Panorama Education has been in the news this week for raising a $4 million round of funding led by Mark Zuckerberg and his Startup:Education project.
While quite newsworthy, this is Zuckerberg's first investment in an EdTech startup as well as Startup:Education's first activity since getting involved with the Newark school system three years ago, the move to set up shop in Boston may hint at what could be a growing trend for the Hub's tech scene.
Panorama Education is a survey and analytics program that was the brain-child of Aaron Feuer when he was a high school student in California. When he was a senior, he and a group of fellow Student Council leaders from all over the state wanted to make an impact on what they saw as one of the weaknesses of the public school systems. As Feuer explained, "We asked, how can we as students make school better. One of the ideas we had was that every other system in the world has feedback, but our schools don't have any type feedback."
We wanted to take this idea of bringing feedback surveys to schools," he said. "Students would take feedback surveys about their teachers and teachers would get feedback they could use to improve."
They started to implement the survey system in some California schools and got some really valuable information in the process. Feuer said that the teachers even loved hearing back from their students. So what was the high school senior's next move? Legislation of course. As he told me, "We got a bill passed in Sacramento that brought student feedback surveys to California." Feuer is proud of having written the bill, but the process did not have the expected results or impact that he had hoped. "We were about ninety high school students and a bill does not change the world," he said, "in this case, nothing happened on the ground."
Fast forward to Feuer's junior year at Yale, when he and a group of friends decided to put together what eventually became Panorama Education. "We had this idea [feedback surveys]," Feuer said, "schools wanted to do this, teachers wanted to do this, and districts wondered how they could possibly run this at their school."
In the end, the Panorama Education team decided that getting a bill passed wasn't the way to make change, so they developed a product that "will be so easy to use and so helpful that schools will need to use it," Feuer said.
Panorama Education now works with about four thousand schools and over a million students.
What do they do? Panorama creates surveys based on input from schools and districts, then runs them online or ships out paper surveys, they gather the data, analyze it, and then present what they've uncovered. Whether it be painting a picture of how teachers are connecting with students or an outlook of a schools culture, Panorama can uncover information on any number of different topics that would be of interest to schools and districts.
As Feuer explained, "We work with the school district and figure out what do they want to know, what information do they need to improve their schools, and maybe what are their biggest problems." This then informs the type of feedback Panorama will try to uncover. "We help them figure out, based on our experience and our question base, the best ways to run a survey that gets them the data they want."
As an example, Feuer explained how a school might use Panorama's surveys to gain a better understanding of a problem like bullying from a student's perspective. "A lot of schools and teachers want to know whats going on with bullying," Feuer explained. "We will run a survey and come back and tell the school, 'We looked at your school and it turns out the bullying is primarily a problem for ninth grade boys. And if you ask the kids, they feel that the teachers see the bullying and don't take action. The students think the bullying problem will get better if their teachers try to stop bullying. So why don't you try to do that at your school, especially for ninth grade boys'."
The example is a great one for understanding just how big of an impact a company like Panorama can have on fixing some of the biggest challenges facing schools these days.
This past summer, Panorama was accepted into Paul Graham's YCombinator program and headed from New Haven to California. More than anything, the move helped them expand their presence in schools around the country. "When we applied to YCombinator, we were in 1100 schools," Feuer said. "Now we are in 4000 schools in twenty-six states. We are aggressively trying to get this into more schools." They are also aggressively hiring as much talent as they can as more schools and districts are realizing how great of a resource Panorama Education can be.
After YCombinator, they received funding from a large group of different angel investors co-led by Zuckerberg's Education:Startup and Jeff Clavier's SoftTech VC. There was also involvement from Google Ventures, Eric Ries, Aston Kutcher, and a number of individual YCombinator partners. Locally, Nick and Elizabeth Ducoff invested in the company as well.
As for Zuckerberg's involvement, Paul Graham introduced the Facebook founder to Panorama.
"We knew he cared a lot about education, Feuer said, "so we wanted to talk with him about what our work was. He ended up investing in us a couple of months later."
Then, surprisingly, Panorama moved to Cambridge about a month ago from Menlo Park.
This may be the most interesting part of Panorama's story. With companies like Boundless (who Nick Ducoff is involved with and who Feuer and his team have developed a good relationship), LearnLaunch, Gradeable, and the Exponential Techspace, Boston is moving to the forefront of the growing EdTech startup world. What's more, Panorama came to Boston based on their perception of what was happening in the EdTech space in town.
"This is our first time in Boston," he said, "I confess that I had spent three days in Boston before moving here. Our first thought was that all of our districts are within driving distance or Amtrak of Boston and we wanted be near our clients."
There were other draws for Panorama as well. "We also realized that Boston has the same tech talent that the Valley has, but its a much more education focused place. There are a ton of education schools, universities, and we thought that if we come out here we are close to our clients, the talent is just as strong, if not stronger, and Boston is a kind of education/change-the-world kind of place, that's a great home for us."
So while most of the focus has been on the splash that Zuckerberg is making in the education, the underlying story of Panorama Education may be just how attractive Boston is becoming for startups in growing sectors like EdTech, something that we are seeing more of in other niche sectors like BioTech, AdTech, and FinancialTech.
Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.