New Investment: BioDigital

I am excited to announce one of our latest investments, BioDigital.  BioDigital is one of several investments we have made at the intersection of healthcare and technology.  I laid out our rationale at a high level here.

BioDigital is based in NYC and has built a powerful platform around 3D visualization and immersion of the human body.  Our short hand for BioDigital is “Google Earth for the human body”.  Their team sits at the intersection of 3D / CAD software, web technologies (HTML5/WebGL), human anatomy and physiology, bio mechanics and high scale back end infrastructure.  A rich, deep, powerful service made simply available via APIs.  If you want a wicked engineering challenge, apply here.

The team has been working on complex 3D human modeling for the last several years, but with the introduction of WebGL and HTML5, saw a profound opportunity to instantiate all of their models into a Web based platform called the Human.  In the brief period of time since launch, the company has surpassed over 1 million registrants.  Even more exciting to us was the breath of use cases for the product.   Frank Sculli, founder and CEO, details some of them here.

There will be a number of ways to access the Human.  Their web, mobile and tablet apps will appeal to the millions of consumers interested in learning what’s inside our body and how it works.  Consumer health sites will be able to easily use our widgets to offer much richer representations of health conditions that afflict us.  Search engines can embed physiology and conditions directly into rich snippets.  Content publishers can enrich the learning experiences for students across the globe.  Doctor offices and hospitals can use the Human as their front end UI, with patient records mapped to the Human’s ontology.  And more exciting are the ways we cannot think of via our APIs.

In addition, we also can’t predict the ways in which individual consumers will add to the platform  People will be able to append all sorts of information into the Human to improve it in a Wikipedia like model – MRIs, content, interactions, etc.  People will also be able to personalize the human to the things they care about and share them out to the people they love or groups they interact with.  It will be exciting to see how people engage with an experience that was never possible before.

We believe this will be a transformative project and we are at the very beginning.  We are delighted to partner with Frank Sculli, John Qualter, Aaron Oliker and the entire BioDigital team!  Frank’s announcement on the BioDigital blog is here.

Sun Rising in Healthcare?

One of the hardest things in venture is timing.  Pick the wrong time to disrupt a segment, and the result is a lot of optimism and lost investment dollars.  Pick the right time to disrupt and you can build a massive company in a short period of time. Ideas are rarely bad, they are often simply at the wrong time.

A few years ago, we decided that the time had come for innovative changes in education.  We followed that up with some very successful investments in companies like Lumosity, Knewton, Schoology, Straighterline, and others.  Our macro thesis was pretty simple.  First, it was an extremely large important market that hadn’t changed in a long time.  Second, the cost curves in education had increased in multiples of inflation for decades and began coming under significant scrutiny as a result of the 2008/2009 recession.  Third, the industry was supported by an array of subsidies and government regulations that was destined to change.  Fourth, technology and software had the ability to dramatically reduce cost and bring an innovative value proposition “over the top” directly to the end consumers – eliminating traditional intermediaries along the way.  The mix of market size, economic crisis, government changes, and technology created what we thought was the “right time”.

As we started observing other markets in a similar state of change, another one became obvious to us: healthcare.  The only thing you might care about more than education is health.  It’s a gigantic market.  The cost curves have been increasing at an unsustainable rate.  The government’s role is changing rapidly, and causing major shifts in who and how people pay.  Consumers are now starting to take a much more active role on the paying side of the equation and doctors are beginning to select new technologies to power their practices (“over the top”).  While different in specifics, the parallels to education are quite striking.

The exciting news is that we’ve already made a few bets in the area, and will be announcing some next week.  We believe this is a tremendous opportunity to transform the sector and have a profoundly positive impact on lives.  Stay tuned for more!

Democratizing Education Technology

Today, we’re announcing an investment in Schoology, a next generation collaborative learning platform that combines the elements of a learning management system, a social networking platform, and enterprise resource system all in one hyper-intuitive interface.

I’ve known the Schoology team for some time, having spent the last year getting to know them.  It’s a testament to the power of building enduring relationships.  We’ve had a clear set of mutual expectations of what we were driving towards and it all finally came together.  It is a fantastic team and I am amazed at the power and complexity of the system they have built in the short while they have been around.  The uptake has been tremendous for good reason.

Teachers can sign up for the platform in under a minute and have the best in modern technologies available to them, for free!  Teachers can easily invite students into the system using a unique access code.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Teachers can build a curriculum, create lesson plans, build tests and quizzes, have students submit homework into a dropbox, grade assignments, see classroom analytics, encourage students groups formation for peer learning, and much more.  In addition, teachers can collaborate with one another and share content.  Pushes us one step further towards the notion of Open Educational Resources.  Teachers can also add apps, such as plagiarism checks, directly into their workflow.  All this with a Facebook like interface that requires no training.

The best part of the system is that technology selection has been completely democratized to the actual users.  Schoology does not spend months and years convincing heads of a system as to whether the technology suits their needs.  Users simply adopt it.  Upon seeing users within a system grow naturally, Schoology has the privilege of notifying districts or universities about additional capabilities available to them with a few clicks of a button.  Schoology can also enable powerful integrations with existing legacy systems.  No more promises of what can be, no vaporware, no millions of dollars spent on configuration and changes.

The platform also has transformational capabilities.  Because it is social at its core, it benefits from powerful network effects.  With nearly 1 million users already on the platform across 18,000 K-20 and higher education schools, you can bring the power of a developer community to build on the platform.  Content can be built, shared and purchased directly from within.  Teachers can be given micro-credits to personalize the system for their needs.  Parents can be invited to participate in the educational process.  It is truly a radical shift.

