When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced educational institutions to go virtual, many were scrambling to develop online or co-ed programs.
This struggle was especially difficult for trade schools, many of which were not designed to teach online and were mostly paper-based.
CourseKey, a San Diego-based business school management SaaS start-up, held a unique position. Demand has jumped and its ARR has increased by 200% in 2020. And now, the company has raised $ 9 million in a Series B led by SignalFire and with participation from existing funder Builders VC to help keep the momentum going.
Founded in 2015 by Luke Sophinos and Faddee Kannah, CourseKey’s B2B platform is designed to help organizations that train some of our most essential workers – from auto mechanics and electricians to plumbers, nurses, phlebotomists and dental assistants .
The aim is to help these organizations increase their income by improving student retention and graduation rates, helping them maintain regulatory compliance and generally streamline processes
“Things really took off last year when the coronavirus hit,” Sophinos said. “So many schools have had to adopt a digital arsenal. We saw a trend of massive acceleration that was already going to happen. All industries had been devoured. We just found a space that was not yet.
CourseKey currently works with over 200 career colleges, including the Paul Mitchell School and the Institute for Business & Technology, among others. Over 100,000 students use its software.
For Sophinos and Kannah, the creation of CourseKey was more than just a business opportunity. Kannah, who fled Iraq as a refugee, saw family members attend trade schools that lacked technological infrastructure and modern software tools. He designed the CourseKey platform.
Sophinos, frustrated with his own academic experience, applied for The Thiel Fellowship – a program that supports students in starting a business instead of attending university. However, he acknowledged that not everyone who does not want to go to traditional college has this option.
“While looking at alternatives, our first team began to recognize a market that we thought no one was paying attention to. It was busy with our friends and family, ”Sophinos said. “It was a space that, for some strange reason, was largely left out of the education conversation.”
In 2017, CourseKey partnered with a leading vocational training provider to create and launch what Sophinos describes as “the world’s first trade school management system”.
“We focused on automating day-to-day classroom procedures like attendance and grading, improving the student experience through communication tools, helping identify at-risk students, and simplifying of compliance, ”he said. “We have also visualized the data for retention purposes.”
CourseKey also performs tasks such as tracking skill acquisition, performing assessments and exams, and integrating third-party tools.
The goal of the startup with its new capital is to evolve the platform to serve “all trade schools in the country” with the mission of changing the narrative that a four-year college is the “only option”. It also plans to add new features and capabilities, largely based on customer demands. CourseKey also plans to almost double its current workforce from just over 50 employees to nearly 100 over the next two years.
“This is a huge market and a huge business opportunity,” Sophinos said.
CourseKey has an impressive list of supporters beyond SignalFire and Builders. Steve Altman, former vice president and chairman of Qualcomm, led his $ 3.5 million fundraising round, which also included the participation of Larry Rosenberger, former CEO of FICO. Dennis Yang, former CEO of edtech giant Udemy, and Altman now sit on its board.
SignalFire chief executive Wayne Hu, who also served on the startup’s board with the new cycle, said his company recognizes that vocational schools and their administrators, instructors and students “suffer from a lack of specially designed software”.
“Student information systems and learning management systems are optimized for traditional K-12 schools and academic workflow, but vocational schools are stuck relying on a pen and paper or trying to come up with solutions that aren’t designed for them, ”Hu wrote in a blog post.
CourseKey, from SignalFire’s perspective, is reinventing a new educational operating system designed specifically for experiential and hands-on learning models, which continues to evolve with blended / distance learning.
Mr. Hu also pointed out that since many jobs that vocational schools prepare people for “have life and death consequences,” they are highly regulated.
“CourseKey not only improves key performance indicators for business schools, it also serves as an insurance against this existential risk,” he added.