Chasing unicorns: can universities shape the edtech space to their advantage?

Staying abreast of developments outside the big players in the fast-moving world of edtech can benefit institutions while also ensuring a healthy marketplace

John Miles's avatar
19 May 2022
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Allowing unicorn edtech companies to dominate the sector is a negative for universities

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A consequence of the rise of well-funded, big new players in edtech is that smaller enterprises can find themselves squeezed out of the conversation. To an extent, the best ideas and the best companies executing them will always win out, but “survival of the fittest” has its downsides. For a start, universities may only ever see a fraction of the brilliant ideas and people developing them that are out there.

But universities have their own part to play. From streamlining procurement to celebrating internally produced innovators, institutions can assume an active role and begin to shape the edtech space to their advantage.

Galloping unicorns

Edtech has been flourishing worldwide. Global venture capital investment in the sector rose from $8 billion (£6.4 billion) to $16 billion between 2018 and 2020 and has been catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic and the accelerated “pivot to digital”, hitting $20 billion in 2021, according to Holoniq and Brighteye Ventures.

As a result, the “unicorn” phenomenon – that is, when companies reach valuations exceeding $1 billion – has become well and truly embedded in edtech. Brighteye notes that more than a third of all edtech unicorns sprouted their horns in 2021 alone.

What does all this investment mean for technology in higher education? Perhaps most excitingly, universities can expect a greater breadth of choice and depth of innovation than ever. And working with external companies rather than developing in-house solutions can be a highly efficient and sustainable way of addressing strategic imperatives and building engagement and retention among students and staff.

Spoiled for choice

But there is the potential for this diversity of offerings and opportunity to dwindle over time, not least because the pace of development in edtech likely outstrips the speed at which universities can acquire new technologies. From business analysis of functional and technical requirements to tenders, to data privacy and protection assessments, to contract and service-level negotiation, procuring new tools and software takes significant time and resources in higher education.

In other words, the nature of university procurement means that stamina is required on all sides. This is likely no problem for a cash-rich unicorn, but there are manifold examples of small, innovative start-up edtech companies that have found themselves under pressure because of long buying cycles. Add to this the ability of the big players to dominate marketing and messaging, and to buy their way into the high-level policy agenda, and we may find that the unicorns become ever more dominant, meaning that the potential for innovation born of competition is diminished.

Supporting diversity in technology

So how can universities themselves shape the edtech agenda to their advantage, ensuring that our cornucopia of technological tools becomes more bountiful over time and not less? I suggest there are five key areas to consider:

  1. Support dynamic business analysis: The best business analysts in universities are dynamic and open-minded, considering how clusters of technology solutions can fit together and understanding that a one-solution-for-all approach works only rarely. Providing them with support and the freedom to think laterally will ensure that universities are able to consider creative solutions to their technology requirements, rather than feeling confined to the big providers.
  2. Develop institution-wide innovation: All too often, university staff can feel that IT is “done to them”, without much in the way of agency or influence on decisions. Clueing-up staff through institution-wide technology training programmes and recognising and rewarding active innovators will mean more staff members become contributors to the institution’s technological trajectory − and more will be open to considering diverse technologies.
  3. Foster critical market awareness: The larger companies in edtech have the means to market their solutions widely and form partnerships in the policy space that convey credibility. Natural critical thinkers that they are, universities can form their own conclusions, and conducting thorough market research allows them to do this.
  4. Streamline procurement: Adopting a specific, transparent purchasing and procurement framework (G-Cloud may be a start) will help to speed procurement and ensure that companies can prepare a suite of documents and responses ahead of time.
  5. Support the UK edtech landscape: UK universities can take pride in UK innovation and seek actively to nurture it, even if it is beyond their walls. Initiatives such as internal technology accelerators and innovation competitions help to develop local edtech talent, while universities can do their part to consider edtech innovations alongside more traditional engineering and pharmaceutical spin-outs when looking to invest. When local solutions are absent, universities can play a profound role in rebalancing international disparities by procuring technology that has been developed in the UK.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that we became willing to try new things quickly. The immediate emergency may have passed, but our collective spirit of innovation must stay.

John Miles is founder and CEO of Inkpath. He built the first proof-of-concept prototype of Inkpath while at the University of Oxford, where he was training officer for the humanities division and a research associate at Wadham College.

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