Illuminate Education’s Buying Spree Comes at a Price, Including Layoffs

Jul 09, 2019

One year after combining five companies in a “Megazord” merger, Illuminate Education is still looking to add pieces. Just last month, the Irvine, Calif.-based education company acquired an assessment platform called FastBridge Learning.

By CEO Christine Willig’s count, that brings the company’s total number of acquisitions in the last three years to 12. Its owner, Insight Venture Partners, confirmed to EdSurge the company has spent upwards of $100 million on acquisitions. The ultimate goal of these deals, according to Willig, is to become the industry leader for K-12 formative assessments, reporting and analytics, and data visualization.

But as much as the acquisitions have strengthened and refined Illuminate’s suite of tools, Willig says, they have also come with a set of challenges.

First, there are the layoffs, which Illuminate has experienced more than once since Willig came on board as CEO last summer. The latest round—which is also the biggest yet with Willig at the helm—came in mid-June, shortly before the company publicly announced the FastBridge merger.

Then there is the issue of interoperability. Illuminate acquires companies that work with a lot of data, and getting those different systems to “talk” to each other and share information—and to do so with minimal disruption to their customers—is no easy feat.

But these challenges are a natural part of the growing-up process for a company that deals in data and has a penchant for mergers and acquisitions, Willig tells EdSurge, adding that she is confident about where Illuminate is headed next.

With FastBridge on board, Illuminate now serves about 17 million students across all 50 U.S. states (the former contributing 2 million of those customers). Launched in 2015 out of the University of Minnesota, FastBridge is an adaptive assessment system for reading, math and social-emotional well-being that is evidence-based and research-driven, says FastBridge CEO Terri Soutor, who will stay on as president after the merger.

Like Illuminate’s other products, FastBridge analyzes data to equip educators with more—and more accurate—information about their students’ performance, behavior and needs. But it also brings a “whole new capability” to Illuminate’s work, says Willig. For one, its assessment solution is computer-adaptive, which means it is customized to each student and requires teachers spend less total time on testing. FastBridge also brings a strong social-emotional learning component that Illuminate previously didn’t have.

“Today, there is an awful lot of time wasted and a lot of guessing going on in classrooms in an effort to try to do the right thing for students,” Soutor said in an interview with EdSurge at the recent ISTE 2019 conference. “Bringing all that data together is an effort to help and guide and empower the teacher in a way that they can make really quick impact with the student.”

Willig, who became CEO of Illuminate last summer after her previous company, Key Data Systems, was acquired in the mega-merger, emphasized that FastBridge aligns well with Illuminate’s philosophy of using data to offer insight and open doors for educators.

“Data is a teacher empowerment tool,” Willig said. “It can help bring teachable moments to life, or frame where the teacher needs to focus his or her efforts.”

She added that, with FastBridge’s system, Illuminate will be better positioned to “provide a picture of the whole child on a single pane of glass,” meaning that a teacher will be able to see, in one integrated profile, what’s going on with a child academically, personally and social-emotionally.

Willig believes FastBridge complements Illuminate’s existing offerings, and in a way that does not bring about the staffing complications that emerged when the company combined Key Data Systems, Alpine Achievement, SchoolCity and IO Education last summer.

When those companies merged with Illuminate, Willig knew it would result in overlapping processes and personnel, she says. “We took a good long while to determine what we did need, and what we didn’t, to make the ‘Megazord,’” she explains, adding that the recent layoff is more fallout from last summer’s merger and is unrelated to FastBridge. “I’d call it a right-sizing.”

Prior to the June layoff, Illuminate had lost other employees to “voluntary changes” and “little adjustments along the way,” Willig says. She declined to specify how many people left or lost their jobs, but former employees estimate that around 50 people were laid off in June. The company now numbers around 600 employees, and Willig says there are currently no plans to let any more go.

“You’re always designing your organization to be optimized. Part of it was that,” she explains. The other part “was the increased complexity of five companies coming together and adjusting to what streamlines and simplifies our work.”

She is optimistic about what’s next for those who were affected by the recent changes. “I’m really grateful it’s a time where our economy is strong,” Willig says. “With all the number of edtech companies I saw on the floor at ISTE, I know there’s jobs out there, and I’m confident everyone is going to land on their feet.”

In addition to redundancy in personnel, another big roadblock that arises from merging multiple data companies is interoperability.

“It is a challenge,” Willig acknowledges. “We spend a lot of time, energy, effort and obviously expense in supporting that challenge. But it’s key to helping everyone in that space to start to unlock the promise of educational technology.”

With FastBridge, the first step is establishing single sign-on, which will allow users to access Illuminate’s different products, including FastBridge, with one user ID and password. The next step is creating a consistent interface and user experience across those tools. Willig likened Illuminate and its discrete products to Google Drive and its suite of programs, such as Slides, Sheets and Docs.

“When you go into a Google tool, you know what to expect with the buttons and you know what the dropdown box will look like, even though Sheets is different from Docs,” Willig explains, adding that she wants Illuminate customers to have a similar experience.

“There’s a whole sort of migration strategy around these products so we can be as gentle as possible with our end users,” Willig adds.

Soutor, the FastBridge CEO, says that her primary goal is to merge with Illuminate in a way that is so subtle that her customers—which include all Iowa students—notice “no change, no disruption” in the 2019-20 school year.


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