In summer 2018, the Danish startup WriteReader joined Kickstart as one of the selected EdTech companies. WriteReader’s learning solution supports children in reading and writing by making kids authors of their own digital books. One year later, WriteReader has established three successful partnerships in Switzerland with the education ministry, a premier football club, and a software education company. Here is Babar Baig, CEO and Co-Founder of WriteReader, sharing his Kickstart story:
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Having been part of several startup accelerator programs previously, we at WriteReader weren’t sure if joining another program would be the right priority for us. We already had a globally working proof-of-concept. Yet, we were convinced by the fact that the Kickstart program is truly partnership-based – the partners, comprising universities, foundations, corporations and other leading Swiss institutions, had a big say when it came to the selection of startups for the program. As a startup, it is a dream scenario to come to a place where several potential partners are present and have already shown interest in your company.
365 days, 3 Partnerships closed across three sectors
It’s been a year since we joined Kickstart. Today, we have three running partnerships in Switzerland. We kept our pipeline broad, yet initially focused on getting a pilot running to validate our learning solution in the Swiss school system.
During the Kickstart program, we were able to launch a pilot project with Swiss primary schools, greatly supported by two leading Swiss foundations, Mercator Foundation Switzerland and Jacobs Foundation, as well as Dybuster, a Swiss EdTech Company. As a foreign company, for WriteReader it would have been impossible to bring such diverse local partners together.
Our initial pilot partner, Dybuster was key to understanding the school landscape in Switzerland. Eventually, WriteReader became a good fit to expand Dybuster’s product portfolio from helping children with dyslexia to general and creative literacy support for children. We are very happy to see that Swiss schools are now able to use our German version “Schreiblabor”.
Through the “Kickstart Partner Safari” which was part of the Kickstart selection process, we met with the Canton of Zurich, that showed interest in exploring how our learning tool built for children would be applicable for basic competency education for adults. Through multiple interactions, we succeeded in agreeing on a 3-year digital flagship agreement for the Government’s e-Lounge, a new basic competency initiative “Lernstuben”.
Our Kickstart advisor, a seasoned Swiss entrepreneur, was a crucial part as well. He introduced WriteReader to the Swiss football club Young Boys Bern. We saw an opportunity emerging to enable sports clubs to use WriteReader as a “Fan Engagement” solution. Today, WriteReader is thrilled to see Young Boys fans create and share their own digital fan books while learning to read and write at the same time!
Keep your focus throughout the program. We had a razor-sharp focus ion the initial pilot. We realized that the basis of potential future partnerships would be dependent on a successful pilot with Swiss schools. Even though we had plenty of proof before, the pilot played out to be an important local signal of the quality of our solution. Time is limited and there is so much to do. So prioritization is key.
Don’t expect things will happen in a few months (it might happen and that would be great) but keep in mind that it’s the long-term commitment of your time that eventually pays off. I have come back to Switzerland 4-6 times after the program and steadily followed up with the contacts initiated through the program. We had a broad pipeline and received several refusals, but the key was to keep pushing gently and to leverage the great network provided by the Kickstart program over time.
About the author:
Babar has over 10 years of experience in operational and strategic marketing. He has previously worked with Danish telecom, TDC and The Society of Danish Engineers. In 2012, Babar co-founded WriteReader enabling children to learn through creation. WriteReader is a scientifically based learning platform that accelerates children’s learning through their own interests.
After a successful initial year in Lausanne, Kickstart’s EdTech & Learning Vertical comes to Zurich with a three year vision to help build a world-class education, technology and innovation eco-system in Switzerland. Up to 10 later-stage EdTech startups will accelerate their deep tech innovations with our Kickstart partners: corporates, universities, foundations, and public institutions. Our EdTech & Learning Lead Tim Lehmann shares his personal view of launching the EdTech Vertical in Zurich.
I’m about to cycle Zurich’s Stauffacherbrücke. It’s an early fresh morning. Spring has melted away the layers of ice of a crystal clear Sihl river. My new office at the innovation and collaboration space, Kraftwerk, appears right next to her. Like every morning at the crossing, while waiting on my bike, after just having passed a big stack of Zurich’s Google offices (Google’s 2nd largest after the US), I spot the construction site of Zurich’s former main stock exchange building. The scaffolding in front of the impressive portal-like entrance hides behind a head-high temporary structure. Painted in blue and white letters it reads, “Education First — The World Leaders in International Education”. By the end of 2018, one of the world’s largest education companies will have taken over the famous landmark building, completely restructuring its inner core. One of Switzerland’s biggest newspapers, Tagesanzeiger, with its publisher’s view right across the Sihl, titled the ‘take over’, “Zurich’s stock exchange becomes a school”.
