It’s hard enough for American startups to gain a footing in the U.S. education market for supplemental literacy tools. But that hasn’t deterred a team with roots in France, and European investors, from giving it a shot.
Lalilo has closed $5.5 million in a pre-Series A round from Partech Partners, Citizen Capital and Educapital, an education-focused investment firm launched in 2017. The company, which has offices in Paris and San Francisco, has raised $7 million to date.
Like many other education entrepreneurs with technology backgrounds, the co-founders of Lalilo say they were surprised at the gap between the teaching tools currently available in classrooms, and the technology they knew was available.
Amine Mezzour and Laurent Jolie were classmates at École Polytechnique in France, and later at UC Berkeley, where they studied computer science, engineering and entrepreneurship. During that time, they also did short teaching gigs. In France, Mezzour worked in special education at Apprentices d’Auteuil, an institution that serves immigrants and other children underserved by the traditional system. Jolie taught first grade.
That experience would spur the pair to apply their academic training to build educational tools. “With our backgrounds, we knew we could build something better,” says Mezzour. “What if we could better tailor literacy education to meet the needs of learners?”
That question led them to start Lalilo, a web-based program to support early literacy in English and French, in 2016.
Lalilo’s online literacy product focuses on helping K-2 students develop phonics, word recognition and reading comprehension skills through a series of online exercises and stories. Some activities involve multiple-choice questions; others ask children to read words and passages in order to assess their oral fluency.
As students work through the program, the platform uses their data to continually refine and train its machine learning model. That’s important for voice exercises, says Mezzour, since accents may differ across the country and the system must take regional accents into account. He adds that all the data collected through the system is anonymized, and that the company is compliant with GDPR and local data privacy regulations.
The cash infusion will help expand the company’s U.S. footprint, says Mezzour, who adds that he’s long been puzzled by the problem of literacy in wealthy countries.
“It is not acceptable to see, in a developed country like the United States, that two-thirds of students are reading below grade level,” says Mezzour. He’s referring to the recently published results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that just 35 percent of U.S. fourth graders tested proficient in reading—down from 37 percent in 2017.
The U.S. market for supplemental literacy tools is hotly contested, with established brands including Achieve 3000, Curriculum Associates and Renaissance Learning all jostling for market share. Mezzour brusquely noted that “everybody” is a competitor, but that doesn’t discourage his team. He says Lalilo has reached some 4,000 U.S. schools, and that more than 5,000 teachers and 60,000 students use it every month.
To compete, Mezzour says he’s been learning from the “bottom-up” playbook taken by ClassDojo and Newsela, two education startups that focused their marketing outreach on classroom teachers, and which now claim millions of users across the U.S.
Like many other edtech startups, Lalilo operates on a freemium model where its basic product is free for teachers and students, while additional features including reports are available for an annual licensing fee. Mezzour did not share pricing details.
In France, the company may find an easier path to growing its presence thanks to a major partner: the ministry of education. Lalilo recently won a request for proposal from the government to develop an AI-powered teaching assistant for STEM and literacy. As part of the partnership, the government is covering the cost of Lalilo licenses. Mezzour says Lalilo is used in about 2,000 school in France.
With the funding, the company wants to more than double its headcount, from 19 to 50 full-time staff, within the next two years, according to Mezzour. The company also plans to expand its content to cover literacy topics for older grades.