Innovators Worth Watching: Thriving on an upmarket trajectory, part 1

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Jul 3, 2019

Welcome to our “Innovators Worth Watching” series, spotlighting interesting and potentially disruptive players across a spectrum of industries.

Disruptive innovations have the potential to redefine higher education, expanding access to affordable learning opportunities and forging a framework based on skills rather than prestige. Education providers and companies implementing such innovations can help a broader spectrum of learners to achieve their personal and professional goals. 

In our Innovators Worth Watching series, we have profiled nine such companies to date. Only one, MissionU, is no longer in business. We will revisit four innovators in this post, with the other four in an upcoming post, to see how these potentially disruptive companies are faring in their efforts to bring about an increasingly equitable and affordable age of higher education.

Cell-Ed: Bringing major wage gains to low-income learners 

This last year has been an eventful one for Cell-Ed, which provides essential literacy, language, and job skills training for adult learners via text message over any mobile device. Last July, the company raised $1.55 million in seed funding, all the more notable given that woman-founded tech startups like Cell-Ed secured only 2.2 percent of venture capital dollars in 2018. The funding has fueled efforts to increase workforce-related content and credentialing pathways on Cell-Ed’s platform.

These efforts are paying off. In April of this year, the company won the $1 Billion Wage Gain Challenge. In conjunction with three other organizations, Cell-Ed will provide skill building, career coaching, and job placement services for low-income workers. The group has the ambitious goal of reaching 300,000 workers for a total $3.2 billion wage gain.

Overall, Cell-Ed has already reached over 50,000 users through more than 50 partners in 12 countries. Cell-Ed also recently made its courses available to all American Hospitality and Lodging Association members, reaching employees of roughly 25,000 hotel chains in the US. Next steps include expanding offerings in hospitality, healthcare, and early childhood education. “Cell-Ed is uniquely positioned to reach, educate, nudge, and coach the highest need populations,” summarized founder Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami. “2 billion learners worldwide are in need of a Cell-Ed solution.”

Degreed: Growing ambitions in the skills assessment market

Two weeks after our last update on Degreed, the skills measurement and learning experience aggregation company announced its acquisition of Pathgather, its most direct competitor. The move cemented Degreed’s leader position in the Learning Experience Platform (LXP) market. Just four months later, Degreed added a new product to its skill assessment portfolio: Skill Review. Whereas Degreed’s Skill Certification is more robust and involves external experts in gauging a user’s skill level, Skill Review guides users through a self-assessment rubric for a quicker, more lightweight option.

This new offering fleshes out Degreed’s ambitions to lead the way in skills assessment. “The future of learning will require pinpointing where people’s skills are, where they want to be, and building the pathway between those locations,” explained founder David Blake. “Our roadmap is focused on measuring all of peoples’ skills, and in becoming the meta-aggregator for other innovators creating measurement tools, just as we have been for learning experiences.”

Degreed continues growing its existing product lines. Its Skills business is projected to be about 10% of the company’s revenue over the next year. The company also continues helping corporate clients map their job roles onto a skills framework. “In the past, consulting firms did this for about $2-3 million over 10 months,” said Blake. “We can make the same amount of progress for a client in two minutes with our skills graph and machine learning, better identifying those endpoints in a learner’s journey.”

Catalyte: Adding new locations, services, and levels of training

Since we profiled Catalyte 15 months ago, the software engineering services company has grown substantially. At the time, Catalyte was a $10 million business that had just acquired Surge and added a third location. Catalyte now has locations in every US time zone (adding Chicago in 2018 and expanding into Denver by acquiring Statêra Digital in January), has plans to open another 20 centers by the end of 2020, has increased revenue from $10 million to over $70 million in two years, and is looking into an IPO next year.

Geographic expansion explains only some of this growth. In addition to its core business of augmenting clients’ teams with individual developers, Catalyte rolled out “Scrum Teams as a Service,” enabling clients to quickly access fully-formed software development teams to augment or supplant their own development resources. The company is also helping clients run their own reskilling and upskilling initiatives through a new subscription service. “We are still only training hundreds per year,” noted CEO Jacob Hsu. “We want to train tens, or even hundreds of thousands, so we need to enable employers to do that themselves.”

Catalyte has plans to add more disciplines, including data science, cybersecurity, and other tech verticals, and providing its software developers with a structured career ladder that extends well beyond entry-level training. Tim Reed, who became a software developer at Catalyte and was featured in the initial profile, has been climbing that ladder. “In addition to handling my own programming work, I’m a team liaison on a complex, multi-team project for a client,” explained Reed. “I’m starting to see upper management level work, and it’s a whole other beast.”

Osmosis: Strengthening its presence in nursing and more

Osmosis, a medical education startup, has also seen steady growth, increasing the number of registered users from 290,000 to 550,000 and crossing the 1 million YouTube subscriber milestone. The company is also partnering with 15 more medical institutions, including NYU School of Medicine and Wake Forest’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program, bringing its total to 41 partners. Osmosis is also increasing revenue 100% year-over-year, due both to reaching more customers and to improving revenue per customer.

Investors have taken note. Osmosis raised $2.5 million in seed funding late last year, and just raised another $4 million meant to spur Osmosis’ expansion in the nursing, PA, and allied health spaces. The company has growing relationships with nursing programs at Capella University and UC Irvine, and is gearing up to launch Osmosis Nursing in the Fall, a platform similar to its MD offering but with new nursing-specific video content and board exam question banks.

Osmosis CEO Shiv Gaglani credits much of this success to breakthroughs in internal processes, including proprietary software to create and distribute video content. “Over the next decade, Americans will lose 7 million retail jobs, and we anticipate that many will move into healthcare, especially nursing,” he explained. “I’m proud of our team for further scaling up both content production and maintenance rates. We have a deep responsibility to reach more health professionals and to keep our content up-to-date.” 

These four innovators have seen their disruptive strategies pay off, succeeding in traditional higher education’s blindspots and changing the competitive landscape altogether. They continue serving nonconsumers in the most basic professional skills and in tech, reaching overserved learners in the health professions, and building up the skills ecosystem, such that traditional higher education may cease to be the predominant gatekeeper for entering the workforce. We will continue watching as they help higher education serve learners of all backgrounds.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.