edtechCB Insights recently released a rundown of the investors who have poured the most capital into the education technology space since 2009. There were a few surprises on the list, alongside the obvious players. To give a little context to the research, we did a breakdown of the top four firms, what their background in the edtech space is, and why they topped the list. We also did a quick Q&A with the founder of one of the more unexpected firms to appear — Kapor Capital.

1) 500 Startups

The first name on the list may seem out of place. 500 Startups, the accelerator and early stage investment firm run by Dave McClure, was the most active VC firm in edtech from 2009-2013. Unlike the other top four firms, 500 Startups doesn’t have an education focus or even a social good mission. It’s just in it to win it.

But on closer inspection, the fact that 500 Startups tops the list shouldn’t come as too much of a shocker to anyone who knows the firm’s strategy. With its spray and prey practice of funding loads of early stage companies with smaller investments, the firm frequently tops sector lists of most active VC investors. It was the most active VC firm in the LA sector from 2009-2013, and most active VC firm overall in 2013 based on Dow Jones data.

Partial list of edtech investments:  Udemy, Colingo, MindSnacks, eSpark Learning, Kidblog, Chalkable, InternMatch, Kibin, Kinobi, Magoosh, Miso Media, Mom Trusted, MotionMath, NoRedInk, StoryPanda, Timbuktu Labs, Tioki, Yogome, YongoPal

2) NewSchools 

The next two VC firms on the list make far more sense in the education vertical. NewSchools and Learn Capital both have education-centric missions, with slightly different approaches.

NewSchools is a non-profit venture philanthropy fund that “aims to support 55 edtech startups by the end of 2015.” It focuses on changing public education for low income students, and in February 2014 its seed fund raised $12 million to invest in K-12 edtech companies.

Partial list of edtech investments: ELLevation, edSurge, eduCreations, engrade, LearnZillon, LocoMotiveLabs, Goalbook, Gobstopper, hapara, Mytonomy, NearPod, NoRedInk, Schoolzilla, BetterLesson, Beyond12, ClassDojo, EducationElements, eSpark, greatschools, Grockit, Junyo, MasteryConnect, PresenceLearning, BrightBytes, Khan Academy, Newsela, Socrative, Tynker

3) Learn Capital

Unlike NewSchools, Learn Capital is a more traditional VC firm, albeit one that focuses entirely on edtech and is backed in large part by Pearson as a limited partner. It has the somewhat more general goal of “funding entrepreneurs with a vision for better and smarter learning.” There’s nary a mention of low income versus high income learning, which makes sense. Learn Capital is more about big expansive market opportunities than a non-profit like NewSchools with a social mission.

Partial list of edtech investments: Edmodo, General Assembly, Coursera, Udemy, ClassDojo, DIY, Learn Zillion, eSpark, BrightBytes, NovoED, Study Sync, Singularity University, Vayable, OpenStudy, Schoola

4) Kapor Capital

The fourth name on the list is another one that might come as a surprise to anyone not following the sector closely. Kapor Capital, the VC firm founded by EFF co-founder and storied entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, has made a big edtech play since its founding in 1999. When the firm was founded, Kapor didn’t know it would wind up investing so heavily in the edtech sector. But the opportunities proved ripe.

Kapor himself estimates that more than a third of the firm’s investments have been in education technology companies. “We are looking for companies that are trying to close [achievement and income] gaps by offering classroom curriculum materials targeted at big city urban school districts,” Kapor told Pando. “Not every edtech company has that promise. Sometimes we see things that are a supplemental math curriculum marketed to anxious affluent parents of kids trying to get an additional edge in the college admissions process. We would view that as gap-widening not gap-narrowing.”

This edtech investment thesis fits the firm’s mission, which is to fund “companies that are closing gaps of access and opportunity for underserved communities or involve a disruptive democratization of a sector.”

When pushed on whether education technology plays grow the income divide, given that software and applications frequently require access to tablets or devices which schools with low budgets may not have, Kapor “politely and respectfully” disagreed.

In some cases there are already dedicated streams of funding available to serve schools in low income communities. Tens of billions if not hundreds of billions are spent on education each year, much of it ineffectively. If you can offer [technology] that is better and cheaper, schools can actually save money and you can build profitable companies around that. That’s my thesis. It has to prove out over time. We can’t claim victory yet. But we and other investors like NewSchool have a whole set of companies that are already doing quite well in terms of usage and engagement.

Partial list of edtech investments: Schoolzilla, Desmos, Front Row, ZooBean, Qlovi, OKPanda, Newsela, Brilliant, ClassDojo, Clever, CodeHS, Curriculet, Engrade, Hopscotch, Inkling, MindSnacks, NovoED, Piazza, Plaza Familia, UniversityNow

[image via thinkstock]