As Big Data Plateaus, DataCamp Raises $1M to Ramp Up Education

Xconomy Boston — 

The initial entrepreneur-investor meeting went well—I think. Venture capitalist Chris Lynch met Jonathan Cornelissen in a bar in Boston’s Back Bay. It was mid-May. The pitch part of the meeting was brief. The drinking part was not.

“I ended up leaving without my shirt,” Lynch says. Literally: “I had a Sqrrl shirt on,” he says, referring to another local tech startup, “and we had a waitress who had a squirrel tattoo” and expressed interest in the shirt. Details are fuzzy here, but it sounds like the VC gave her the shirt off his back as the party left the bar.

It remains to be seen whether that’s a metaphor for Lynch’s generosity, or the financial performance of this investment—let’s go with the former for now. What was set in motion that day was a $1 million seed investment by Lynch’s firm, Accomplice (formerly Atlas Venture’s tech team), in Cornelissen’s startup, DataCamp. At the time, DataCamp was based in New York, but the team is moving to Boston in the next few weeks and setting up shop in Accomplice’s Cambridge, MA, offices.

It’s a small deal, but it speaks to what’s going on in big data these days. As you may have heard, data scientists are increasingly in demand across industries like finance, retail, and healthcare. The problem is on the supply side: there just aren’t enough people trained in areas like statistical computing and data-mining algorithms to fill the pipeline for corporations desperate to glean insights from massive data sets (see IBM and others).

DataCamp is trying to remedy that by providing specialized online training for data scientists. The company offers both free and subscription-based courses in things like R programming and other data-science topics; Apache Spark and Python courses are on the way. What sets DataCamp apart from more general online-education competitors is its interactivity, personal feedback, and “technologies to allow people to learn by doing,” says Cornelissen, the startup’s co-founder and CEO (pictured above, center).

DataCamp’s courses tend to run about 4 hours, and include a roughly 70-30 mix of interactive coding and videos, he says. The programs are getting some traction, with 150,000-plus users, about 70 percent of whom are working professionals. “Eventually our goal is to become the go-to place for data science training in general,” Cornelissen says.

The company got started in 2013 in Leuven, Belgium. Cornelissen was a PhD researcher in financial econometrics, and was teaching statistics and R programming when he noticed a gap in the market for online data-science courses. He and co-founder Martijn Theuwissen (at right in top photo) had previously started an education nonprofit, and they had done training programs through Coursera and Code Academy (since renamed Starter League), but they saw an opportunity to specialize courses for data science.

They met their co-founder and CTO Dieter De Mesmaeker (at left in photo) through a mutual friend, and then moved to South America for six months to participate in the Start-Up Chile accelerator; they were willing to make a big move for the equity-free program, which paid $40,000. After that, they moved to New York City to take part in the Techstars program in early 2015. Now, Cornelissen says, the team is ready to settle in Boston and start building the company for real.

Coming to America was always the plan. “Most of our traffic, customers, and partners are U.S. based,” Cornelissen says. The company will keep a team in Belgium as well.

In the Boston area, DataCamp will work together with hack/reduce, a big-data workspace near Kendall Square, to offer courses, events, and meet-ups. The startup will have access to a growing community of data scientists in academia, finance, healthcare, and life sciences. It will also be exposed to an education cluster that includes traditional publishers like Pearson, online course platforms like edX, training programs like Startup Institute and Intelligent.ly, and numerous edtech startups trying to innovate in online tools and content (see Valore, Thought Industries).

Now seems like a critical time for big data and analytics, particularly in Boston. “To be honest, it’s plateaued,” says Lynch, the former CEO of Vertica Systems and a champion of big-data investments. “There’s a big enough base now. It’s still a top topic, but we’re not seeing a surge of growth like three years ago.” And that’s why it’s even more critical to bring data-science tools to more mainstream users like business analysts and marketers. “The single biggest issue that will determine if big data is big hype or big business is people,” he says.

But will the market for big-data tools and training ever really be that big? “At the end of the day, the world is going to be quantified,” Lynch says. “We live in a world where math is the universal language. For young people, if you’re a truck driver, a barista, a journalist, you’re going to need to learn to use data tools.”