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Edtech startups flirt with unicorn-style growth

When Quizlet became a unicorn earlier this year, CEO Matthew Glotzbach said he’d prefer to distance the company from the common nomenclature for a startup valued at or above $1 billion.

“The way Quizlet has gotten to this point is by building and growing a very responsible business,” he said. “It’s the result of the hard work of the team for a decade. We’re much more like a camel.”

It’s clear, though, that the tides might be changing. In edtech, the rich are getting richer. Last week, Mountain View-based Coursera announced it had raised a $130 million Series F round a day after The Information broke a story about Udemy reportedly raising new financing at a $3 billion valuation.

For anyone who has been following my edtech coverage in recent few months, this momentum is hardly surprising. Earlier in the pandemic, MasterClass raised $100 million, Quizlet became a unicorn and Byju’s became India’s second-most-valuable startup.

While edtech’s boom is predictable, the industry is known — to the chagrin of founders and to the benefit of long-time investors — for being conservative. Today we’ll look to understand how a boost in late-stage funding may impact the market on a broader scale.

High-flying camels

Ian Chiu, an investor at Owl Ventures, tells TechCrunch that the rise of big rounds brings a “watershed moment” to the $6 trillion education market. Owl Ventures was founded in 2014 and is one of the biggest edtech-focused firms out there, but Chiu says the recent strong capital flow shows that the sector is finally emerging as a sector other investors are noticing.

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Edtech’s newest unicorn, ApplyBoard, lands $1.4B valuation with fresh funding

Brothers Martin, Meti and Massi Basiri all left Iran to study abroad in Canada. After struggling with every aspect from the visa process to grade conversions, the brothers saw an opportunity to make the transition to study internationally more seamless. So, they started Applyboard in 2015 at University of Waterloo’s Velocity Garage.

ApplyBoard has two main parts of its business. First, the company helps international students search and apply from a single platform to universities and colleges across the world. Similar to how American students use the Common App to apply to schools, ApplyBoard seeks to be the college undergrad application for international students, and serve as a marketplace. It is free for students.

The other part of ApplyBoard’s business is on the university side. The startup makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college from using their services, ApplyBoard gets a cut of the tuition.

While the SaaS-enabled startup did not disclose revenue, it said it took in $300 million in sales last year.

Five years after founding, ApplyBoard has helped assist over 100,000 students across 110 countries to study internationally. Today, the Ontario-based startup announced it raised $75 million (USD) at a $1.5 billion valuation, making it the latest edtech unicorn.

Unlike most of the reported rounds we’ve been covering these days, this round was closed at the end of March in the thick of the pandemic for Canada, co-founder Martin Basiri told TechCrunch . It means that ApplyBoard’s new valuation is yet another example of how edtech as a sector is feeling dollar sign momentum from COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced millions of students to learn from home, putting tech companies at the forefront of making remote education possible. ApplyBoard, said Basiri, had a 200% month-over-month surge of new schools signing up for its service.

“A lot of investors noticed the importance of our digital platform that can do such an important job,” said Basiri.

While most unicorns in the edtech space hail from the B2C space, like Duolingo and Udemy, the story with ApplyBoard shows that there is promise in selling to large businesses. Across the world, colleges have been turning to alternative marketing channels as campus tours and limited travel hurts their exposure to international students.

The new round was led by Drive Capital. Other participating investors include Fidelity Investments Canada ULC, Business Development Bank of Canada, Anthos Capital, Artiman Ventures, and Plug and Play Tech Center. ApplyBoard plans to hire 100 more employees, atop its existing 400 staff.

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Immigrants Launched Lots Of New US Unicorns, But Numbers May Be Headed Lower






A majority of the most valuable public U.S. technology companies have an immigrant as founder or chief executive. But does that still hold true for the current generation of high-valuation startups?

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To answer that question, Crunchbase took a look at founders and CEOs across several groupings of startup unicorns. The research included the most heavily funded private companies, newly minted unicorns and companies that recently crossed the $5 billion valuation mark.

The short answer? Yes, immigrants are still heavily represented in the ranks of U.S. unicorn founders and CEOs. They hail from multiple continents, and are leading companies in sectors from e-commerce to crypto to pharmaceuticals.

The long answer? Yes, but maybe less so. Early data indicates the proportion of high-valuation U.S. startups founded or led by immigrants may be trending down some. One factor is the growth of startup hubs outside the U.S., making it easier for founders to launch companies in their home country. The other, most notorious factor: the hurdles of securing a visa as a would-be startup founder.

“There is no visa specifically for someone who wants to start a company,” according to Manan Mehta, founding partner at Unshackled Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based firm that invests in U.S. startups with immigrant founders.

While U.S. student enrollment of foreign nationals roughly doubled from 2007 to 2018, there hasn’t been a corresponding strategy to speed or simplify graduates’ pursuit of a green card, Mehta said. And although that issue predates Trump’s election, the current administration hasn’t helped, deciding not to implement an Obama-era visa program for startup founders.

Still, a striking percentage of funded private companies that crossed the $1 billion valuation threshold this past year are immigrant founded. Below, we take a look at 19 such companies, along with a look founders’ countries of origin.

We also look at the most heavily funded, highest-valuation private companies overall with immigrant founders and CEOs.

The big picture

If investors are backing fewer immigrant-led U.S. startups, it may be because there are fewer available to back. For the 2018-19 period, U.S. immigration declined to 595,000 people—the lowest level since the 1980s, according to one oft-cited study. It’s a level that leaves even some members of the Trump administration’s inner circle concerned that immigration levels are too low to support economic growth.

Of course, one needn’t be a new immigrant to launch a high-flying startup. Many of the successful founders on our lists above immigrated years or decades before their companies took flight. The lists, overall, include immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children as well as those who came later, commonly to attend universities.

Lastly, we should keep in mind that immigration, like unicorns, venture funding and startup valuations, has historically been rather cyclical. The issues confronting immigrant founders today may very well fade away or morph into something completely different in coming years.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.







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