Lebanese startups focusing on education technology (edtech) have tapped into the idea that as education changes, they have a role to play in preparing the next generation for the 21st century workplace. Educators seeking to prepare children for the jobs of the future, those that rely more on coding, robotics, AI, and programming—and depend less on traditional knowledge than an ability to think critically to solve new problems—can tap into these technologies and integrate them into their classroom teaching.
Investments in edtech are growing globally, and beyond the overarching education goal, Lebanon’s entrepreneurs see a potential market for these businesses here and in the region. In 2018, 1,087 edtech companies received funding globally, an increase from 813 in 2017, according to research from Metaari, an advanced learning technology research company. Of the six Lebanese edtech companies that Executive has profiled below, most expressed interest in expanding to other MENA markets, primarily those in Saudi Arabia, citing difficult economic times at home and better opportunities to grow their businesses abroad. Beyond better expansion opportunities in the Gulf states, Lebanon’s schools sometimes lack the technical infrastructure or cannot afford these solutions, making finding markets elsewhere not only lucrative for these startups, but in some cases necessary.
From personalized children’s books and programs that teach kids and teens coding and robotics to an adaptive learning platform, these edtechs have one thing in common, an understanding that for children to learn best, they must be engaged with the content. “Gamified learning” and “project-based learning” seemed to be recurring buzzwords during these interviews, as the people behind these platforms see these styles to be the most engaging because children are actively involved in, and invested in, solving a problem from start to finish. These companies seek to partner with schools to give teachers another tool to use in the classroom, though they have primarily sought to tap into private schools in Lebanon, as public schools rarely have the budgets or infrastructure for these products.
Incorporating a proprietary mobile app as a platform for interaction, Synkers is an online marketplace for tutoring services that is mostly active in Lebanon, where about 70 percent of its tutors are based. Synkers has a secondary presence in the UAE and aspirations to roll out its services in Saudi Arabia in the near term. With roots in the founders’ personal experiences as actors on the supply and demand sides of tutoring while studying in Canada about 10 years ago, Synkers was accelerated from business idea to startup venture at Beirut accelerator Speed@BDD, from which it graduated in April 2016. Seed funding came from Lebanese venture capital firm Phoenician Funds in 2017 and growth of the startup ensued on basis of strong knowledge of the Lebanese education environment. The edtech startup also is working in education markets that provide higher profit margins than tutoring by organizing classes on specific topics, such as the SATs, and also plans to provide corporate training. Its business model for intermediation between sellers and seekers of tutoring and handling of related payments is built around the charging of commissions to the buyers of tutoring (at a gross rate of 20 percent as part of which overheads, tech developments, and taxes due from tutors are covered). The startup’s concept also has accents of the sharing economy and social enterprise aspirations for contributing to the improvement of the education opportunities. Social accents include a professed vision of broadening the reach of education by making it more affordable for students from poor backgrounds to obtain peer tutoring that will give them an improved chance to complete their education and avoid dropping out of school. However, Synkers is also already contemplating exit strategies via acquisition by one of the larger edtech players in Asia or the United States who might seek to enter the Middle Eastern tutoring market (estimated by Synkers on basis of market research to worth $3.1 billion).
Some students are visual learners, some are auditory, and others are verbal or kinesthetic learners. With learning types this varied, the founders of Augmental, a digital learning platform, are trying to cater to an individual’s learning style. Students using the platform take an assessment that measures their skill level and learning style and an algorithm accordingly assigns material after the teacher has presented the lesson and introduced the concepts. For the teachers, there is a dashboard to monitor students. In Lebanon, Augmental is used by five schools, and Paul Barakat Diab, one of the founders, says that the team has interest from public schools in the UAE and Kuwait and is trying to penetrate Saudi markets. In Lebanon, there is currently content for STEM subjects for grades 5-9 as well as French and English. Content on the platform is made by content providers previously certified by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education or by teachers who can load their own content onto the platform. Each school subsequently has a coordinator to review the content and ensure it aligns with core competencies. For Augmental to function as intended, there are minimum infrastructure requirements a school must meet to qualify, such as a lab with enough tablets so that each student in a given class can use one. In Lebanon, because many schools—especially public schools—lack the appropriate resources, Barakat Diab says that Augmental’s future markets will mostly be outside the country. While teachers in Lebanon are aware of adaptive learning and are themselves searching for solutions, he admits the timing for such a product launch in Lebanon is not ideal because of the strained economic situation. To break even, a lot of factors must be considered he says. If they receive the requested funding, which will be used to pay increased marketing and sales efforts and the development of a marketplace for adaptive learning content, they will reach that mark in two years.
