How Publisher Pearson Gets Close to Education Startups

By Scott Kirsner |  June 3, 2014

It’s hard to get closer to the startup world than Diana Stepner. The VP of Innovation Partnerships and Developer Relations at Pearson plc spends many of her days working from a desk at RocketSpace in San Francisco, a shared office space that houses early-stage ventures. Stepner also runs the Pearson Catalyst for Education accelerator program, which seeks out partners from the startup world that address specific business challenges Pearson is focusing on.

With roots that trace back to 1724, London-based Pearson publishes textbooks, digital learning materials, and the Financial Times, and also owns a large stake of the publishing company Penguin Random House. Revenues last year were $8.71 billion.

Stepner is part of Pearson’s product and marketing organization, reporting to the Senior Vice President of Partnerships. She spoke with InnoLead about the benefits of working alongside startups, and what Pearson hopes to achieve with its accelerator program.

I joined Pearson a little over three years ago, and created the Open Developer Program, which is for internal development teams and external developers, to explore how we could benefit each other. The other piece of my role was to create the Future Technologies team, and get involved with the next generation of technology that will affect Pearson.

A member of my team has been based at RocketSpace (pictured at right) for about two years. He joined and went directly to work out of RocketSpace. I’ve been here since January 2014. I moved from London, where I was based at Pearson’s HQ. I also spend time at Pearson’s office in San Francisco.

We wanted to figure out a way to work with startups and alongside them. To go where they go was the natural path for us. Instead of being a typical corporate, with a big door with a brass knocker, here they can walk down the hall. So many things are grabbing their attention. To remain relevant, you need to be nearby.

We could’ve just rented a desk here, but we wanted to be part of the community, and be actively involved. So we were the first corporate innovation team to sponsor RocketSpace. The differentiator, relative to other shared spaces and coworking spaces in the Bay area, is that they do have a focus on corporate innovation teams. They have LEGO here, T-Mobile, Deutsche Telecom, and Hershey just signed up. They do things for us like startup matching, since they know who the startups are. And they’ll hold innovation events so we can share best practices with each other and chat about issues we may be facing.

I think historically, the M&A and corporate strategy groups at large companies have looked at startups in two or three ways. They typically think about investments, or purchases, or maybe a very structured partnership. But we’re realizing, and I think other companies are realizing, that product teams should be collaborating with startups and their software developers.

Besides RocketSpace, we sponsor incubators and accelerators in other locations as well. They’ve been an amazing filter for us, in terms of helping us meet interesting young companies. We’re also starting to look at maker spaces, fab labs, and machine shops, where people may be working on new devices that may help people learn, and retain information better. So we also sponsor a place called Makerversity in London.

We have an accelerator program, and we do it independently, as opposed to partnering with someone like Techstars. We wanted to run all of the facets ourselves. We put forward challenges from the Pearson business, which we have a feeling someone outside may already be addressing. We make those public, and we look for startups that can collaborate with us in a three-month pilot. We launched it last year with six challenges, which we’d narrowed down from 19 that people here had submitted. From that, we have two startups that we’ve done partnerships with beyond the pilot, and two more going through due diligence now. It’s a virtual program — we don’t put them all in the same office space for those three months. We offer them mentorship, and connect them to Pearson people working around the globe, and we give them $15,000 for travel and expenses during the program

This year, we got 47 challenges, and narrowed it down to 10. We made those challenges public at the South by Southwest Interactive festival earlier this year. (See below for the full list of challenges Pearson laid out in March.)

There are definitely different viewpoints about that kind of open approach, and talking about what you are working on. But we know that the more we share, the more likely we’ll be able to collaborate with the best partners. There are amazing people inside the company, but also brilliant people outside. We got the best startups to come forward and help us address these challenges, and we’ve gotten amazing feedback from the business units. We think that if you close yourself off, you’re missing out on some amazing opportunities.

There are companies that run accelerator programs without spelling out challenges the way we do, and they just open applications to startups working in their industries. But we feel that having the challenges makes it more likely that things will succeed. A business unit is saying, “I need assistance and guidance on something.” That means there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll see it through.

Education is changing — there’s no denying that. We’re seeing students developing amazing products in school, and going on to launch startups while they’re still in school. Teachers and parents are recommending apps to their kids. It’s a more wide-open space, and we need a more consumer-centric focus. We need to be more active in monitoring trends and developments. Things can pop up overnight.

Full List of Pearson Catalyst for Education 2014 Challenges (from Pearson’s blog)

The following list provides opportunities and challenges that Pearson is looking to partner with startups to address.

1. Mobile Math Input

Help Higher Ed students learn and complete math assignments on the go. Build an easy to use solution which enables input of mathematical expressions on mobile devices using a stylus or finger, without requiring a specialized input pallet.

2. Indexing Training and Open Jobs

Create a solution which matches skills with future employment opportunities and validated by digital badges. The solution should be able to index skills, qualities, employers, and careers while introducing new ways of joining up all this information.

3. Data Visualization Solution

Create a tool to visualize and communicate data related to learners, specifically captured by teachers. This tool should support teachers and parents in assessing learner profiles and guide their educational decisions.

4. English Language Learning Game

Develop a solution that enables young adults and teens to learn and practice English – using gaming methods – so they can measurably improve their English skills.

5. Performance Based Assessment: How well do you slice an onion?

Create a mobile app to allow instructors to assess the performance of skills against a rubric, from cooking skills to professionalism.

6. Critical Reading: Focus, Duration and Comprehension

Increase student engagement in critical reading. Create a customer-facing toolset that captures and reports on critical reading processes to provide students and instructors more insights into their reading habits and related performance.

7. 3D Visualizations for Developmental Psychology

Create an interactive educational experience around Developmental Psychology content. Create a series of dynamic 3D visualizations that grab the attention of students and help them more deeply engage and learn foundational concepts.

8. Teaching Computer Science in Schools

Help educators effectively teach computer science in the K12 classroom. Create a simple, structured, self-paced product that teaches the fundamentals of coding to kids through challenges, projects and rewards.

9. Learning Outcomes Rubric & Data Platform

Assess students based on 21st century skills, including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Create a digital rubric and cloud-based, data intelligence platform that is mobile first – one that scales student-centered teaching and learning models, including competency-based education.

10. Application to Understand the World’s Academic Standards

Better understand the different ways students are taught around the world. Create an application that collects data on the academic standards of different countries and generates dynamic reports that identify like-standards across countries.