The coronavirus outbreak has forced schools to double down on—and in some cases try for the first time—online education technologies, from digital science labs to virtual campus tours. But students at some colleges and universities still rely on print, which is a problem when bookstores and libraries have closed.
As colleges seek to provide alternatives to print textbooks, one digital book provider, BibliU, has launched about 100 pilots globally since the pandemic started, says CEO David Sherwood. “Academic libraries have huge physical collections,” says Sherwood, 28. “The crisis has really brought to the forefront the issue with that approach and how remote learners and distance learners have been missing out on those resources.”
And fueling that expansion is $10 million in a Series A investment, led by Nesta Impact Investments. Guinness Asset Management, clients of wealth management firm Stonehage Fleming and investors associated with impact investment bank ClearlySo also participated. Oxford Sciences Innovation reinvested.
Founded in 2014, the London-based company provides digital content from 2,000-plus publishers. BibliU changed its business model about two years ago. Instead of selling directly to students, it now sells platform access to universities and publishers.
Highlighting and commenting on the BibliU platform
Some universities may shift costs to students in the form of fees. In the U.K., because student fees are capped, the cost is included in tuition, Sherwood says. The company has 33 full-time employees with hundreds of thousands of student users.
Pricing per institution varies based on courseware needs, but Sherwood claims that students pay 50-to-75 percent cheaper than print equivalents. Publishers don’t pay for distribution, instead agreeing to a revenue share. Some publishers pay an annual license fee for branded versions of BibliU’s software.
Prior to COVID-19, BibliU served about 40 paying universities in Europe and four in the U.S. Sherwood isn’t sure how many new users, some of whom are trying the platform for free, will end up purchasing platform use. But with the recent investment, he says his team is ready to scale to meet demand.
BibliU reached $3 million in revenue last year, prompting the desire for venture capital to help the business increase sales efforts and invest in platform improvements, Sherwood says. The company has raised a total of $15 million in capital.
Although students’ reception to digital materials remains mixed, the print-to-digital transition has become an overriding concern and priority for many publishers. Pearson, one of the publishers featured on the platform, recently reported that its print U.S. higher education courseware business declined by close to 30 percent in 2019, while eBooks grew 18 percent during the year.
The company’s platform guards against piracy and sharing of content, though the app supports offline reading, Sherwood says. The platform also works with most learning management systems used by higher-ed institutions. It provides data analytics to show universities how much of a book students read and how well they grasp the material, as well as return on investment for providing materials to students.
That sort of insight has proven attractive to Coventry University, a public institution in England. Along with solving the logistical issue of distributing textbooks to Coventry’s population of 30,000-plus students, BibliU has provided flagged school officials for students who may need intervention depending on how they engaged with digital materials, says Ian Dunn, Coventry’s provost.
Coventry has worked with BibliU for two years, starting with a small number of subjects. By next year, all Coventry students will have access to digital books through the platform, Dunn says.
Higher-ed institutions make up the majority of BibliU’s customers. But Sherwood also has an interest in professional associations, the private professional sector and K-12 in the long run. For now, he sees plenty of room to grow in higher education in the U.S. and U.K. The company has seen some interest in other parts of North America and Europe.
Sherwood is also interested in updating features on his platform. Audio readouts of platform content has proven more popular than expected, with a per-reader increase doubling since its introduction in 2017.
BibliU isn’t the only company to attract investor interest for challenging the status quo of printed textbooks. Top Hat raised $55 million earlier this year. And Course Hero, which raised $10 million in February, has started working with textbook publishers to pair quizzes and reading materials.