Oh, demo days. Regular readers know how I feel about them. And yet, I keep going. Often there is a stand-out company or two that make the whole song and dance worth it.
Today marked the debut of 10 companies from new the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator, “powered by TechStars.” They demoed their progress to a very packed house in the pristine lobby of IAC.
All of the usual demo day antics were on full display. There were slick videos, dramatic pauses, cheesy truisms (“Life is learning!”) and big, meaningless numbers (“This is a $100 billion addressable market!) There was pump-up music, and yes (groan), someone chose Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”
One notable positive was that this class of founders was skewed toward older, experienced founders with pedigree and actual domain expertise. That’s pretty important when you’re trying to disrupt a $100 zillion addressable market that has very ingrained ways of doing business.
Amid the demo day hype and cheese, several companies had interesting ideas and reported impressive early traction.
One that stood out to me (and several observers I spoke with afterwards) was Verificient. The company uses a combination of facial recognition, knuckle recognition (really), ID checking, and big data to verify that the person taking an online test is indeed who they say they are. It also monitors if the test-taker cheats by talking to another person, leaves, or tries to switch seats in the middle.
Cheating and identification has been a problem holding back online schools, co-founder Tim Dutta said. Verificient helps schools administer tests without a proctor. The startup’s technology is already being implemented by a number of universities, both online and brick and mortar, and has plans to expand to other areas, such as certifications. The tech, which looked impressive in the demo video, is fully functional. And it was one of the day’s only pure software companies that had no element of services in its business model.
Many attendees were also impressed with Ranku. The company is a search engine for online colleges (providing lead-gen for those colleges while helping students evaluate schools with personalized results). With the expectation that 500 more colleges will begin offering online courses in the next five years, combined with the fact that online schools like University of Phoenix are already Google’s biggest advertisers, Ranku expects its search engine to be a key part of students’ decision-making process.
Ranku got my attention not just for the lack of ridiculous antics in its demo, or for the fact that it was the only company in the whole program founded by women, but also for its early traction and momentum. Co-founder Kim Taylor, who appeared on that Bravo reality show about startups, proved that she is worthy of being taken seriously, unlike some of her co-stars. And she knows this space — she’s done user acquisition work for the University of Phoenix, EDMC, CEC, Kaplan University, 2U, Bisk, Embanet-Compass (now Pearson) and Deltak. Likewise, her co-founder, Cecilia Retelle, was senior director of education policy at the US Chamber of Commerce.
Taylor was introduced by Deborah Quazzo of GSV Advisors, which invested in Ranku. Quazzo described the Ranku team as “tenacious” and several investors I talked to afterwards noted how “hungry” and “aggressive” Taylor and her team was. That kind of hustle attracts investors and customers.
In the three months they spent in the Kaplan program, Ranku built a team, launched a product and landed 10 clients. The company is in the process of on-boarding 50 more schools to its platform, Taylor said. The company has a $400,000 revenue run rate.
That caught the eye of Mark Cuban, who led the company’s funding round with a $500,000 check.