Despite the significant advances in tech, practices and policy in most industries over the last 100 years, we’re still teaching children in much the same way. Given the innovative technologies that have emerged over the last decade or so, there’s been a growing consensus that these enhanced tools could provide multiple opportunities to improve this $5 trillion-dollar global industry and bring education into the 21st century.
“That investment in EdTech is set to reach $252 billion globally by 2020, and is a reflection of both the need and the desire for education reform, and wider integration of innovative technologies into the classroom to meet the requirements of our new digital age,” says Jesse Lozano, CEO and co-founder of a startup called pi-top, one of the fastest growing EdTech start-ups in Europe.
Pi-top focuses on providing excellent quality STEAM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education using technology to change education for the better. To learn more, we spoke to Lozano himself…
Can you give us a quick rundown of what Pi-Top is?
The pi-top is an accessible learning environment that provides students with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in a world of rapidly accelerating scientific and technological advancements. pi-tops are used in over 1,500 schools and code clubs, introducing a world of physical computing and project-based learning to Computer Science and STEAM classrooms.
What do you think makes it different to other companies?
So much to be said here! Firstly, we’re the only maker product endorsed by OCR, a leading UK exam awarding body for educational qualifications. That is a major distinction.
Secondly, where most of the education market is made up of “living room” products that have been shoehorned into education as a secondary revenue stream, we are 100 per cent focused on providing actual benefits to educators in the classroom. Not only do we have our own Debian-based Operating System, pi-topOS, our Raspberry Pi powered laptops and desktops allow our users to interact with physical computing in a way that you just can’t do with a Chromebook or an iPad. We facilitate interaction with both the software and the hardware, to really allow STEAM students to get involved in their computer science education.
We also make sure that teachers have the resources they need to reach every student, through our distributed network of pi-top champions. We have a network of roughly 50 pi-topCHAMPIONS who are teachers we specifically work with on product feedback and they are amazing people who have been really active in their communities, organising clubs or education events. We have big plans to increase that number, but for now it’s great to keep it a close community. For us, it’s about making sure that the whole process empowers teachers to be the best teachers they can be, and students to be the most engaged.
We’re also in the Guinness Book of World Records for producing the world’s first 3D printed laptop, which was an unintended consequence when we were making the first prototypes in my living room. I am also glad to say Eben Upton – the creator of the Raspberry Pi – has said there should be a pi-top in every classroom, which is a fantastic endorsement to have.
What is your personal background?
I was born in South Africa and moved to Texas when I was four. When I was 13 I won a scholarship to a fantastic boarding school in the UK and was lucky enough to maintain that scholarship until I graduated and sat for politics in my Undergraduate, and then completed a Law Degree at Kings College London University. I ended up working in parliament for a bit and that allowed me to set up a consulting group, which provided expertise to political groups and stakeholders looking to expand their online presence.
I first met Ryan Dunwoody, my co-founder, in 2014 through a ‘pre-idea’ accelerator called Entrepreneur First. Despite having job offers from the likes of Palantir and Rolls Royce, Ryan made the choice to join up with me and move into my living room. We actually built the desk that we built the 3D printer on, so we could make the prototype cases for the circuitry we were building to turn the Raspberry Pi into a fully functioning laptop. It was a funny time, when we were building so much in very short periods of time and we really had very little money to do anything. Back then, we ate a lot of pasta and tomato sauce.
What inspired you to start the company?
Ryan and I started this company to completely rewrite the rule book on affordability and the quality of STEAM/ Computer Science curriculum in schools. We were convinced, and still are, that there must be a change in the conception of education in the digital age, and we know we can actually change the way that students consume educational STEAM content. What’s great is that we’ve already delivered on that initial vision, as thousands of students and coding hobbyists can already attest. We are here to deliver world class STEAM and Computer Science education to everyone, not just the wealthy private schools.
What is the story of the company from launch until now? How big is the company now?
We have now gone from the living room idea to a growing team of 40+ people with offices in London, Austin Texas and Shenzhen China in just under 3 years with $7 million in investment to date. We won EdTech Start-up Company of the Year from BETT 2017 – the largest Education conference in the world and are the sponsor of the STEAM village at BETT2018. It has been a busy year but a very rewarding one.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your company?
To start the business was fairly easy, at least it was for me and Ryan. We were really driven to create something of our own and it gave us the motivation we needed to overcome obstacles. It is funny, because you constantly think you are at the hardest part when making a platform product that has hardware and software like ours. The “real” biggest challenge for us was growing the headcount of the company whilst delivering on large scale deployments. We have had $7million in investment so far which, when you are deploying tens of thousands of devices a quarter, makes you realise the importance of cash flow management. Luckily, we have an amazing finance team and we take budgeting very seriously – it is the most important element when you start to make significant revenues.
What’s your biggest milestone/ which are you most proud of?
It is very hard to point to one thing. The entire journey has been a privilege. To single it down to one milestone would probably be winning a contract with the government of Argentina to deploy pi-tops across 500 schools nationally.
What is your business model? How have you monetised your product?
Currently, our revenue comes almost exclusively from the sales of the pi-top and the pi-topCEED, most of which we get through our fantastic network of resellers. Aside from expanding our selection of pi-top accessories, we are also looking in to possibly growing our support offerings, though for now we’re happy to provide a full one-time-payment package.
What’s the next step for growth – is the intention to grow the business independently, or look for an exit via acquisition or similar?
Over the next 12 months we will be focusing on improving our product set and growing our team. We opened our U.S. based office in Austin Texas in January 2016 and that is a big focus for our future growth as over 50 per cent of our product ends up in the Americas. We have an exciting product pipeline which will see schools, code clubs and educators gaining access to STEAM education tools that really are a world away in terms of quality from what is offered by anyone else.
Will you be looking for more funding?
As any growing company would, we have a plan for future funding and a timeline in which we would like to achieve it.