Within an hour of visiting a science lab, five-year-old twins Aanya and Ria were excited to share their experience with their father. This excitement was the best review Sameer Mehta, father of the twins and member of the executive committee of Chennai Angels, could get on investment in Everest Edusys & Solutions Private Ltd.
Everest Edusys' journey began when Chokanath Hymavathy, a post-graduate in computer science, returned to India from Silicon Valley, with her son. On her return, the lack of proper teaching methods for science struck her. In this segment, world-class examples were many, such as Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco aimed at changing conventional learning.
With this in mind, she started research on ways to improve learning, especially in science. Within two years, the company developed a method, as well as equipment, to teach about 250 concepts in middle schools, irrespective of the boards these were affiliated to. It started pilot projects, offering the model to schools. Research on better teaching methods and equipment is on.
While Hymavathy is co-founder and director (product research & innovation) of the company, entrepreneur Krishna Srinivasan is the founder chairman. Currently, the company is focusing on middle-school students; it plans to extend its focus to other segments in time.
In alliance with the Corporation of Chennai's education department, it has set up 10 science galleries in Chennai and will add 10 more. These will cater to 20,000 students in middle schools of the Greater Chennai Corporation.
Besides, the company also plans to expand its network to other states, in a phased manner. It expects to start working with the Karnataka government by June and, subsequently, enter Kerala in phase-I; phase-II will cover Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Goa, says Uma Mahesh, vice-president (business development).
A for-profit social venture, the company is associated with about 200 schools. It has set up 40 labs, apart from conducting 'Science Days' in various schools. For children from marginalised sections, QED has been conducting free Science Days - QED on Wheels - a pilot project, in alliance with the government, in Kanchipuram and Tiruchirappalli districts.
In March this year, it raised about Rs 5.7 crore in series-A funding from Lok Capital and Chennai Angels. The proceeds will be used for expansion to other states.
Mahesh says, the company will soon go for another round of fund-raising to scale up operations. However, the quantum of funds to be raised, as well as other details in this regard, were yet to be decided, she added.
The business model
The company has envisaged three revenue streams - offering complete labs for schools to be bought outright; Science Days, regular ones, to boost curiosity among students, as well as Term Science Days (organised every term according to the curriculum); and a digital Science Club, a beta version to be launched for free in July (this will have a subscription model, expected in January next year).
The company declined to share its revenue and expectations in this regard.
The business model offers various attractive price points and solution mixes, says Mehta. The offerings are outcome-centric and immediately measurable. The company claims pre- and post-evaluations have shown its efforts have led to an improvement of 48 per cent in students' scores, between two terms.
"It is a wonderful scientific experiment. We had the programme for about six months. After that, I held a meeting with the parents; they were quite happy," said V Venkatachalam, dean, Vaels Group of Schools. "The cost of the gadgets isn't commensurate with the material; it is the intellectual property, how you make students understand simple things, which is wonderful."
Everest Edusys has about 120 experiments and Vaels bought the entire package. The gadgets are shared by various schools within the Vaels group.
Mehta says, "They have a great product mix and the team is competent enough to take the company forward."
Considering the company's offerings include physical products, the ability of most schools to pay appropriately and on time are challenges. Also, unless it keeps investing in research, competition could catch up, Mehta says.
The very opportunity of growth is a challenge, Mahesh says, adding, it should focus on the quality of education and development of products and solutions.
Everest is carrying out research on the science of learning, in collaboration with Teachers College, Columbia University, the result of which is a model common to all subjects. The research is being conducted at the IIT-Madras Research Park.
The company aims to have operations in five or six states in two years. It will focus on creating methods and equipment that are uniform and easily scalable - both on the physical and digital platforms. It hopes to set up about 20 labs every quarter and offer products and solutions to about 500 schools in the next two years.
|EXPERT TAKE: Thillai Rajan|
From this perspective, the venture of Everest Edusys is important. In many middle schools, the conventional way of teaching science is reading texts, which is not the proper way. There is no major innovation, in terms of delivery, except in some elite educational institutions.
The company is correct in focusing on providing new teaching-delivery methods to common school students. This is more social than many other social ventures.
Students need to be excited about science and the company has to bring in entrepreneurial innovation to the school level, through continuous research. There is a threat of duplicability of products and solutions, which might affect returns. This, again, calls for continuous research.
However, the potential of the sector in scalability is a challenge for the company. For instance, considering the nature of education institutions in the country, which seek unique identities to attract more students, each school will have its own view on such a new solution. Decision-making is very local and to enhance scale, one should be able to reach each of these managements.
Also, it should be in a position to get the returns investors expect. Given the experience and knowledge of Krishna Srinivasan, he might have a clear idea about the model, which will bring success to the venture.
A Thillai Rajan is associate professor, department of management studies, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras