We recently caught up with Lucy Stonehill, the Founder and CEO of BridgeU, the innovative adaptive higher education startup that prepares students for studying abroad. Based in London, BridgeU offers 'access to a series of gamified, expert tools that assist students with university matching, research, strategy/brand building, essay writing and more.'
Initially, the BridgeU team focused on 'the globally mobile or international student segment' applying for U.S. or UK universities, but now is expanding to domestic students, by 'pursuing a multipronged expansion plan and by establishing select partnerships with school groups and education companies in various regions.
Bridge U aims to continue building these international partnerships by joining the EdTech Europe team at SXSWedu next week to participate in our Morning Mixer event as part of the European All Stars delegation. Lucy expressed her excitement about SXSWedu, stating, 'as I’ve spent half my live living, working and studying in the U.S. and half in Europe, I’m looking forward to discussing the differences—and weighing the pros and cons—of building a technology business in Europe versus in one of the major start-up hubs in the U.S.'
We were thrilled to speak with Lucy before her participation in our SXSWedu delegation and were so pleased that she shared insight into such a range of topics, including: common challenges faced by students, lessons learned from participating in an accelerator, her advice for startups, and what's next for Bridge U in 2015.
EdTech Europe: You mentioned that what differentiates BridgeU is the extent of the technology embedded in your adaptive platform. Can you explain how incorporating these personalization technologies distinguish the BridgeU experience?
Lucy: We differ from competitors in that we’re actually trying to disrupt how a current system functions and innovate on the various processes underlying that system so that we can create better ways of making higher education decisions, and more efficient ways of smoothing the important transition between secondary and higher education.
Most companies within the global $90bn higher education preparation industry fall into one of two categories: they’re either bespoke and offline (consulting, tutoring, test prep) or they are impersonal and online (course listings, education agencies). The temptation of online educational products in the past has been to splash information on a page and monetize with ads.
With BridgeU, we’re adopting an entirely different model. Our platform combines the expertise and handholding of offline education support services with the affordability and accessibility of online products. We are offering a software-driven service. And, we’re discovering that when students, parents, and schools believe that they’re being offered something of tangible value, they’re happy to pay up.
Secondly, our platform is technically very comprehensive, integrating algorithms, systems, processes, and data. My Cofounder and CTO, Hywel Carver, studied information engineering and machine learning at Cambridge and he fundamentally sets the bar incredibly high for technical quality and depth of product utility, so while some of our tools may feel fun and gamey, there’s always a lot going on beneath the surface.
Our latest tool, Scrapbook, is a perfect example of this. After receiving a list of recommended universities, students have to research each university or program they’ve been recommended. To do this, most students open 15-20 tabs on their browser, peruse online content, and—once they’ve come to the end of their research process—they forget their findings. A social-media inspired tool, Scrapbook enables students to collate all the things they like or dislike about universities (from news clippings to images to course-descriptions) in their own little online diaries, building something creative in the process—a digital scrapbook. Meanwhile, Scrapbook enables us to crowdsource student sentiment about specific universities and programs and feed this insight back into our algorithms in a way that enables us to better serve students’ interests going forward.
EdTech Europe: There are students from over 110 countries that you’re helping to prepare to apply to university— what common challenges do you see most students face when starting to apply for these programmes?
Lucy: We have about 7 core tools that comprise BridgeU’s current platform, and they’re all geared towards solving specific pain points students face throughout the university preparation and application process. While it’s common for students to struggle to match themselves appropriately to universities and manage the process in a timely manner, the greatest challenge we see is in students’ inabilities to position themselves in a compelling way.
The concept of self-branding is so foreign to 16 and 17 year olds, and yet it’s one of the crucial things admissions officers look for (let alone companies!). So, we have an entire portion of our site that we refer to internally as LinkedIn-Junior. Furthermore, in an increasingly digital world, students have to begin thinking about their personal narrative earlier because the disparate parts that make up their digital footprint (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Medium) are so much more visible now.
