University education is getting more expensive, and at the moment it feels a bit like a Petri dish for infections, but the long-term trends continue to show a dramatic growth in the number of people worldwide getting degrees beyond high school, with one big reason for this being that a college degree generally provides better economic security.
But today, a startup that is exploring a different route for those interested in technology and knowledge worker positions — specifically by way of apprenticeships to bring in and train younger people on the job — is announcing a significant round of growth funding to see if it can provide a credible, scalable alternative to that model.
Multiverse, a U.K. startup that works with organizations to develop these apprenticeships, and then helps source promising, diverse candidates to fill those roles, has raised $44 million, funding that it will be using to spearhead a move into the U.S. market after picking up some 300 clients in the U.K. and thousands of apprentices.
The Series B is being led by General Catalyst (which has been especially active this week with U.K. startups: it also led a large round yesterday for Bloom & Wild), with GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Audacious Ventures, Latitude and SemperVirens also participating. Index Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, which first invested in the company in its $16 million Series A in 2020, also participated.
Valuation is not being disclosed, but for what it’s worth, the round was one that generated a lot of interest. In between getting pitched this story and publishing it, the size of the Series B grew by $8 million (it was originally closed at $36 million). The FT notes that the valuation was around $200 million with this round, but the company says that is “speculation on the FT’s part.”
The company was originally co-founded as WhiteHat and is officially rebranding today. Co-founder Euan Blair (who happens to be the son of the former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his accomplished barrister wife Cherie Booth Blair) said the original name was a reference to how the startup sought to “hack the system for good.”
However, he added, “The scale has become bigger and more evolved.” As in gaming — which is probably the arena where you might have heard this term before — the new name is to convey that “anything is possible.”
There are “multiple universes” one can inhabit as a post-18 young adult, Blair continued. And while it’s been assumed that to get into tech, the obvious route was a two-to-four year (and often more) tour through college or university to pick up a higher education degree, the bet that Multiverse is making here is that apprenticeships can easily, and widely, become another.
“We want to build an outstanding alternative to university and college,” he said. These typically last 1.5 years.
The idea of an “outstanding alternative” is especially important when thinking of how to aim opportunities and encourage people from more marginalized groups to connect with them, and specifically how this ties up with how tech companies are looking to be more diverse with hiring talent in the future. In both cases, the ideal is that pursuing either of those goals should not be at the expense of the quality, both in terms of what people are getting out of experiences, or the resulting talent that is getting recruited.
There’s long been a stigma attached to less prestigious institutions, so putting money or effort into another channel to perpetuate that doesn’t really make sense or point to progress, which is why the idea of building high quality apprenticeships are a disruptive, and also compelling, idea.
Blair said that currently over half of the people making their way through Multiverse are people of color, and 57% are women, and the plan is to build tools to make that an even firmer part of its mission.
The startup sees itself as part tech company and part education enterprise.
It works with tech companies and others to open up opportunities for people who have not had any higher education or any training, where fresh high school graduates can come in, learn the ropes of a job while getting paid and then continue on working their way up the ladder with that knowledge base in place.
Apprenticeships on the platform right now range from data analysts through to exhibition designers. The idea is that by opening up and targeting the U.S. market, the breadth, number and location of roles will grow.
This is not just a social enterprise: there is actual money here. Blair said that prices it charges the companies it works with range by qualification, “but are broadly around the $15,000 mark.” (The individuals applying don’t pay anything, and they will also be paid by the companies providing the apprenticeships.)
On the educational front, Multiverse doesn’t just connect people as a recruiter might: it has a team in place to build out what the “curriculum” might be for a particular apprenticeship, and how to deliver and train people with the requisite skills alongside the practice experience of working, and more.
That latter role, of course, has taken on a more poignant dimension in the last year: Concepts like remote training and virtual mentorship have very much come into their own at a time when offices are largely standing empty to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Regardless of what happens in the year ahead — fingers crossed that vaccinations and other efforts will help us collectively move past where we are right now — many believe that the infrastructure that has been put into place to keep working virtually will continue to be used, which bodes well for a company like Multiverse that is building a business around that, both with technology it creates itself and will bring in from third parties and partners.
Indeed, the ecosystem of companies building tools to deliver educational content, provide training and work collaboratively has really boomed in the pandemic, giving companies like Multiverse a large library of options for how to bring people into new work situations. (Google, which is now an investor in Multiverse, is very much one of the makers of such educational tools.)
Apprenticeships, meanwhile, are an interesting area for a startup to tackle. Traditionally, it’s a term that would have been associated mainly with skilled labor positions, rather than “knowledge workers.”
But with the bigger swing that the globe has seen away from industrial and towards knowledge economies, there is an argument to be made for building more enterprises and opportunities for an ever-wider application of concepts like apprenticeships, rather than expecting everyone to be shoehorned into the models of the last 50 years.
(The latter essentially implies that college is possibly the only way up.)
It might be fair to claim that Blair’s connections helped him secure funding and open doors with would-be customers. That might well be the case, but ultimately the startup will live or die by how well it executes on its premise, whether it finds a good way to connect more people, engage them in opportunities and keep them on board.
And this is what really attracted the investors, said Joel Cutler, managing director and co-founder of General Catalyst.
“Euan has a genuine belief that this is important, and when you talk to him, you get a feeling of manifest destiny,” Cutler said in an interview. In response to the question of family connections, he said that this was precisely the kind of issue that the technology industry should be tackling to fight.
“Of all the industries to break the mold of where you went to school, it should be the tech world that will do that, since it is far more of a meritocracy than others. This is the perfect place to start to break that mold,” he said. “Education will be super valuable but apprenticeships will also be important.”
He noted that another company that General Catalyst invests in, Guild Education, is addressing similar opportunities, or rather the gaps in current opportunities, for older people.