From computerised finance to education
The finance world’s early computerisation in the 1990s is literally arriving in the education and learning sector. The first wave of digital transformation of finance ended not only in its collapse in 2008, but an ever more aggressive und unequal flow of capital into all parts of industries and our lives. The digitisation of the education and learning landscape could mark a turning point for the new technologies to do better for thinking the relation between technological innovation and political, economic and social inventiveness.
Accelerating partnerships between startups and established players
In our team at Impact Hub Zürich‘s Kickstart Accelerator, we work on both – the tech in finance and education right across the street from the ‘Neue Börse’ at Kraftwerk Innovation Space. Just recently, we launched into our third program year with a variety of partners, ready to pose their challenges to scout national and international startups that would help them tackle these challenges. In 2018, we opt into such new fields that we care about, like the technologies of education and learning — and keep what we like and has been proven key industries (what we call ‘verticals’) for the Swiss innovation space: finance, smart cities and food tech. We shift towards even more piloting between startups and established companies and institutions, such as multinationals, SMEs, foundations, cities, universities, schools, and federal and local governments. This requires Kickstart’s focus to change from startups to scale-ups — more mature startups that are capable of partnering with the established players.
Governing a technological and market society
Kickstart’s EdTech focus, in addition to the Impact Hub Zurich’s collaboration and local eco-system approach, merges the tech and impact focus. (Impact Hub Zurich is a Google for Entrepreneurs partner and member of 100 globally connected and locally embedded Impact Hubs around the world). Our EdTech impact focus signals Government Councillor Dr. Silvia Steiner’s patronage of the EdTech Vertical launch in Zurich in 2018. If we consider impact and scale in the education industries serious, it requires close partnering with the government. Yet, similar to what happens at Zurich’s Europaallee, a central area owned by the government’s train service provider SBB — large tech companies, like Google, overtaking government ground — there will be new players venturing and pushing the boundaries of a resilient, often times stiff education sector. With Swisscom, Switzerland’s largest telco corporation, and Google as EdTech partners, we help to facilitate a thin line between the state and the market.
The cross-sector association digitalswitzerland raised initial industry momentum for EdTech in Switzerland with the Kickstart Accelerator EdTech Vertical in Lausanne in 2017 and its education and talent initiative. We are now expecting Swiss firms to see education and learning not only as a politically poisoned, low-revenue business, but EdTech as a field of innovation for new technologies, new markets and society at large. I personally look forward to having Education First setting up its 1000 employees in 2018 right in front of our office space. I hope that EF will be opening up its ‘portal’ and not be as much of a black box like the emerging tech and information industry has become. Akin to the Spotify and iTunes models in an analogy to the music industry, the education sector rightly fears a Napster moment. Yet, industry players will need to be prepared for carefully riding the long rising tide of the education and learning sector, especially in a social democratic Europe.
Contexts of learning as a social and technological practice
Impact driven tech in education and learning means better and simpler tech. Kickstart’s integration of science and engineering driven technologies (Deep Tech Nation Switzerland) is an important step we do into this direction in 2018. Yet, simpler tech does not mean less techie, but more driven by the contextual complexity and human-centred processes of learning as a social practice (and technological, think of your old school’s blackboard). Constructivist learning sciences experts like Dr. Dominik Petko, Vice president of the University of Teacher Education Schwyz, speak of Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD). In today’s light of digitising and technologically equipping the learner’s pathway, the ZPD theory considers an individual learner’s limits within these developments. Dr. Petko’s publicly funded work as an academic, like Learningview.org — an AI optimised learning schedule that identifies a student’s overload within flexible learning environments — could inspire (more) solid pedagogic concepts for EdTech business models in what industry experts sometimes describe as frustrating product driven business landscape.
Building science and engineering momentum in EdTech
In this vein, we will build on EPFL ‘s experience in EdTech, particularly its 2017 launched EdTech Collider, as well as our new partners ETH Zürich and the University of Zürich. (EPFL and ETH are the two Swiss universities funded by the Swiss federal government — both focus on science and technology driven basic research and education; ETH is among the world’s top 3 ranked publicly funded universities). If we look at the leading EdTech innovation clusters around the world in China, Scandinavia, the UK and the US, Switzerland needs to use today’s momentum in order to make its mark in what Switzerland should be strong in as a knowledge and technology-based society. Mercator Foundation Switzerland’s three-year support of the EdTech vertical acknowledges our vision to help build momentum for an EdTech cluster in Switzerland. More momentum will join if the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research and the Federal Council will approve the EdTech proposal of its National Research Program on digital transformation.
