Pando

Valore acquires embattled textbook platform Boundless to become a major force in ed-tech

By Dennis Keohane , written on April 6, 2015

From The News Desk

Few startups have had as interesting a few years as Boundless, an education startup that gained popularity as a way for college students to acquire cheaper versions of required course textbooks.

Since being founded in Boston in 2011 by Ariel Diaz, Aaron White, and Brian Balfour as Boundless Learning, the company has gone through more ups, downs, and twists than a season of Game of Thrones. Today, it was announced that Boundless has been acquired by Valore, another Boston education-focused company that was formerly known as SimpleTuition (Diaz and some local media outlets have used the much kinder verb “merged” to describe the deal). The financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.

So what the hell happened to a company was supposedly a model of how to take open content from the web and curate it in a meaningful way?

For one thing, Boundless had a knack for getting into trouble throughout its short history, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The company was created as an alternative to textbooks, which traditionally have been absurdly overpriced for cash-strapped coeds while at the same time required for participation in many courses.

It’s appropriate then that both Diaz and White -- especially in the early days of the company -- were often seen sporting flipped or "popped" shirt collars; after all they were also figuratively flipping the bird to the textbook establishment.

But the brashness that defined the company early on came back to bite it.

Eventually in 2012, Boundless was sued by educational publishing powerhouses Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (a subsidiary of Macmillan). The powerful trio claimed that Boundless had violated the Copyright Act and engaged in unfair competition practices and false advertising. The copyright infringement stemmed from allegations that Boundless recreated the design of the publishers’ textbooks, including the ” original text, imagery, and protected expression of Plaintiffs and their authors.”

In 2013, the lawsuit was settled, but not before Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan had bitten a chunk out of Boundless and the momentum it had at the time. As part of the agreement, Boundless ended up paying $200,000 each to the publishers. It also agreed to stop creating content that was a “version” or “equivalent” of the publishers textbooks.

The lawsuit opened up some questions about how Boundless was really using the Open Educational Resources, which the company curated into its own versions of existing textbooks. Afterwards, Boundless pushed its textbook products in a different direction, opening up its platform for educators to create their own course material based on the available content online. But after the lawsuit, Boundless never really regained the mojo which helped it raise almost $10 million from Venrock, NextView Ventures, Kepha Partners, Founder Collective, and SV Angel.

Along the way, the original Boundless team split up. White joined Boundless investor Venrock as a vice president, and Balfour jumped from investing in a few companies to joining new startup opportunities before landing at HubSpot last year. Other team members came and went, with Boundless vice president Nick Ducoff moving on to help run Northeastern University’s New Ventures program inone notable example.

Today’s acquisition is either a nail in the coffin of what looked like a great idea a few years ago or a second life for Boundless as part of Valore. In a blog post today, Diaz said that today’s news is the next chapter in the Boundless story and that the company will “continue to march towards our mission with even more momentum.”

At Valore, the Boundless brand will live on, with Diaz joining as a the company’s chief digital officer. Bringing Boundless on board is a bit of a coup for Valore, a company that already offers textbook deals and tuition loan services for college students. It had long been rumored that the larger educational publishers were all vying to acquire Boundless’ technology.

To this point, Valore has raised more than $26 million in funding from Atlas Venture, North Hill Ventures, and Flybridge Capital Partners.

The company previously gained a ton of traction when, then known as SimpleTuition, it acquired textbook platform Valore Books in 2014, later taking over the company’s name. As backer Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge has previously said, “The company is really a study in a transformative acquisitions.”

As one chapter is closing on Boundless, another is beginning for Valore, which has truly transformed itself not only into an edtech company to keep an eye on, but a potential edtech IPO down the road.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]