Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that Sachin Mishra would find his life’s calling in the field of education. Hailing from a family of academicians, he understood early on the long-lasting impact of education in an individual’s life. Fortuitously, while still a student at Milan’s SDA Bocconi School of Management, he found a like-minded potential business partner in Alejandra Fraile. They shared a keen interest in understanding how cutting-edge technology can be leveraged to transform the education sector and empower students to help them stay focused on the path to learning.
Focus Project was conceptualised as a result of Sachin and Alejandra identifying a compelling need to address the pain points that existed in the current school ecosystem. Nishanth Reddy, a seasoned EdTech leader, joined them as the third member of the founding team and now oversees the growth function. Alejandra felt that today’s schools lack a scientific approach to equipping students with skills necessary to prepare them for appropriate career pathways. Further, the team’s analysis revealed that if education must be accessible to all, then it’s time for educators to develop innovative learning models that will bridge the skill gaps and enhance a student’s learning outcomes.
Creating a new model of education
Focus Project was founded in 2019 in Madrid, Spain, to make a positive difference to students’ lives. Its problem-solving approach sought to create a culture wherein students at risk of low performance could be helped in identifying the impediments to their learning outcomes by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and analytics. It defines a Personalised Learning Lifecycle for every student using its subject-agnostic AI-powered platform.
According to the founders, education is an investment that countries should leverage to fuel economic growth and develop quality human capital. The synergistic relationship between human capital and economic growth is crucial for driving disruptive innovation in the modern tech-enabled education sector, or EdTech. Human capital is a valuable asset to leverage to build a strong economy as the quality of manpower determines a country’s ability to increase labour productivity and output. “In this new world, the ability of workers to compete is handicapped by the poor performance of education,” says Sachin. He adds that despite technological advancements sweeping through every walk of life, educational techniques and teachers’ pedagogies primarily continue to support the traditional time-tested models. “With Focus Project, we introduce the next level of digital transformation in the education sector,” he says. The startup follows a B2B business model and considers K-12 schools as its target audience. Its SaaS platform follows a subscription model and the annual recurring revenue from each customer is calculated based on the total number of students.
Focus Project aims to revolutionise the K-12 experience by deploying advanced analytics to identify the root causes of skill gaps across subjects and close the lacunae in learning to derive the best outcome for students.
“Our AI engine not only identifies the interests and skills acquired by a student over a period of time but also suggests an appropriate career path. It also takes care of aspirations and helps in achieving them,” explains Sachin.
He claims that Focus Project is the world’s first Subject-Agnostic Learning Life Cycle Management System and is first-in-market in the world to implement Skill Impact Analysis across subjects and to create Learning DNA using AI.
Kickstarting a startup’s journey
Focus Project was initially bootstrapped and self-funded through savings and support from the founders’ family and friends’ network. The team also relied on its network for branding and technology support in the initial growth phase. The startup raised its first round of funding in the latter part of 2019 (see table).
Customer acquisition and marketing strategy
From the start, Focus Project has followed a planned marketing strategy for acquiring new customers. They employ the following methods for seeking out prospective customers (primarily schools):
● Direct sales to schools through on-ground sales team members
● Channel partnerships with educational services aggregators and consultants
● Strategic memberships in associations of schools like BSME (British Schools in the Middle East) and TAISI (The Association of International Schools India)
● Informative webinars and free workshops for schools during the pandemic
● Sectoral events such as education conferences/summits like Bett UK and Didac India
Focus Project’s product is being implemented in the form of a full-fledged or a short-term project in three schools of Spain, which are part of a globally reputed group, and in three schools of India.
In terms of marketing strategy, the founders leverage social media and post relevant and engaging posts on LinkedIn, targeting the global education community. The team has also launched mailer campaigns through its large network of schools association members.
The pandemic and its challenges
Since its inception, there have been technological challenges to surmount as Focus Project is the pioneer in the global market to implement impact analysis and learner footprint, and it didn’t have a pre-existing model in the market that it could emulate.
The pandemic brought in its wake other unique challenges for Focus Project. For starters, the funding scene dried up, putting a halt to the pre-pandemic momentum. The startup was compelled to bootstrap its operations in 2020. Further, since schools around the world were—and still are—closed indefinitely, the team was unable to pitch the product to schools, its key prospective customers.
The startup utilised the downtime in the year of the pandemic to fine-tune its technology and enhance its capabilities. Focus Project attempted a new innovation called Focus Loop, a process that consists of four steps: Diagnosis, Analysis, Practice and Proficiency to convert the company’s AI-based model into a complete blended learning solution.
Interestingly, while schools, universities and educational institutions around the world adopted digital transformation amid COVID-19, the shift was primarily in using online teaching tools and other innovative web-based teaching methodologies to impart learning to the student community. Since teachers everywhere were already grappling with adjusting to the demands brought forth by the digital transformation, Focus Project couldn’t make sufficient headway in directly pitching its blended learning solution to them. However, the company reached out to them through webinars and workshops.
Finding a support system in T-Hub
Before co-founding Focus Project, Nishanth had been deeply engaged with the startup ecosystem and participated in T-Hub’s networking and mentoring programs. Focus Project is now part of T-Hub’s Community Membership Program. It is keen on leveraging T-Hub’s strong capabilities for connecting with investors to raise funds for the company’s full product development cycle.
Apart from the state-of-the-art co-working space at T-Hub’s building, the co-founders acknowledge the other benefits of being associated with the innovation enabler. According to them, T-Hub has given Focus Project a platform to network with other startups, receive mentoring and monthly reviews, connect with potential investors and derive benefits from service providers.
“T-Hub has helped us connect with marquee investors in the Indian ecosystem like LetsVenture, SucSEED and Edupreneur Village. We were also a part of the T-Hub-driven mentoring initiative called Rejig, which fine-tuned our investor pitch to a large extent,” says Sachin. “We are one of the 15 finalists of Edupreneur Village’s Investment Marathon 2.0 that had 300+ applicants. Also, the periodic mentoring meetings helped us improve our product pitch and bid for government projects.”
Key learnings and the way forward
According to the co-founders of Focus Project, the education sector is a closed group, and it is tough to penetrate the system without aggressively networking among the stakeholders in the school ecosystem.
The co-founders are targeting a revenue of half a million USD in 2021 and aim to reach 20M USD in 2025.
The company envisions creating a personalised ecosystem for learners that starts in schools and extends to universities and companies. “Focus Project will act as a digital learning companion that will help achieve aspirations of every individual at all stages of their life,” sums up Sachin.