They actually were not wholly wrong. Last week when India got its 101st unicorn in PhysicsWallah — continuing a flurry of edtech unicorns — Byjus (now a decacorn), Unacademy, UpGrad, Eruditus and LEAD — the world is looking at India in this space.
What is common among these edtech unicorns? The founder of PhysicsWallah (PW), Alakh Pandey, comes from a modest background in Allahabad, started teaching science in Class 8, soon started a YouTube channel in 2016 which became a hit, with the PW app registering 5.2 million downloads while its YouTube channel 6.5 million subscribers.
He rejected a ₹40 crore offer from Unacademy, focussed on helping students with low prices and minimum expenses, got acclaim with high success rate in competitive entrance examinations. Together with co-founder Prateek Maheshwari, Pandey built PW during pandemic, remained profitable since inception. Capitalising on huge popularity, profitability and revenue growth projections, they attracted $100 million funding in the first round itself from WestBridge and GSV Ventures, at a valuation of $1.1 billion.
There is a similar story with BYJU’s, India’s globally highest valued startup with a valuation of over $18 billion. Its founder Byju Raveendran, originally from Azhikode, a small village in Kerala, was an engineer in Britain. He started to help his friends for the CAT exam for entering business schools in India. To test himself, he gave the exam and secured 100 percentiles, but did not join. He started mathematics workshops for free. Soon his workshops were immensely popular, with 20,000 students participating in one such workshop that started with recorded videos.
Raveendran launched Byju’s in 2015, downloaded by 5.5 million within a year. It was the first company in 2016 to receive funding from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. There was a queue of global investors. It also went on an acquisition spree, acquiring 19 companies globally for synergy and global footprint like GeoGebra, an Austria-based maths learning startup, Tynker, Aakash, Whitehat Jr, Epic and TutorVista.
How have these Indian edtech startups grown so rapidly? Essentially, with their innovative, personalised, and tech-driven learning products, effective delivery techniques for better learning outcomes in multiple languages and formats. They have strong product tech and R&D teams, with students in focus, identifying and solving their learning needs at every stage, customising, and helping them shift from passive to active learning.
They created an Indian EdTech Consortium (IEC) to deliver quality education and learning outcomes. IEC members include leading edtech startups BYJU’s, Careers360, Classplus, Doubtnut, Great Learning, Harappa, Times Edutech & Events Limited, Scaler, Simplilearn, Toppr, Unacademy, upGrad, UNext Learning, Vedantu and WhiteHat Jr, etc. with retired Supreme Court judge BS Chauhan as its chairperson.
They also have significant convergence with the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, in ‘Technology Use and Integration’ and ‘Online and Digital Education: Ensuring Equitable Use of Technology’. There is a need of demand forecasting of quantitative and qualitative aspects of teachers, technology and learning materials, teachers’ education and training etc. where these edtech firms can help government edtech initiatives like SWAYAM/DIKSHA.
Collaboration with edtech may help in several areas of NEP like in data, location specific strategies, curricula to keep pace with the rapidly evolving needs of the job market. Tie-ups have been entered with NITI Aayog, state governments and West Asian countries etc.
GoI and World Bank during January 2021 signed a $500 million program for Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States Program (STARS) to improve the quality and governance of school education. STARS will support India’s renewed focus on ‘learning outcomes’ and help students better prepare for the emerging jobs. There is a thrust on last-mile delivery of education at the state, district, and sub-district levels.
India is truly at the cusp of a new revolution. With its new soft but strong power, in great global demand, it can meet the needs of developing countries and really occupy centre stage as the education leader of the world.