Momentum for ‘transition skills’
What [as entrepreneurs] do we take from this momentum on a personal level? At Impact Hub Zürich, our education spin-off STRIDE Unschool for Entrepreneurial Leadership constantly challenges our learning approach as a leading startup eco-system provider. In the global Impact Hub Network, we boldly say, “The world is changing, and we are on the transition team”. Yet, what kind of competences are required in this transition team? And, are we, even as entrepreneurial explorers of our contexts, not also damned to reflexively learn from our hacking and breaking of things?
Many of us were rebels at school. I personally was one ‘without a cause’— breaking things not for the better. I respect the skills of our community of founders and starters. However, I truly believe that it’s not (only) through the startup experience that we capture all aspects of life(-long learning). A proactive approach for founders to take learning serious — and to combine it with startup success — could be to become educators and instructors ourselves. There is an armada of young people and talents (backed by a political agenda in Switzerland) waiting to learn from the startups’ way of hustling ourselves into a structurally different future.
A version of this piece originally appeared on the Impact Hub Zürich website on 09. April 2018, https://zurich.impacthub.ch/rebels-in-the-classroom-transforming-education-with-edtech/
It’s hard not to notice the fast pace of innovation that is all around us. It touches all aspects of our everyday lives – from the way we commute or communicate to the way we pay for things and produce goods. Education is not an exception. Being one of the key drivers of innovation and progress, the education industry is poised to undergo drastic technological evolution in the coming years.
And as usual, it comes down to startups, that are willing to pursue the disruptive ideas with minimal resources, to drive this evolution. But the question is – where shall they go? We, at Kickstart Accelerator, say – come to Switzerland! With its combined leadership in education and innovation, Switzerland offers a unique environment to accelerate the next generation of EdTech startups that will bring global impact. According to QS World Universities Ranking, four of Swiss universities are in the World’s Top100. Moreover, based on THE World University Rankings, ETH is #1 in Computer Science and EPFL is proudly in #1 place in the ‘Young University Rankings’ (Universities that are less than 50 years old). And the list could go on and on. Undoubtedly, it makes this alpine gem one of the best places to start in or bring an EdTech business to. And that’s exactly what we encourage all startups that work on Education Technology do.
At Kickstart Accelerator, we are super excited to see how this ecosystem will be further enriched by our newly launched EdTech Vertical, in partnership with EPFL and operated by venturelab. The ten most promising international and Swiss EdTech startups will be invited to Lausanne from September to November 2017. They will profit from benefits such as stipends of CHF 10`000, coworking-space at the EdTech Collider as well as access to a broad network of investors, experts, mentors and business partners. They will also have a chance to win cash prizes at the end of the program. Located at the heart of the thriving startup community on the EPFL campus, they will be hosted at the EdTech Collider – Switzerland’s first collaborative space dedicated to ambitious entrepreneurs transforming education and learning through technology.
It is big news for Switzerland. As Nicolas Bürer, Managing Director of digitalswitzerland (initiator of Kickstart Accelerator), says: “The launch of the EdTech vertical in Western Switzerland confirms the commitment and capacity of the region to develop groundbreaking technologies that change people’s lives. The ecosystem here is stimulating and innovative while providing a stable infrastructure and access to finance and expertise.” In the last years, EPFL has taken leadership in the European MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) landscape. “With this, Lausanne has become an important hub for education of the future, offering the perfect environment and opportunities to significantly expand educational technologies”, says Pierre Dillenbourg, Professor at EPFL.
For Kickstart Accelerator, the new EdTech Vertical means tapping into another exciting field of innovation. “The digital technologies will disrupt the traditional way of learning and will bring major changes to classrooms. Thanks to this sixth vertical in Lausanne, Kickstart Accelerator will be part of that development”, shares Patricia Schlenter, Program Manager at Kickstart Accelerator. Venturelab’s Director Jordi Montserrat is convinced that this trend will be growing further: “This development is fueled by multiple educational projects, cutting-edge research projects on learning technologies and promising digital education startups emerging in Switzerland and Europe. Bringing these actors together and helping them thrive by offering a collaborative space and building a strong support ecosystem, can significantly contribute to the development of the Swiss education and learning technology sector”.
If you are working on an education technology startup – it’s your time to shine. Apply for the EdTech vertical by July 10th, 2017 right here: www.kickstart-accelerator.com/edtech
We look forward to receiving your application!