Charters, Colleges Spur Ed-Tech Innovation in Bay Area

“There are voices here than can amplify your voice,” said one San Francisco ed-tech entrepreneur, and the city’s megaphone is one big reason why so many companies are flocking to the Bay Area.

The education technology story among Bay Area startups is largely a positive one. Personal networks are strong, K-12 charter schools are a vast pool for experimentation, and the area’s universities are among the biggest boosters of any startup economy in the world.

Ecosystems for startups are always needed and rarely understood. Ask local ed-tech startups and they’ll describe San Francisco’s ecosystem by pointing to just how many people know each other in the area and help each other out. These connections are backed up by funding and lots of it. Financial backers have a level of patience in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that is perfect for ed-tech startups needing long on-ramps to becoming sustainable businesses. And of course, these startups benefit from being able to tap into vast pools of talent—the very same talent they are hoping to cultivate around the world.

 

Charters: The K-12 Story

Charter schools are a significant driver of educational innovation in the Bay Area. Local startups attest to finding them to be effective early adopters of new technologies. Companies enjoy early feedback by piloting their products, which in turns helps them improve those offerings and obtain yet more customers. Innovation is a much harder ask in public schools.

Still, with charter schools at only 5% of the local education market, scaling for startups means eventually working with public schools or setting up their own school networks. When this moment arrives, founders say, teachers in public schools should be seen as important grassroots change agents. If startups can be successful in solving problems for them, then it’s easier to go to the top of the school system to implement top-down change.

Parents are also important drivers of change. Fortunately for startups, the Bay Area’s sense of innovation translates directly into its families. Parents are noted for being early adopters of ed-tech or being willing to try alternative schools. They’re less likely to see their kids as “guinea pigs” for the tech community and more as partners in finding innovative solutions.

 

Doing Business with Universities

Universities undoubtedly play a large role in the Bay Area’s startup ecosystem. Stanford has perhaps the largest welcome mat for startups of any university in California, let alone the world. Tech firms employ its students, fund and utilize its facilities, and get advice and big ideas from professors. Tech startups often want to know if their product actually works. University research can help with that. The Stanford Research Institute is a standout example of these sorts of academic partnerships.

Still, some firms that do business directly with area universities feel like there’s a growing divide between them, much like what exists in other regions. These worlds often speak an entirely different language. It can take months to realize that each side’s goals and expectations are misaligned. Moreover, those in the ivory tower sometimes fear that even a hint of commercialization will take the shine off their serious research. They’d love to do business with business if they didn’t have to mention in public that they’re doing such business.

Perhaps the greatest hope for business-university partnerships comes when local professors go out and start their own companies. Not only does this help get ideas out in the marketplace, but it instills in professors a direct understanding and relationship with the startup economy. This is a very unique phenomenon to the Bay Area and the Valley. 

 

This is one of several posts examining the startup environment in San Francisco.

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