Veejay Lingiah, Flashsticks co-founder
The entrepreneurs behind three fast-growing edtech businesses tell us how they’re revolutionising the education sector.
Most learners fail in any endeavour due to a lack of momentum. We’ve all been there, trying to learn something new. We start with plenty of enthusiasm, but life somehow gets in the way and we struggle to complete our goals.
Learning languages is no different. People often want to give it a go but lose interest half way through. With this in mind, Birmingham-based Flashsticks has created an innovative method of learning languages through its free mobile app.
Users can use the FlashSticks App to translate the world around them. By scanning any random object, your phone will not only recognise what it is, but will also translate it into any one of 40 languages.
Co-founder Veejay Lingiah told BQ: “I started my career in the buying and marketing departments of the Boots Group, including Boots the Chemist. This was a great opportunity to understand lots of different markets, audiences and propositions.
“Eventually I was head of the bikes buying department at Halfords, which was owned by Boots back then. My parents had always run businesses and after seven years at Boots, it felt like the right time to try my own hand at this.
“My first venture was The Artlounge, a new type of commercial art gallery in Birmingham and Manchester, that helped to promote a number of new breakthrough contemporary artists. Since then, I’ve been on the board of media companies and the healthcare start-up, CamNutra, amongst involvement in other businesses.
“Learning Labs was the brainchild of my co-founder and school friend, Richard Allen. Working away in Spain, he was frustrated at the lack of options for him to learn Spanish quickly and that was the genesis moment for the start-up.
“Richard is the techie and asked me to get involved as the commercial one to drive things forward for us. We started with our range of FlashSticks language Post-it Notes, a collaboration with 3M that quickly got picked up by major retailers such as Amazon and WHSmith.
“Last year, we launched FlashAcademy, an immersive language learning platform for learners of all ages. The FlashAcademy app combines interactive lessons, games and even the world’s first object translator.”
The pair launched the business after securing funding from Midven, Finance Birmingham and the Minerva Angel network and the company now has thousands of users across the globe from the UK to Brazil, Turkey and Mexico.
He added: “We’re based at the Innovation Birmingham campus, which has been an ideal location for a growing edtech company. We now have our own in-house design and development team along with a growing number of talented linguists.
“Our education brands have mainly been focussed on the UK and US markets to date. However, FlashAcademy has just been expanded to include over 300 language options, so we’re now entering a number of new international markets, including Brazil, Turkey and Mexico, where there is a strong appetite to learn English. We’re also seeing a huge shift towards learning on smartphones and tablets, which is ideal for the FlashAcademy platform.
“We also work with a number of UK schools, helping to make language learning more fun for pupils and helping them to get the most out of available technology.
“This year, we’ll be taking FlashAcademy into a number of new and exciting global markets. We’re also launching a revolutionary new English (EAL) learning platform for UK schools, that teaches English from up to 50 different native languages – helping to address a national problem that our schools are facing.
“We’re working closely with local authorities to start implementing this for the new academic year.”
Another company which was borne out of making education more accessible to people is Firefly. The company was founded by two GCSE students, Joe Mathewson and Simon Hay, who developed a platform to help their teachers and fellow students access school information and resources online and at home.
Soon after, Firefly was being used in several schools and in 2009 the pair established the venture as a full-time business. Since then, Firefly has grown rapidly with teams based in London, Brighton, Singapore and Sydney.
Simon said: “We’re a software-as-a-service company that aims to transform learning by empowering students, teachers and parents.
“We have produced an online platform which supports day-to-day teaching in schools: it saves teachers time by giving them easy-to-use ways to set and assess work, track progress and share resources.
“In turn, students can learn in the way works best for them, both independently and collaboratively, and parents are involved at every stage of their child’s learning journey.
“My co-founder Joe and I wrote the first version of Firefly when we were doing our GCSEs, to solve our own frustrations.
“We were fed up with not being able to take advantage of the internet for learning because only a few geeky teachers were able to use the complicated systems that were all that existed back then.
“By the time we finished our A Levels our own school was relying on it every day, and we kept on developing it in our evenings and weekends when we went off to university.
“I did a PhD in computer science and we both worked for investment banks, and all the time the business grew through word of mouth until we decided to quit our jobs in the city to concentrate on building it full-time.”
Firefly has since almost doubled in size every year and has grown from a team of two people to 70 with plans to hire dozens more in the coming months.
Simon added: “Firefly's developments are informed by our teachers, students and parents, so the product is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of schools.
“At the end of last year we raised £4.5m of venture capital – the UK’s biggest edtech Series A round – to help accelerate our growth.
“We’re excited about being able to bring our new ideas to fruition more quickly to make sure we continue to lead the way in learning technology innovation.
“Our focus is on developing the tool to be as effective as possible for the needs and wants of teachers, students and parents all around the world.
“A few years ago, we opened an office in Sydney and earlier this year we set up a base in Singapore - we are thinking global and long-term, with schools in 35 countries already. Watch this space!”
Sheffield-headquartered Tutora is another excellent example of how new technologies can help make learning easier.
The company has developed an online platform where parents can find tutors to teach their kids at home. Think of it as a yellow pages for tutors!
It was founded by entrepreneurs Scott Woodley, a former teacher himself, and Mark Hughes, a tech analyst, back in 2015.
“Prior to launching Tutora.co.uk, I was working as a primary school teacher, here in Sheffield,” Scott said.
“Whilst doing so, I came across many parents who wanted to get extra help for their children to support them in their learning, but didn't know where to look.
“It was at that point I spoke to Mark, who was working as a technology analyst for a large investment firm.
“Combining his understanding of tech and my knowledge of education, we realised we we'd found an important problem which we had the skills to truly tackle.”
But how do you go about funding and launching such an innovative platform? Scott continued: “I think when we first launched the business we were pretty much out there on our own, but over the last two years we've received a huge amount of help and advice.
“The University of Sheffield have a fantastic Enterprise Zone, which was instrumental in meeting many of the most influential people in our growth to date.
“Following that, we've been able to build the profile of the business through events like Tech North's Northern Stars competition and those initiatives have introduced us to even more great contacts.”
The company now has almost 10,000 tutors registered on its site from across the UK and covers every subject and age, helping thousands of students each week. “It's amazing to think that just two years ago we'd only just launched and were operating from my spare bedroom,” Scott said.
The pair are now looking to continue growing the business and have ambitious plans for the future. Scott concluded: “We're exceptionally excited about the future of the business. Having recently completed our second round of funding, we're focused on building a great team and are currently hiring across our Development, Marketing and Education Advisor teams (so get in touch!).
“We're soon to launch our online tuition platform, allowing learners to connect with expert tutors in different towns and cities. Following that, we've got some pretty exciting plans for further growing the business - time will tell how far we get!