In biology, cells join together to form tissues, the building blocks for plant structures and animal organs. In business, two companies may join to build a stronger foundation, winning new customers and offering more services to existing ones.
At least, that’s the idea for Tim Loomer, CEO of science education holding company Science Interactive Group. The Englewood, Colo.-based company has purchased eScience Labs, which sells undergraduate students science kits used with online classes to provide hands-on experiments.
Science Interactive plans to merge eScience with its own science lab kit company, Hands-On Labs. The combined science lab kit company will use the name “Science Interactive” in January.
Combined, the companies nearly double their suite of college lab experiments to cover about 1,100 with lessons in physics, chemistry, biology and other science subjects. “We’re out there presenting to schools, giving them a choice of dynamic tools,” he says. “We’re approaching the market with a lot more choice.”
Science Interactive claims it will be the largest lab products and services provider to the distance education market, servicing more than 650 higher education institutions following the acquisition.
The combined company expects to deliver about 150,000 kits in 2020. The companies shared about 60 percent of their customers before the acquisition. Both were profitable and will remain profitable, Loomer says.
A video from for-profit college American National University shows an example of a student might use a kit from eScience Labs.
Freedom of choice
As online technologies offer new ways to deliver—and in many cases, simulate—science instruction, Loomer still sees the importance of online and offline tools for educators. Astronomy, physics and upper-level biology lessons are not easy to replicate with tools outside a classroom lab, he says. Hence the need for Science Interactive’s physical kits augmented, in some cases, with digital materials.
Lab kits range from about $75 to $400 per kit. Loomer doesn’t expect the price range to change, but he plans to add more options between the two price points, including more digital tools.
Companies focused on innovation for science labs have attracted investor attention this year. Virtual lab provider Labster raised a $21 million Series B round, and virtual and offline science lab provider MEL Science raised $6 million this year.
Beth Allan, president-elect of National Science Teaching Association, an Arlington, Va.-based professional organization of about 50,000 people in science education and business, says science educators constantly assess whether their students would master concepts best through hands-on experiments or a digital tool.
Allan, also a biology professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, says her school tries to accommodate multiple styles of science learning, whether in a classroom lab or through a virtual lab. “We want to bring equitable, high quality education to all students—to do that, we have to think out of the box,” says Allan.
Science education technology is a growing field, with recent advancements in robotic technology at medical schools and technology used to scale nursing education, she says. But companies shouldn’t hope to replace classroom experiments for everyone. “There will always be a need for hands-on experience,” she says.
“We’re out there presenting to schools, giving them a choice of dynamic tools,” says Science Interactive Group CEO Tim Loomer. “We’re approaching the market with a lot more choice.” (Photo: Science Interactive Group)
SIG Born from Private Equity
Science Interactive formed in 2016 as a holding company for two education acquisitions by private equity firms Millpond Equity Partners and Wasena Capital Management. That November, the firms bought science education equipment manufacturer Science First and purchased college science curriculum and lab kits provider Hands-On Learning.
Millpond also owns TouchMath, which provides supplemental math products and curriculum.
Founded in 2007, eScience claims to have sold kits to more than 400 universities worldwide. Loomer says the eScience acquisition talks began around 2017 but became serious this summer.
Loomer joined Science Interactive as CEO in October 2018. Before Science Interactive, he served as an investment banker and adviser at education advisory firm Tyton Partners and joined Science Interactive with an express strategy to grow with “product line extensions and strategic acquisitions,” according to the company announcement from the time. eScience is Science Interactive’s second acquisition since Loomer joined.
His time in education goes back even further, previously serving as CEO of higher education administrative platform provider Campus Management and K-12 assessment maker Scantron Corp.
Loomer says he still has plans to buy more companies to grow Science Interactive. Along with eScience, Science First and Hands-On Labs, the company’s brands include portable planetarium manufacturer StarLab, environmental sampling equipment seller Wildco, and lab equipment essentials seller Your Science Hub.