What does edtech represent for your long-term investment strategy in India?
WP: The recent growth in edtech validates our vision that technology has a huge potential to transform how things happen in India at a mass scale. Nearly 10 years ago, when we started Unitus Ventures, it was extremely difficult to find investors in edtech companies. We were one of the few to show confidence in entrepreneurs pursuing what seemed as radical ideas at the time. Introducing technology in a traditionally people-intensive delivery problem that India faces was a big shift. It is exciting to see the growth, be a part of it. It is unfortunate that it was accelerated by a pandemic; however, edtech was already growing well before the pandemic.
How would you characterize the current edtech start-up ecosystem?
WP: The one-word answer is hot. There is no question BYJU'S has gotten everyone excited over the last few years so there is a slight gold rush. That is typical of venture capital; it is a boom and bust from a sectoral perspective. Mobility was hot until the pandemic, and now one cannot get a mobility app or company funded because no one wants to invest in something that might get zero revenue because of the next wave of the pandemic. Edtech is the exact opposite. The heat is also because stakeholders are seeing results in terms of easier learning opportunities with increased accessibility and better learning outcomes with deeper engagement. If companies demonstrate great results and solid returns to investors, we will see continued interest in the sector.
Within the edtech sector, which areas have the most potential or need for growth?
SV: Individualized learning has immense potential. It has now moved beyond just offering access to videos, syllabus, and learning modules. It is insufficient if companies only provide information to students. The next wave of education is about timeliness and solving the learners' doubts in real-time. This platform agnostic solution can be offered through a WhatsApp group, or any suitable communication platform. Innovations and business models around individualized learning are quite exciting and are set to take edtech to newer heights. When we look at edtech startups we assess whether the businesses fall in the nice-to-have category or the must-have category? The basic difference in these categories is - anything that falls into the former is difficult to monetize, and you will likely get India 1/1+ to pay for it—the 10 million people earning the highest incomes in the country. If you want to target and create impact for the larger mass, you need to be a must-have solution. At the moment, given that youth unemployment is a pressing issue, we are looking at solutions on the skilling and upskilling side of things–a vertical where we expect to see more activity. We continue to look at opportunities that can lead to employment opportunities, such as helping people clear job-related tests, 0-1 skilling for placements in entry level software jobs, staffing for the future and so on.
What lessons have you learned or reaffirmed about edtech and its ability to address social needs during this pandemic?
WP: One of the fundamentals that we look for in any business is resilience, and that means solving a problem based on the broad and essential needs of society. Even in a pandemic, parents in the middle income group would want their children to have access to the latest education resources. They will therefore invest their limited funds to help ensure the best for their children. Edtech has demonstrated resilience and is responsive to this particular problem because people are able to move online quickly. For example, Cuemath predominantly had middle-income tutors working out of their living rooms, teaching a small group of children face-to-face after school. The business quickly adapted during the pandemic when the same tutors worked not only with children in their vicinity but also extended services overseas. Cuemath's teachers were able to not only keep their jobs but also increase their incomes by expanding their reach of where they could teach using technology. Edtech sees no boundaries, which is exciting to see.
What does the acquisition of LabInApp by BYJU'S and other similar deals mean for Unitus Ventures in the medium term?
WP: LabInApp is an interesting company that is solving a unique problem – which is access to science lab learning. This is essential for low-income or government schools that do not have the heavy resources required to set up and run science labs. The company does this via simulations on digital devices. It was a simple concept that is hard to implement well, but LabInApp did a great job. It was ultimately acquired by BYJU'S, and we are excited for that company. Business is not easy to scale, particularly those targeted at government schools, and it is an extremely long sales cycle. From that perspective, the acquisition was great for LabInApp because it gets their product out to many more people with a direct to consumer model that BYJU'S is doing so well. There will be a lot more consolidation because any company that has cracked the ability to bring products to a mass market will want to acquire other companies and bring those products through their channel and create an umbrella of product / education suite. Such acquisitions will continue to heat up in India.