Epic! raises $8 million to keep kids reading in a digital age

The makers of Epic!, one of many apps jockeying to become a “Netflix for books,” have raised $8 million in a round led by Reach Capital, the education-specialized venture firm. Additional investors in the Series C included TransLink Capital, Rakuten Ventures, Menlo Ventures, WI Harper, Brighteye Ventures and Innovation Endeavors.

Epic! at its core is an on-demand digital library that includes about 25,000 different books and videos appropriate for kids in elementary school, or between the ages of about five and twelve. Some of the books on the platform have audio components, allowing kids to listen as they read along. The startup, which was founded in 2013 and launched its app in 2014, claims to reach 5 million kids today, in part through use of Epic! in schools.

According to Epic! co-founder Kevin Donahue, formerly a VP of Content for YouTube, the startup thinks of itself as more of a consumer brand than an education one. The company charges kids’ families, not schools or districts, for use of its app. But Epic! does allow teachers to use their app and its massive digital library in class for free.

By giving away the app, of course teachers do some of the work of marketing for Epic!, a kind of symbiosis not uncommon in education tech. To date, the company reports 87 percent of K-5 schools in the U.S. are using Epic! for reading time in English language arts and other classes. The app includes a teacher dashboard and features that allow educators to track kids’ progress in reading, as well as to support and expand on whatever they’re learning on their own time.

Donahue said, “We wanted to see if we could encourage kids to read more on digital devices even though videos and games are right there. We did that!” Other apps, notably Kindle for Kids, encourage kids to read on mobile devices, but make reading into a task that earns them access to videos and games.

The Epic! app avoids that with an interest-driven focus. Its user interface encourages kids to jump from a video into a book or other interactive content and back. The idea is to engross them in reading about something they’re already obsessed with, but not to treat reading materials as sub-par to other formats.

Reach Capital General Partner Jennifer Carolan said one reason her firm invested in Epic! is the company’s ability to “bridge the gap” between home and school. She said, “A separation between school and home is a false one when it comes to learning. Learning happens in school, at home, on the playground… No other products cross that chasm.”

Given the funding, Donahue said, Epic! will be hiring, spending more on marketing and advertising and exploring partnerships in Asia where the company has recently seen a lot of demand for its app, even though its contents are for English-language readers, specifically. The company is also constantly adding new content types to its platform, including books, audio and video from desirable publishers. One day, Donahue expects Epic! will include some amount of VR and AR content, potentially.

The startup faces competition from a plethora of reading apps, including those sold to schools, like LightSail, Newsela or the nonprofit CommonLit, and consumer apps like the Reading Rainbow Skybrary, Tales2Go or Amazon’s Kindle for Kids.