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Education startups plowing fertile ground

Released at: 10:00, 21/04/2018

Education startups plowing fertile ground

Photo: Viet Tuan

Education startups hold a great deal of promise in Vietnam given the country's long-standing emphasis on education.

by Hai Van

The Teky Creation Technology Institute (Teky Academy), the first US-based STEAM (Science - Technology - Engineering - Art - Mathematics) curriculum for children aged 6 to 18 in Vietnam, received investment of $2.5 million through an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) from domestic and foreign investors last December, representing a milestone for the startup just one year after its launch. