Thinkster Sought an Investment From an Adviser. Instead, It Bought His SAT Prep Company.

Apr 23, 2020

The app presents students with a typical fifth-grade math question—turn 29 / 9 into a mixed fraction.

The student may attempt to solve the equation through long division, perhaps drawing the numbers on a tablet computer with a finger. The app records each key stroke, pen stroke or touch every millisecond. It sends the recording to a tutor, who watches the recording, noting the steps and mistakes for grading and to prepare for a one-on-one session.

This is the basic premise of Thinkster Math, a New Jersey-based company that marries replay technology with a tutoring service. The company has also undergone another marriage of sorts: an acquisition that will bring quizzes and other tools that help students prepare for the SAT and other standardized tests.

Earlier this month, Thinkster closed a deal to buy Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SelectQ for an undisclosed amount, says Raj Valli, CEO and founder of Thinkster Math.

Founded in 2010 and formerly known as Tabtor, Thinkster offers subscriptions for its tutoring services, with packages that range from $80 a month to $2,088 a year. All plans come with daily grading and student feedback features, but the more expensive packages include extra tutoring sessions for longer durations along with homework help.

This video shows the Thinkster Math interface

Students’ skills are first assessed to find strengths and weaknesses, and parents answer a questionnaire on academic goals. Tutors create worksheets and assignments for students, who earn points based on how they navigate and respond to questions. Those points can be spent on gift cards to retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.

Thinkster’s math lessons are aligned to state and Common Core standards. Students can access explainer videos for problems they don’t understand, even when not connected to the internet. Parents can review reports to show students’ strengths, weaknesses and progress toward goals and can message tutors as needed. The app is accessible on all devices.

SelectQ was founded in 2017 and presents students with practice SAT math and English questions. Based on how students answer questions, the software generates new questions that aim to help them address their weak points on specific math and English questions.

The company charges $79 a month for access and one practice test, or $249 for six months of access and five practice tests. The SelectQ app is available on smartphones.

Valli initially approached SelectQ CEO Ramesh Panuganty three years ago to see if he wanted to invest in Thinkster and join as an adviser. Panuganty joined after learning more about Thinkster’s data-driven approach. Within a few months, the two company leaders saw ways to combine their technologies for one improved platform, Valli says.

Panuganty will join the Thinkster board and is at work on another startup currently in a stealth phase.

Thinkster is based in Kendall Park, N.J., near Princeton. It has about 45 employees, including the tutors who work on contract. Valli plans to grow the company to about 60 people after the acquisition.

Thinkster has raised at least $6 million in venture capital from the likes of Syven Capital and John Katzman, CEO of The Noodle Companies and previously of The Princeton Review and 2U.

Valli says his own interest in education began while volunteering with Asha for Education, a nonprofit focused on education improvement in India.

That interest spilled over into his professional life while with engineering firm Honeywell. He saw a disconnect between the technological feats of his employer and NASA when compared to America’s poor performance on international math rankings. “You’ve got to be kidding me that you can’t get a fourth grader to learn math,” says Valli, 50. “It’s embarrassing.”

The company is also interested in adding more subjects, like physics and GMAT test prep, in the future, says Valli. He’d like to sell his services to schools and educators, but selling directly to consumers is much faster. The company claims it serves thousands of students across more than 30 countries. The vast majority of Thinkster students are in the U.S.

Thinkster is still pursuing other acquisitions, says Valli. The company will also focus on growth in the U.K., India, Australia and Brazil.

The acquisition comes as COVID-19 has sent industries into panic over a potential recession. Valli says his platform has seen a net increase in traffic and sales since the outbreak as parents research additional learning tools for children.

Valli considers his main competition brick-and-mortar tutoring centers like Kumon and Mathnasium. But investors in education technology have provided funds to other digital tools that purport to help children with math.

India-based Byju’s has raised almost $1 billion in venture capital. Australian platform Cluey Learning raised about $14 million last year, while Hong Kong-based Acadsoc raised about $15 million.


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