And it’s not just schools that can leverage the technology.  Any institution that views training and learning critical is a potential customer.  In addition to schools, corporations have signed up to use it internally.  One of the largest corporate users is Groupon, which uses the platform for field sales training.  They have their proprietary materials that need to be mastered and tested and revisted regularly to ensure a well trained team.

The next generation of education will bring stark changes: transition to digital textbooks and content, movement towards adaptive learning, advancement of the flipped classroom.  But most powerful of all is potentially the technology platform that connects it and us all together.  Schoology represents just that.  We’re thrilled to be involved with the team.

Education: A Call to Arms

Busy days at FirstMark, on the heels of announcing a seed investment earlier in the week, I am very excited today to announce our investment into StraighterLine.

StraighterLine is an online, low cost, subscription based provider of general education courses that many take in their  first two years of college (Algebra, Biology, Calculus, US History, etc). The courses are ACE Credit recommended and can be transferred for credit to various degree granting institutions (25+ automatically transfer today, over 200+ universities around the country that have accepted post review, and growing). What does that mean in lay terms? Well, you can flexibly and cheaply take a variety of high quality courses at a much lower cost than anywhere else, transfer into institutions that accept StraighterLine’s courses for credit, and bring your blended cost of a degree down dramatically.

The two charts below summarize well the drivers for an investment like StraighterLine:

  

Costs have skyrocketed faster than healthcare over the last few decades. Student debt has ballooned to over $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt according to the Federal Reserve Board of New York. StraighterLine’s students pay $99/month and $39/course for their pay as you go service or $999 undiscounted for a Freshman Year equivalent. Against even public two year institutions, StraighterLine offers very significant savings for the student.

In addition to pricing, there are other issues lurking beneath the surface. Funding for public education is getting slashed. California’s 112 community colleges are having their budgets slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars. The system is having to turn away students because it is no longer able to find enough space to service them. The unfortunate incidents at Santa Monica College — where the school tried to create a higher priced system for the most in-demand courses in an attempt to balance with supply instead led to riots and maced students/children — underscore this point.

Taxpayer funding aside, the federal government is looking much more closely at graduation rates and successful job placements at institutions that accept students with federal aid.  As institutions begin to trim enrollments and focus on academic quality, their acceptance criteria will continue to grow more selective.  An institution like StraighterLine can be an effective partner in preparatory coursework to ease the transition and improve a student’s chances of success prior to formal enrollment.

Finally, as we think about structural unemployment challenges, the ability to easily access new learning, complete coursework in a flexible manner, and base competency on outcomes of learning and not on time spent in a course (ie, “credit hours”) will be a key part of solving the country’s labor issues.  The influx of non-traditional students (older, single mothers, workers retraining) is expected to grow at a much faster rate than traditional college students, and we will need institutions that can cater to this class.

StraighterLine offers a scalable solution to these challenges, where all parties benefit – easing the burden on taxpayers who fund institutions, saving money for students seeking to improve skills, improving student selection for institutions seeking to raise academic performance, and democratizing access to education for a newly mobile work force.  The ambitions of StraighterLine do not end there. Burck Smith, founder & CEO of StraighterLine, has been a passionate advocate and visionary in the education space for many years. His last company, SmartThinking, pioneered post secondary online tutoring and student support services and was acquired by Pearson.

With the round, we will invest heavily in building out a unique platform and set of services that innovate on behalf of students, embracing all of the things an online, data driven platform can do. We are working with a number of providers to build assessments to help the industry shift towards a competency based view of learning.  And we are also engaging the employer community, to create better linkages between the education students receive and the more tangible successful outcome of employment.

Stay tuned for more, but suffice to say there is a fantastic opportunity to use technology and innovation to leapfrog America once again to the head of the global class! We are delighted to play a small part and partner with a great team in doing so.

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1 [Source: New York Times, Lewin, Tamar.“Higher Education May Soon Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.”]

2 [Source: LiveScience]

Learning in the Internet Era

One of the most exciting areas where the impact of technology and the Internet will be felt is in education.  In a world where many students will leverage the Web for content consumption, where textbooks will become rich interactive experiences, and where the iPad or Kindle will become a standard part of the learning platform, education will begin its inevitable march from being an imprecise art optimized for the “averages” to a highly measured science designed for the individual.  Concepts such as “Assessment for Learning” are advancing the notion of regular feedback as a critical element of curriculum for both teachers and students.  There is no better platform than the Web to transform the student experience.  And many would suggest it couldn’t come at a better time.

Today, on the heels of that notion, I am excited to announce our investment in Knewton.  On the surface, Knewton is the leading online provider of test preparation services such as the GMAT, SAT, and LSAT.  Underneath the hood, the Company’s service is powered by a groundbreaking adaptive learning engine that takes the myriad of data a Web-based platform generates and optimizes curricula down to the concept level for an individual.  It allows the Company to make performance improvement guarantees no one else is willing to offer, and leads to its customers giving as high a net promoter score as respected brands such as Apple and Google receive. 

To accomplish their ambition is very technically complex, which is why the team at Knewton includes some of the foremost researchers and creators of computer adaptive testing.  Knewton has taken this engine powering their own direct to consumer service and is now opening it up for third parties to instantly bring adaptivity to their content.  “Just add Knewton”.  Over the coming twelve months, Knewton will begin partnering with leading content providers in the market to supercharge their offerings. 

While test prep alone is a multi-billion market, education is a multi-trillion dollar market.  At FirstMark Capital, we look for ideas that can transform large marketplaces and there are few as gigantic and meaningful as this.  NYC is the home of the largest school system in the US and the base of the education industry’s leading content providers.  As we have seen across other vertical industries being disrupted, it’s no surprise that this startup was born here.  We are delighted to partner with the founder, visionary, and CEO Jose Ferreira and the rest of the NYC-based Knewton team as they seek to change the world!