EdTech Europe: When students begin to start branding themselves as ideal candidates for various universities, what factors do you encourage them to keep in mind?
Lucy: Increasingly, universities are conducting analyses internally to assess which student qualities or attributes are correlated with academic and personal success whilst at university. And, not surprisingly, universities are using these insights to both select and weed out students in the admissions process.
There are some factors or qualities that are consistently perceived positively by admissions officers – teamwork, community service, leadership experience, etc. And as such, our strategy and branding tools encourage students to weave their personal narratives around these traits. But, there are also some new trends emerging which reflect wider professional and social circumstances.One of our advisors who is particularly plugged into Ivy League admissions has said that increasingly, admissions officers at top tier U.S. universities are looking to see students demonstrate a level of ‘grit’ or personal resilience, and exhibit early signs of entrepreneurship, also.
EdTech Europe: Please share 3 key lessons you learned as a graduate of Seedcamp and would you recommend that other startups participate in accelerators?
Lucy: I would definitely recommend that early stage technology start-ups consider joining an accelerator or incubator program. Seedcamp, as a program, was an incredibly valuable experience. And the family of founders, investors and advisors that encompass the wider Seedcamp network continues to provide me and my team with much needed support.
Top three lessons I learned from Seedcamp:
1) Your brand should be cohesive. From your angelist profile, to your website, to the founders’ Twitter accounts, all of the pieces that make up the larger puzzle that is your company should be cohesive and internally consistent.
2) Networking should never be taken lightly: at least one member of the founder team has to be a social rockstar.
3) Fundraising is a full time job!
EdTech Europe: As a European startup that has received attention from a range of international press outlets and investors, are there any tips you'd share with other EdTech startups looking to expand their reach globally?
Lucy: I think if you’re building a company within Europe, it’s important to think globally from day 1, and invest your time and energy in an idea that has the potential to become a truly global company. This is what has made companies like Skype and Transferwise, successful. The founders were focusing on ideas and products that weren’t constrained to a specific geography or region.
If you’re selling B2B, having local or regional partnerships is also a great (and cost effective) way of building a multi-region presence. Having employees living abroad can also be another way of leveraging global expertise and experience. On my team, this is something we’ve really tried to do – our team of 6 has lived in 5 continents, and collectively we have spent 30 years at international schools around the world!
EdTech Europe: Based on everything you've learned since the launch of BridgeU, what is the one piece of advice that you'd offer to other innovators that are looking to establish a startup in the EdTech industry?
Lucy: In an article published last month in The New York Times entitled “Silicon Valley Turns its Eye to Education,” edtech enthusiast and Venture Capitalist Michael Moe says that with education technology companies, if you have monetized between 2 and 20% of your network, you can build a very large, scalable business. I think this is really great advice, and definitely something we have focused on at BridgeU—monetizing a good portion of our audience, and ensuring that we set the expectation for payment early.
The second thing that I’d say to prospective edtech entrepreneurs is be quite radical in your thinking about potential change. Education is a multi-trillion dollar industry with 3% digital penetration. Go after a vertical within education that has yet to experience almost any innovation, and seek to turn that vertical on its head.
EdTech Europe: What should we expect to see from BridgeU in 2015?
Lucy: Within Europe, specifically, we have product expansion plans for 2015. We intend to expand our university destinations to include EU universities so that students within Europe can discover, compare, and research university offerings in multiple countries, and (importantly) take the steps necessary toward building competitive applications for those programs, using BridgeU’s platform.
We will also pilot our data-analytics service for universities, providing anonymised data about how students from around the world perceive, interact with and respond to universities’ brands and specific program offerings.
EdTech Europe: Can you share one prediction for the next year for the EdTech industry?
Lucy: I anticipate (and hope) that learning technologies will become smarter and truly adaptive in a way that tailors or personalizes the learning experience or EdTech service to the consumer like never before.