Textbook publishers, once considered likely and logical buyers for education technology startups, have lost a bit of their appetite. Pearson has bowed out (but started its own investment fund). Cengage and McGraw-Hill are merging—with each other. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was active earlier this decade, but has cooled off. (It did make one deal this January.)
Wiley, on the other hand, has been on the hunt for acquisitions as of late.
The Hoboken, N.J.-based education company has acquired Zyante, Inc., the developer of zyBooks, a digital courseware platform for computer science and STEM courses. This marks Wiley’s second courseware purchase in three months, following on its acquisition of the much hyped (and generously funded) Knewton in May.
Wiley will pay $56 million cash for the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company, which has a team of 84 full-time staff and contractors that will join the new owner, according to Gavin Chow, Wiley’s vice president of strategy and performance. (Wiley did not disclose how much it paid for Knewton, suggesting that that amount is likely smaller than this transaction.)
Wiley was pursuing Zyante and Knewton at the same time, claims Matt Leavy, executive vice president of Wiley’s education publishing division. In both deals, the publicly-traded company saw an opportunity to grow its digital courseware business and offset declining revenues from print.
For its 2019 fiscal year (which ended on April 30), Wiley reported a 16 percent decline in its print education publishing business, which now contributes less than 9 percent of the company’s overall revenue. But digital courseware increased by 7 percent over the previous year, to $63 million, a number that Wiley hopes to grow through this latest deal. (Research publishing continues to make up the majority of the company’s total revenue.)
Leavy describes zyBooks as a “complement” to Knewton Alta, which currently offers openly-licensed digital courseware for nearly 40 higher ed courses, mostly focused on general-ed classes. Through zyBooks, Wiley will add a courseware catalog for a similar number of courses, but they will be more focused on computer science and engineering subjects, including circuits, C++, Java and Python programming.
While the name “zyBooks” may evoke images of digital textbooks, the company prides itself on having much fewer words in its content. On its website, it claims its courseware has half as much text as a traditional textbook. In place of words and prose, zyBooks content feature animations, interactive activities and assessments.
“We’ve been looking for what comes after the textbook,” says Leavy in an interview. For “coding and other activity-heavy disciplines in which you learn by doing things over and over again, we believe zyBooks offers a fundamentally different instructional approach.”
With the purchase of Alta and zyBooks, Wiley aims to position itself as a provider of affordable higher ed courseware. The former costs $44 per course for two years of access, or $9.95 per month. Zybooks are a bit pricier, costing roughly $60 to $70 per student per semester.
Zyante, the maker of zyBooks, was founded in 2012 by two professors from the University of California system. It has been supported by a mix of grants and private capital, including $4 million in a 2016 investment deal. To date, the company claims its zyBooks have reached more than 500,000 students across 500 educational institutions, including Texas A&M University. The company expects to generate $14 million this year, which would mark a 37 percent increase over its revenue in 2018.
For the foreseeable future, Wiley will continue to offer and sell zyBooks as a distinct brand. Later down the road, Leavy says there’s a possibility that it could be combined with Knewton’s Alta and WileyPLUS, the company’s online course and homework platform. But don’t count on that happening anytime soon, he adds.
In addition to bolstering Wiley’s courseware business, zyBooks could also play a role in supporting its nascent coding bootcamp services. Last October, Wiley paid $200 million to acquire Learning House, which provides online program management services for higher ed institutions and also operates The Software Guild, a coding bootcamp.
“We believe that zyBooks represent a new and better format for providing the educational content for coding education,” says Leavy. But “how exactly that fits in the format of a coding bootcamp is still something we have to work through.”
Wiley reported having roughly $93.5 million in cash at the end of April 2019, along with a $1.5 billion credit line that can be used to support its operations, including making further strategic acquisitions.
“Our M&A strategy is based on Wiley’s unique position in the marketplace with a very strong balance sheet,” Leavy adds. “We feel like we have a significant potential to use that balance sheet to grow strongly across all of our businesses” in the research, education services and publishing divisions.