If you attended a university, you likely took at least one class where you sat in a lecture hall with at least 50 other bedraggled, hungover students. In that case, you may be familiar with those handheld clickers distributed by professors to allow students to “click” their responses to questions they ask during class. Well, in the event you’re unfamiliar, Toronto-based startup Top Hat Monocle is taking ye olde clicker model and attempting to reinvent it for the mobile era – with some help from the cloud.
Essentially, the startup has built a classroom response solution that, by being both mobile and cloud-based, allows students to respond to questions regardless of the device they’re using, even if it’s a feature phone. In turn, by offering professors a range of tools to visualize student response data and create quizzes and interactive demos, the idea is to create a more engaging classroom experience.
Classroom response systems and modern clickers may not sound particularly exciting (and they’re not) but higher education is looking for its teacher and students OS (operating system) and there’s big potential in owning a share of the student/teacher interface. Top Hat has grown quickly since raising $8 million last July from Emergence Capital Partners, iNovia Capital, SoftTech and a few others.
In the last year, it’s gone from 20 to 70 employees, particularly beefing up its sales staff, using a direct sales force to “sell” to educators — that is, spinning the traditional SaaS education sales model, offering the product for free to professors, while charging students per semester. To help them do that, they’ve been successful in stealing a bunch of former Groupon-ers (as Owen Thomas originally reported), with the total now at about 15, including two executives.
Today, the company announced that it has added an additional $1.1 million to its coffers with a new follow-on investment courtesy of Felicis Ventures. Now in 285 schools, the company, says COO Andrew D’Souza, has been generating solid revenue and doesn’t need the money, but has wanted to work with the Palo Alto-based investment firm, which has made some great investments and has begun to turn to education, having added companies like MindSnacks, Piazza and Inkling to its portfolio.
Felicis Founder Aydin Senkut explains: “We discovered Top Hat around the time they closed their Series A. They liked our expertise and passion but didn’t need the money and we didn’t want to wait until the next round, especially when they were growing so quickly so we figured out a way to make it work.” Another way of saying that the terms were favorable for the startup, methinks.
The company also recently opened a sales office in Sydney and partnered with cloud-based learning software maker, Desire2Learn, as it looks to accelerate growth through integrations and by following the lead of other edtech startups and elbowing into international markets.
But content is king. The real key for the company is interactive content. Control the relationship between the teacher and student and you can have real influence (and can be a billion-dollar company), but to do that, the startup will have to be able to supplement the user experience (on both ends of the funnel) with kick-ass content from textbook publishers and digital media and other content providers. The more meaningful and interactive the presentation of the material becomes, the higher the engagement and the better the outcomes.
And that’s money in the bank.
[Disclosure: My significant other works at Top Hat, so please keep that in mind when reading my perspective, i.e. take it with a big 'ol grain of salt, as always.]