In 2019, WGU Labs launched its EdTech accelerator providing research, product development, and business growth services to early-stage education startups. In addition, WGU Labs started its Impact Fund that invests capital in the companies it serves. We talked to Todd Bloom, WGU Labs accelerator managing director, about what the accelerator does; what kind of work we can expect from the team; and what the future holds for Labs.
Q: What is the accelerator at WGU Labs?
A: The accelerator at WGU Labs is a service organization that works with seed-stage education-technology businesses to help them grow. It does this through three primary services:
- Research to determine product efficacy
- Product development and/or data-science
- Business development through PR and marketing
Additionally, the WGU Labs Impact Fund makes investments in the education-technology companies, but only in those to which it provides services.
Q: Can you tell us more about the services the accelerator provides?
A: We lead with research as a service. To better understand the impact of education technologies, we design research projects that range from implementation studies—which tend to be based on more qualitative data sources such as interviews, focus groups, etc.—all the way to far more rigorous gold-standard type of research, such as randomized control studies or tests.
With regard to product development and data science, the companies we work with are small, relatively speaking, and likely understaffed in the area of product development and data-science. The accelerator can help fill those needs by providing just-in-time talent to supplement their teams. If a company has a major product enhancement or new feature, we are staffed to jump-in and help them with speed and quality.
The accelerator’s business development services, like all accelerator services we deliver, are customized to the unique needs of the companies we serve. Early-stage companies are hungry for exposure to and meaningful engagement with their target market. Given our vast WGU network of relationships in every state in the country with partner institutions, government entities, employers, and other education influencers, we can help the companies we serve quickly build trusting relationships that will lead to meaningful scale and impact.
Q: How do you select companies to work with?
A: We have spent quite a bit of effort to build our social-impact orientation to company recruitment and selection. Late last year, we developed a social-impact framework that is uniquely articulated to the characteristics of early stage education companies. Over time, we shared drafts of this framework with education think tanks, research organizations, and investors. While always a work in progress, we now use our social-impact framework and corresponding rubric to score each company we review. We look forward to refining this framework as we use and share it.
In addition to social impact, we look for companies that are in the seed and pre-seed stage of growth. We are broad in our market niche interests, though we typically gravitate towards companies whose products serve the postsecondary education and workforce development/corporate learning areas.
Finally, we place great value on effective founders. Companies are comprised of people. And, we firmly believe that the founding members of a company are central to its potential to become a scalable, impactful education business.
Q: Are you already working with some companies? Who they are and what do they do?
A: Yes, we began working with two companies late last year, Edquity and MajorClarity. Edquity, a Brooklyn-based company, was our first partner. Edquity’s core product supports college students who are at risk of dropping out due to financial challenges, particularly unexpected financial hardships. Its goal is to make emergency fund disbursements—typically originating from institutions’ safety net programs—more timely and impactful. We’re measuring the effects of their emergency financial aid platform on WGU students beginning spring of 2020.
MajorClarity is a company whose product is designed to help students discover their future careers and the postsecondary paths needed to attain them. We are supporting them with product and market development. As part of the partnership, WGU Labs will develop content for interactive career simulations and provide support for MajorClarity’s market expansion in a focus state.