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Two planned 'EdTech' accelerators may be on the verge of a merger

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 5, 2012 09:51 AM

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Update: The new accelerator program, LearnLaunchX, announced that it will begin in June 2013.

Any well-educated person could tell you that starting two accelerator programs in the same city in the same year, focusing on the same industry, might not be the brightest idea. So it's probably good news that two groups of entrepreneurs and investors that have been drawing up blueprints for two separate accelerators focused on the education market are in late-stage discussions about combining them.

One group has been calling its project Exponential Boston, and raising money to launch an inaugural program in mid-2013, aimed at helping education-focused entrepreneurs turn concepts into companies. The core team at Exponential includes EdTech entrepreneur Hakan Satiroglu; Boston University entrepreneurship czar Vinit Nijhawan; and Mark Miller, a banker who often works with EdTech companies.

Lowmanphoto1.jpgThe other group, LearnLaunch, just unveiled a new non-profit this week seeking to bring together EdTech entrepreneurs for conferences, demo nights, and networking. The accelerator program it has been cultivating seems somewhat more nascent than Exponential's, but it has been dubbed LearnLaunch Labs. The trio behind LearnLaunch are angel investor Jean Hammond; Marissa Lowman, right, founder of the monthly EdTechUp gatherings and formerly an executive at AisleBuyer, a mobile commerce startup; and Eileen Rudden, who served as a Chicago Public Schools official, and before that an executive at companies like Lotus and Avaya.

"Accelerators take funding and real estate," Hammond told me yesterday, "and it takes time to pull that together. We're also working on building the team that would run it."

Hammond also said that she was in conversations with Satiroglu and his group about combining efforts: "I don't know if there's room for two." But she and Satiroglu both said that they hadn't reached a decision yet. "Everybody is urging us to work together," Satiroglu said.

Satiroglu describes a six-month accelerator program that would provide $25,000 in seed funding, free office space, and in-kind services in return for a six percent chunk of each startup's equity. He says he has been scouting locations in the Back Bay; along with housing the accelerator participants, an Exponential office would also include a co-working area for other EdTech entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. Satiroglu already has some funding commitments to support Exponential Boston, but says that he'll focus more explicitly on raising money in January. He says his goal is to collect $2 million to $3 million to run an accelerator program for two or three years. The first cycle of the program could start in May or June, he says, and the Exponential site is already accepting applications.

Both groups talk about bringing in textbook publishers and online learning companies as partners, especially those with big Boston operations like Houghton-Mifflin and Cengage Learning. "One question for us is how close do you want to involve industry players as sponsors and mentors," Hammond says.

Satiroglu and Hammond both say that their objective is to create a stronger support system for EdTech entrepreneurs, helping them learn from one another and connect to universities, school systems, and teachers.

"My main goal is to establish Boston as the EdTech capital of the world," Satiroglu says. "I think we can own that domain."

And the odds of doing that will be better if there's just one EdTech accelerator created in 2013, not two. This year saw the launch of two e-healthcare programs, Rock Health and Healthbox, and I'd argue that they wound up splitting the attention of applicants, mentors, corporate collaborators, and investors.

What do you think?

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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