Innovamat tallies up $21M to reinvent math education

When it comes to education, mathematics has long been considered one of the most challenging of subjects both to learn and to teach. A startup out of Barcelona called Innovamat believes it’s come up with an approach that can help on both of those fronts — designing guides for teachers and learning materials and a textbook replacement for students around a new kind of curriculum from kindergarten and up — and today it’s announcing funding of $21 million to build that out.

The round, a Series A, is being led by Reach Capital, one of the biggest VCs in the space of edtech, with Kibo Ventures, Bonsai Partners, Axon Partners, 10x (which also backs Udemy) and Dozen Investments also participating.

Innovamat will be using the funding to expand its business. It has been around since 2017, operating initially in Spain before expanding to Italy and several countries in Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru). That business has seen some encouraging traction, with 15,000+ teachers from 2,000 schools using its tools to teach math to 350,000 students.

Most recently, it started its first K-5 pilots in the U.S., in New Jersey. Its plans include putting investment into more R&D, with a new research center focused on mathematics pedagogy and learning: currently its materials go up to the end of middle school and it’s working on the next implementations to take the courses up to 18.

“Innovamat has brought the fun of learning math to our students and the joy of teaching math to our teachers. It’s been a win-win,” said Dr. Hollyce Schoepp, K-12 Supervisor of STEM, Vernon Township School District (NJ), in a statement.

The problem that Innovamat is tackling is one that’s been in the sights of educators, parents and larger institutions for a while now. In short, globally, most countries are struggling to teach most of their young people basic math skills (a situation laid bare in ongoing OECD research).

That is a problem for a number of reasons, but they might be most generalized into two categories. One is our changing economy and society and the increased need for those kinds of skills for individuals to thrive and work; two is the fact that learning math can help with other kinds of reasoning and knowledge acquisition.

Much of the issue rests with an ill-suited approach to teaching math and children who struggle to respond to how it’s being taught. All of it has created a stigma, Andreu Dotti, the co-founder and CEO of Innovamat, said in an interview.

“A lot of people have a fear of math,” he said, citing OECD figures that have found that only 20% of the world’s population have a minimum level of math competency. (Innovamat also cites OECD research that found 44% of 15-year-old students in its member countries have difficulties solving simple problems.)

Innovamat’s thesis is that the basics of how it’s been taught by and large for decades has focused on rote memorization of techniques and theories, using textbooks to codify that approach, with explanations for “why” something works a certain way only coming much later (if at all). On top of that, those rote methods are often taught in a vacuum with little alternative, creating very narrow grasps of the subject for most students.

“If the focus is just to transfer information, that doesn’t mean that students are necessarily learning the best methods for learning match,” Dotti said.

So, that is where Innovamat is starting: It’s rejecting the idea of the hard-bound text book and with a basic curriculum and taking actually a very “tech” approach to this, effectively building out its own data model and understanding of math education.

Using guidelines from institutions like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), Freudenthal Institute from Utrecht University, the NRICH Project from Cambridge University and the OECD’s PISA Framework, two academics on the team — Cecilia Calvo and Laura Morera — are devising the basics of its new core curriculum.

They are complemented with a further 40 teachers and 11 PhDs in areas like math didactics, also working on the core of the approach. Most of them still work in schools teaching math, the company tells me. “For us it’s super important they are in the field. Also for them, it’s their passion,” a spokesperson said.

Innovamat then takes that framework and working in more localized geographies (nationally, and across specific school districts) to tune it to the skills and curriculum that public education departments are setting.

Its approach appears to be strong on using a lot of online tools for teachers, but it’s not “e-learning” as such. This is not a pandemic-inspired online learning boost. Students might definitely use screens in class to work on math, but ultimately, the aim is to help teachers devise, distribute and teach content in classrooms.

Problem solving — often one of the most challenging parts in math these days, since it involves merging numerical methods with verbal descriptions, and requires more conceptual leaps as a result — are core to the approach from the very start and appear, from what I can see, to recur very regularly as the basis of how any concept is taught.

The needle is moving in an encouraging way so far. A recent study from the company found that its students are on average scoring 11% higher on standardized tests. The big questions will be how that can be sustained, whether schools and school districts are willing to wholesale change their systems and how long that might take. And if that’s an insurmountable change, whether Innovamat has ideas of how (and if) it can deliver its changes en masse in a different way. For now, any new way showing results like these are a strong sign for investors.

“There has been a global problem with mathematics education for decades. It often follows a transmissive model that focuses on rote memorization, which is ineffective and generates anxiety for many students,” says Esteban Sosnik, general partner of Reach Capital, in a statement. “Mathematics is a deductive science and requires a different approach. Innovamat offers a quality solution, adapted to the needs of the 21st century and based on research, offering training and support to teachers while at the same time engaging the interest of students.”