New Accelerator LearnLaunchX Looks to Make Boston Ed-Tech Capital of the World

2/1/13Follow @gthuang

There’s a new startup accelerator in town. OK, there are a few—but this one specializes in technology and innovation in the field of education.

LearnLaunchX, led by angel investor Jean Hammond and her team, is gearing up for its first group of startups this summer. Hammond spoke with me in conjunction with her nonprofit LearnLaunch’s first major education conference, which is taking place today and tomorrow at the MIT Tang Center. (LearnLaunch was founded last year by Hammond, Marissa Lowman, and Eileen Rudden, with the goal of supporting New England’s education cluster.)

The new accelerator’s terms and mentorship program are TechStars-esque. LearnLaunchX will admit about eight startups at a time and provide up to $18,000 in exchange for a 6 percent equity stake in each startup (these are nominal figures). Hammond says she’s raising a new micro-fund to support the accelerator and is bringing in co-investors. Hammond and Rudden are joined by Mark Miller, Vinit Nijhawan, and Hakan Satiroglu as co-founders of the accelerator.

The first class will start in June at a location that’s still TBA; the session will run for three to four months. LearnLaunch currently has space in Boston’s Fort Point/Innovation District area.

A broader trend we’re seeing is the specialization of accelerators and incubators: newer ones are cropping up in subsectors like healthcare, health IT, big data, hardware, and cleantech. In ed-tech, Imagine K12 has been running on the West Coast since 2011. Taken all together, this is probably a sign that with existing programs like Y Combinator and TechStars dominating the scene, the best way to compete is to find a niche.

LearnLaunchX is taking some lessons from other specialized programs. For one thing, it plans to get education industry players deeply involved early on. That might take the form of a beta test day or a teacher/administrator day, among other things, to help the companies refine their products and demos.

“We think this industry is fairly complex and fairly hard to fund,” Hammond says. “We’ll have a demo day [for investors], but we’ll also have a way to showcase the companies to different parties.”

As an investor, Hammond says the challenge in education is that “this is a complex set of niche opportunities.” She has done angel investing for 15 years—her investments have included Copiun, TenMarks, and Zipcar—but she says this is the first time she thought “it was worth investing to a thesis.” At the same time, she’s well aware of the sector’s challenges, including its generally slow-moving nature and the difficulties of gaining adoption of new products in K-12 schools.

But she thinks the timing is right for a big new effort. “Our perspective is, ‘If not Boston, where?’ We’ve got all the materials at all the stages of the industry to really be effective,” she says. “We’ve got this diversity.”

She points out that there are plenty of small ed-tech startups and entrepreneurs, yes, but there are also bigger, faster-growing, or more established players like ConnectEDU, Curriculum Associates, Jenzabar, Lexia, and SimpleTuition. Plus big publishers like Cengage, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson.

The hope is that the education community will come together and help create some game-changing businesses in Boston—whether they are in learning software, lesson planning, online interfaces, peer networking, tuition payments, publishing, or what have you (ed-tech is broad). To that end, the plan is for LearnLaunchX to run at least every summer, Hammond says, and probably more often than that. The group is shooting for five sessions in the first three years.

The program isn’t taking applications just yet. But it will soon, starting Feb. 20. Hammond already has in mind the kinds of teams she’s looking for. “We want companies that will be able to scale when they get there,” she says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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