and teachers on three fronts:

– Achieving excellent learning outcomes
– Enabling efficient ways of working, and
– Supporting engagement and motivation.

Technology can be a key enabler on making progress on each of these three fronts, Today, Sanoma Learning is one of Europe’s leading edtech companies, with roughly € 40 M of pure-play digital and € 100 M of multi-channel sales.

We’re ambitious and like to partner with and acquire other edtech companies to help us to support customers on the three fronts mentioned above. Significant amounts of money are being spent on education each year, of the order of 6% of GDP. This is approximately € 800 bn per year in the EU: the market is sizeable and K-12 is a big slice of that. Yet there are relatively few edtech companies established on the continent today that generate more than € 25 M of annual sales. To be honest, I couldn’t name 10 off the top of my head.

Plenty of talent, ideas and capital

IBIS Capital estimates that there are approximately 3,000 e-learning ventures in Europe today. These companies employ a lot of entrepreneurial talent, many of them working on potentially high-impact ideas. Also, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to find funding for promising edtech ventures. In the USA in Q1/2014 about $ 500 M was committed in new funding to 99 edtech ventures – the biggest quarter for the last five years.

“The market is rich enough in talent, ideas and venture funding.”

So why hasn’t this large and transforming market in K-12 education spurred the growth of a handful of European edtech giants?

To be frank, I don’t know. Let’s start by looking at the context for K-12 education in Europe today. The great majority of the money in the market is spent (directly or indirectly) by the government through schools, many of which are not yet ready for e-learning. Also, the great majority of overall funding is spent on the salaries of teachers; this is absolutely right – teachers are the most critical factor in providing excellent education.

Within this context I think there are probably three main reasons that make it difficult for an edtech giant to emerge from the European continent on the short term:

1. A rather immature ecosystem
A well-functioning e-learning ecosystem can be built if we can make progress on four dimensions in schools: i) a clear vision on what we want to achieve and committed leadership to make it happen ii) good ICT infrastructure iii) availability of content and software and iv) teachers equipped with the skills to get ICT to work for them and their pupils. Although good progress has been made in many countries on many of those dimensions in the last ten years, most of these ecosystems are still relatively immature. In many ways progress needs to be made on each of these dimensions simultaneously in order for the ecosystem to flourish. There are a lot of data available on this. To name one important element – today there are of the order of 5 devices per household in northern Europe but five pupils per workstation at school. The home is a much more advanced digital ecosystem than the school. Surely this is just a matter of timing? Maybe BYOD tablets will provide the impulse the ecosystem needs? In any case, the early stage of the ecosystem hinders the adoption of educational technology.

2. Long sales cycles but narrow sales windows
The great majority of spending on education in Europe is channelled through institutions. Most of those institutions are organised around an annual cycle. Sales processes into them tend to be long and complex and the window of opportunity rather narrow. If your service is great, but you are not well-positioned to make the sale, the opportunity can be lost until the next year, or for many years. This can be killing for start-ups managing their monthly burn rate and can be a big disincentive to some investors and entrepreneurs.

3. Lack of scale
The final area that is probably hindering the emergence of new European edtech giants is the lack of scale in the market. Education systems tend to be organised very locally and can be prone to political influence. There are relatively few things that scale across multiple countries. Even if your business does brilliantly well in one country, it will be very hard to capture that same position across the continent. Edtech ventures from the USA or China enjoy a clear advantage, with large home markets that can attract significant funding.

How can we improve?

Europe has many natural advantages in the edtech space. For example, it’s home to some world-class education systems such as Finland and there’s a rich start-up scene in a number of leading cities. There’s also a reliable and significant commitment to spending on education.

I’m sure there are lots of smart options about taxes and skills and common standards and so on that the EU is working on in building a big single European market, and I imagine many of those things will help. In addition to that I would like to see us getting more proactive as an industry in two areas. Firstly, it would be good to get more transparency on the market. Which of these new ventures are really starting to fly? Initiatives such as Edtech Europe and Sanoma’s Start-up Challenge help, but are not enough. It’s hard (but not impossible 🙂 ) to see the wood for the trees amongst the 3,000 of today. Who should we partner with? And secondly, are there ways for us to create a European network that can bring scale to the market so that we can more rapidly deploy new technology for the benefit of our customers?

I’m interested to hear your views on this. Feel free to drop me a line if you have inspired ideas.

Looking forward >>

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