An attendance system to fight absenteeism. A platform for students to create and run revenue-earning companies. A service for 24-hour tutoring for underserved high-school students.
These are three of the eight companies in the fifth and latest class entering the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, now in its fifth year of operation. That makes it a veteran among education technology accelerators, which often have short lifespans. Once a crowded field, with more than a dozen options, many are no longer around. Among the casualties: Intel, Co.lab and the Jefferson Education Accelerator.
Since its first cohort in 2015, AT&T’s edtech accelerator has graduated 27 companies and nonprofits. Two organizations have been acquired (EMC School bought Zulama in February 2018, ExploreLearning purchased Cogent Education in November 2017). At least one—Earshot—has folded.
Part of what’s helped the accelerator is resources from its telecommunications parent, as well as involving alumni in future cohorts, regularly enlisting program graduates to speak to current cohort members about the ups and downs of startup life. “We have a dedicated community that surrounds the accelerator,” AT&T Social Innovation Director Anne Wintroub says. “We don’t let go of people who go through our program.”
In selecting the participants, diversity has been a mission of the accelerator since the beginning. The accelerator accepts for-profits and nonprofits. Sixty-three percent of startup founders have been women, and 44 percent have been people of color. And in an unusual twist for a program based in the Silicon Valley, this year is the first to feature no organizations from the West Coast. Past years have included organizations from Miami, Denver, Pittsburgh and Chicago (but none from outside the U.S.).
The six-month accelerator program is run by a lean team, consisting only of Wintroub and two others. Much of the hands-on support comes from other AT&T divisions, which offer coaching on work related to communications, marketing and sales to education-related customers. Some cohorts have even had time to speak with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, depending on his schedule that year, Wintroub says.
Access to AT&T’s networks and expertise is what Karl Rectanus says has been important in helping his startup grow. He is the CEO and co-founder of LearnPlatform, which helps schools analyze the education technology they use and was one of the original accelerator cohort members in 2015. “Funding is helpful, but the thing that sticks out for us is how that team understands the market,” he says. “They brought other resources and people to help us think about how to position ourselves and where to focus.”
LearnPlatform, founded in 2014 and based in Raleigh, N.C., had six employees when it entered the accelerator. Today, it has over 30 employees, 150,000 teachers using its system and more than 6,000 schools as paying customers, according to Rectanus. It has raised more than $4 million in total funding.
Hundreds of companies continue to apply each year. Wintroub and her team follow the same evaluation criteria they did four years ago. “We like to see successful pilots,” she says. “We’re looking for proof of viability, rather than specific dollars raised.”
The graduated participants have reached over 23 million students and attracted over $37 million in funding after AT&T’s investment, according to her. AT&T invests $125,000 in each company in exchange for equity (the percentage varies, depending on its size). For nonprofits, AT&T gives the same amount of funding as a grant and does not take a board seat.
An accelerator that works with nonprofits is a rarity in the industry, says Peter Gault of Quill.org, a nonprofit that provides writing and grammar activities to help students in elementary, middle and high school.
Originally three contractors when Quill joined the inaugural accelerator class, AT&T’s initial capital injection led to Quill hiring its first full-time employees, Gault says. Today the nonprofit has 11 full-time workers and claims to service 1.7 million students. “That was a big step forward for us,” says Gault, 31.
As for this year’s cohort, here’s a look at the organizations that hope to parlay AT&T resources into growing a business in the edtech industry:
AllHere (Boston) an online attendance operating system that identifies barriers to attendance and delivers interventions
Boddle Learning (Kansas City, Mo.) uses gameplay to boost student engagement and capture more actionable data on learning gaps and learning styles
Cognitive ToyBox (Brooklyn) a game-based assessment platform
Sidekick Education (Madison, Wisc.) turns high school internships into an in-class project
UPchieve (Brooklyn) provides free 24-hour tutoring to underserved high school students, offering late-night homework support and test prep
UR TURN (Minneapolis) a goal-setting and progress-mapping tool with a visualized tracking dashboard
WeThrive (New York) creates student-run companies that earn real revenue through a web and mobile app
Wildcards (Fort Worth, Texas) an electronic programming product designed to help students learn about coding, electronics and engineering