Spica Tech Academy
Spica Tech Academy teaches children and teens how to create their own video games through project-based learning, but perhaps more importantly for founder Reine Abbas, the program is teaching kids how to be creative, a skill she stresses is imperative. Even if children do not go on to be game developers, the skills they are learning—creativity, project management, critical thinking, coding, storytelling, and writing—will be important in nearly any future career, Abbas says. Spica Tech Academy started as a B2C platform where parents could enroll their children in week-long 20- or 30-hour coding camps, but has since evolved to include a B2B model where Spica Tech Academy instructors will teach a week-long course in schools. So far, they operate in four private schools in Lebanon and, depending on demand, Abbas says she would likely expand to 12 schools in Lebanon and is currently finalizing contracts with three schools in Dubai. The focus on project-based learning, an approach in which students work to complete a project over an extended period of time, stems from a need to have children work through a task from start to end, figuring out solutions along the way. With game creation, challenges have to be created and solutions must be invented, says Abbas, making it a good—and importantly fun—way to get children thinking critically. Teaching complex concepts like coding to children could be challenging, but scaling activities appropriately makes this possible. For younger children, visual programming languages are a way to grasp these concepts, but teenagers can create their own game from scratch using the C# language. At the advanced level, students use Unreal Engine. “We’re using the real software developers are using,” Abbas says. “So after the first course they can create their own game at home, and it’s open source software.” Beyond expanding to other regional and global markets, Abbas says the next step, currently underway, is a template that instructors can use to gamify their curriculum to follow Spica Tech Academy’s model.
The Arab culture is one of rich history and important discoveries, yet this is often bypassed as people delve into the West’s history, ignoring their own, says Joanna Khoury founder of lululittle, a personalized children’s book company. Khoury wanted to make Arab history accessible to youngsters in a way that puts the child at the heart of the story. “From the dawn of time, stories have been a tool to deliver a message,” Khoury says. Lululittle uses a print on demand technology based in the UK that ranges from £6 – £8 ($7.46 – $9.94 at time of writing) and book buyers can choose their avatar and insert the child’s name to be made into a soft or hardcover book printed in either French or English. Because the books are printed on demand, overhead printing costs are minimal. Lululittle has done a preliminary launch of an Arabic version, and the full launch will follow when it is fully automated, which Khoury hopes will be in the next few months. Where Khoury sees a gap in the number of quality Arabic childrens’s books, she says that getting the Arabic version automated will allow for children in the region to learn about their culture in their native tongue and will be a way for expats to bridge the gap to home. Lululittle’s primary market is the MENA region and GCC states in order to teach kids about their own culture; of the 700 books sold so far, most have been within the region. This has been achieved with very little marketing, Khoury says, and next steps include ramping up their marketing efforts within regional target market. Khoury says for Western audiences the books are a way to learn about Arab culture and they have sold a few books in these markets.
At age 16, deciding what to do for the rest of one’s life can feel overwhelming. Nour Jabra, founder of Nooreed, felt this herself and wanted to help teens identify careers to which they are well-suited. What started as a series of videos with professionals from various fields has evolved to include an assessment based on the Holland Code, which refers to American psychologist John Holland’s six personality types: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. Nooreed’s assessment is a simplified version, which Jabra says is an attempt to make it more accessible to teens and also to help eliminate any language barriers non-native English speakers may have. When a student registers, they take the assessment and are given a breakdown by percent of which careers best match their personality; they can then watch the related videos. In the six months since the assessment has launched, around 15,000 students have signed up. In Lebanon, the business model works as a sponsorship system where universities can sponsor Nooreed in return for advertising space on Nooreed’s website; students can access Nooreed regardless of whether their university has made a sponsorship agreement. Jabra says they are currently trying to break into the Saudi market by early 2020, and in that case the business model would shift to a subscription service that would be specific to Saudi Arabia, where a different economic situation means more schools will likely be able to pay. A dismal economy and shrinking school budgets have left little room for this type of service to work as a subscription service in Lebanon. “Lebanon isn’t a very healthy place to grow a business,” Jabra says. Other plans for expansion include partnering with study abroad agencies whereby Nooreed would refer students to a specific agency and receive a fee in return. While they are in talks with one such agency, no deals have been finalized at the time of writing.
A Lego factory in Hungary with no human workers on the factory floor—that is what Ibrahim Ezzeddine saw on a class trip while studying at the Lebanese American University (LAU). Ezzeddine and Basel Jalaleddine, former roommates at LAU, started thinking about how to prepare children for future job markets where robots could replace traditional human labor. Cherpa, the duo’s startup, teaches kids coding and robotics through a gamified system. Cherpa has worked with experts from NASA and Google to design educational content and also works with an educational specialist to create content tailored to student levels. Currently, there are five courses; the latest, on cyber security, launched in July. Ezzeddine said the decision to follow a B2B model was because the teacher’s presence ensures students can follow the content rather than get frustrated and walk away. Because it is a paid service where administrations buy a course for a specific number of students (e.g. one course for $399 for up to 20 students), it is easier for Cherpa to target uppper-end private Lebanese schools. A partnership with the education ministry will have Cherpa in five public schools on a one-year pilot program this year. Cherpa is currently in 18 schools in Lebanon and 1,600 students have completed at least one course, but Ezzeddine says the plan to expand beyond Lebanon, in which schools often lack the funds, necessary infrastructure, or internet connectivity. Cherpa has successfully entered one school in Saudi Arabia and has sold courses to one after-school educational center in Spain and one in Portugal. Future targets include penetrating the Gulf markets, primarily Saudi Arabia, where they are working with a business developer to test the market.