By Nancy Dahlberg / firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 2012, three founders have grown their revenue-generating education-technology startup to 40 people and attracted millions in financing. Their product is used by thousands of schools and millions of students around the world.
Another Silicon Valley company? Nope. This startup is headquartered in South Florida, although the California Bay Area certainly plays a key role in this story — we’ll get to that later.
Guido Kovalskys, Felipe Sommer and Emiliano Abramzon, Argentines who have worked together on other ventures for more than a decade, co-founded and run Nearpod, a fast-growing mobile learning platform that helps teachers create engaging classroom experiences for use with smartphones, tablets, desktops and multiple operating systems.
“We use technology to leverage the power of teachers, in terms of multiplying the touch points they have with their students exponentially. Technology becomes the super enabler,” said Kovalskys, CEO of the Aventura-based company. “We are at the super forefront of where the classroom will be in five or 10 years from now.”
Nearpod’s model is to take a bottom-up approach, by first becoming a free tool that K-12 teachers want to use to engage their students. Nearpod gives them a safe, secure platform to create their own content or curate inexpensive lesson plans from the Nearpod store. Once the teachers are fans and users, they become ambassadors, making it easier for Nearpod to sell customized licenses to schools and even bureaucratic school districts, although the founders acknowledge they faced their share of naysayers at first. “Our conversion strategy from free to paid is proving to be very effective,” Kovalskys said.
Today, Nearpod reaches almost 2 million students monthly in 100 countries, 85 percent of them in the United States. Among its 2,000 school contracts are large school districts for Florida’s Seminole County, Fulton County in Georgia, San Francisco and Houston, as well as Eanes Independent School District near Austin, Texas and the Canyons district in Utah. But a huge market awaits. Market estimates vary, but a BMO Capital Market report in 2013 valued the K-12 software market at about $8 billion and the larger education-technology market at $34 billion.
Put another way: “There are 125,000 schools in the U.S. alone, and technology is on the agenda of all of them,” Kovalskys said.
Venture capitalists are taking notice, too. Globally in 2014, education-technology companies raked in $1.87 billion in VC investment in 350 deals, a new record, according to CB Insights. On a year-over-year basis, ed-tech funding jumped 55 percent while deals only climbed 5 percent, the research company said. While startups continue to enter the K-12 market, Nearpod’s biggest competitors are Promethean’s ClassFlow and Socrates Online, said Abramzon, Nearpod’s chief marketing officer.
To compete in a hot market, Nearpod recently closed a $6 million Series A financing round with Silicon Valley and South Florida investors including Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO, Storm Ventures, Rothenberg Ventures, Stanford University (via its STartX fund), NewSchools Venture Fund, Reach Capital and Deborah Quazzo of GSV Advisors, as well as Florida-based investors Krillion Ventures, angel investors in the AGP network, Arsenal Venture Partners and the Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund.
“We immediately understood Nearpod’s value as an in-class educational tool that facilitates the development of teacher-generated curriculum and increases student engagement. We were also impressed by Nearpod’s adoption and usage rate by legitimate educators across the country and believe that their innovative platform represents the future of classroom learning,” said Melissa Krinzman, co-founder of Krillion Ventures in Miami.
“Nearpod is also a great local story,” added Benoit Wirz, who manages the Knight Enterprise Fund. “Based in Aventura and growing quickly, Nearpod is a great example of the burgeoning Miami startup community that Knight’s charitable efforts are focused on strengthening. Even more exciting, Nearpod is being adopted locally.”
Teachers within Miami-Dade public schools have been using the platform, as it has spread through word of mouth to different departments and classes. Three local private schools, Immaculata-La Salle, Pine Crest and American Heritage, were among Nearpod’s first customers.
“We’ve been helping them test new features, and our teachers have given them input and created content — it’s been a nice partnership,” said Fredy Padovan, executive director of advancement and technology at La Salle and an Apple Distinguished Educator.
Padovan said La Salle teachers structure their Nearpod lectures differently, but usually after two or three slides there is something interactive such as a question or a poll, and the teacher can see in real-time if the students are engaged and understanding the material. Even a student sick at home could participate if they want to. And the teachers have employed the interactive features in other ways, he said. For instance, if online tests are administered through the platform, the teachers can monitor the students taking tests and will know if they are being distracted or possibly cheating. “That’s been one creative way we have used it outside the standard interactive lecture,” he said.
Another way: Four La Salle teachers created Catholic school-specific content and helped launch a Catholic school library on the Nearpod platform for other Catholic schools to also use. “There really isn’t a lot out there when it comes to religion and technology,” Padovan said.
All the recent progress aside, this entrepreneurial journey hasn’t always been easy for the three founders, who say they have been doing business together for 10 years but have been friends for far longer. Kovalskys and Sommer, Nearpod’s president, even went to the same high school and universities. Between the three of them, they have founded and run several businesses before Nearpod and worked at companies such as Accenture and McKinsey.
For the first two years, the founders bootstrapped while building out their model that was already generating revenue. But after coming to the realization that to scale big they would need outside investors, they naturally went to Silicon Valley, where Kovalskys and Sommer also went to college (University of California, Berkeley). At first, they were getting nowhere — and many of the investors told them that if they were based in Miami, they weren’t interested — but then a big door opened. Kovalskys was invited to join Stanford University’s well-known design accelerator as a fellow. “And that opened a lot more doors,” Kovalskys said.
Today, about 25 members of the 40-person team handle all operations in the Aventura headquarters. Nearpod also has a product team in Silicon Valley, where Kovalskys spends most of his time. Nearpod was also recently accepted into Co.Lab, an education-gaming accelerator hosted by Zynga.org in San Francisco.
The first version of Nearpod’s product focused on putting on the secure platform what teachers needed for lectures — “PowerPoint on steroids” is how early media reports described it. But the platform took off after the team began incorporating features teachers asked for, such as virtual field trips, and began paying its top teachers to create content for a Nearpod marketplace, where lessons sell for $1.99 or less if bought in bundles. “We turned them into publishers,” said Sommer. “We’re the tool, the teachers are responsible for the magic.”
Last year, the company did a large pilot test with the San Francisco Unified School District, which is still using Nearpod today. Just about everything they tested in San Francisco was learned and developed in their first schools in South Florida. Padovan said his students last year were beta-testing a revamped Nearpod student application pre-production while teachers were testing the teacher app.
“We are very devoted to our first schools,” said Abramzon. “They taught us the power of the product.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.
NEARPOD AT A GLANCE
Business: Learning platform for the K-12 schools marketplace in the education-tech industry.
Management team: Co-founders Guido Kovalskys, CEO, Felipe Sommer, president, Emiliano Abramzon, chief marketing officer.
Employees: About 40; 25 are in Aventura, the rest in Silicon Valley.
Financing: Recently closed a $6 million Series A round from South Florida and Silicon Valley investors.
Recent partnerships: Common Sense Media and OZY Media; accepted into Co.Lab, an education gaming accelerator hosted by Zynga.org.