It is an all-too-common struggle, and Minnesota tech entrepreneur Mike Reynolds watched his own mother go through it.
She was a teacher – that is, until she burnt out from spending more time pushing papers than actually teaching and helping kids. Eventually she had to quit.
If you know anyone who works in education, you’ve probably heard them lament the inefficiencies of its many antiquated systems. The EduTech movement intends to alleviate this headache, but there are numerous barriers standing in the way of relief. Chief among them: disparate data sources and types across regions, districts and schools.
Reynolds teamed up with David Boardman, Tim Heckel and Ben Silberglitt to form Cedar Labs, with a goal of helping schools integrate solutions more smoothly and easily through a unified infrastructure. The company has been in operation for almost five years, and has reached the point of beginning to scale up in efforts to turn the corner.
“What we’re all about is working with districts and states and vendors to help them all interact in a way that’s good for all of them,” says Boardman, who joined up to help build out the product after Reynolds initially began developing it as a hobby.
One of the overarching value propositions for Cedar Labs is data security — an urgent matter whenever student records are concerned.
“More and more there’s a concern with student data and PII (Personally Identifiable Information) and making sure there’s transparency to parents, teachers, and schools about who has access to kids’ data,” Boardman explains.
Cedar Labs offers a data hub that provides this transparency, which is its most visible benefit. But the product’s most important function, operationally, is serving as middleware that standardizes processes and takes the pain out of solution integration. The software gathers and translates existing data, and handles tasks like message routing, access control and auditing. This service can be tremendously helpful for districts and vendors, so the company markets to both sides.
Their biggest current client, and one that hints at the larger opportunity, is New South Wales in Australia, a district that includes around 2,000 schools and more than a million students. The size of the global market makes theirs an appealing space to live in.
“Spending on EdTech will reach over $250 billion by 2020,” Boardman says. “We’re a small piece of that, but if we sit in the middle of even 5 percent of 1 percent of that money, we think the opportunity for us is a billion-dollar possibility.”
He adds that they are well-equipped to take on more volume. The entire system was built on Amazon Cloud, enabling them to handle hundreds of millions of records daily without issue, and at a relatively low cost.
Now, it’s just a matter of landing more contracts with districts and vendors to utilize those capabilities. Boardman admits that the self-funded startup faces a bit of a “chicken or egg” conundrum with the dynamic of an interdependent customer base.
“For a district who doesn’t have a lot of time to have grand plans of their own, our value proposition is a deeper sell compared to when we have 300 great vendor applications they can easily pick and choose from”
“For vendors it’s much more interesting to them to integrate when we have 75 percent of districts in the US feeding data to us.”
Boardman says it’s a “tension we’re trying to overcome,” but feels that is happening now as Cedar Labs increases penetration on the district side and consequently gains more interest from vendors.
There’s no question that the Cedar Labs team is riding a wave as the school season arrives; they just received a $50,000 grant from Amazon, and are now a General Division finalists in the MN Cup.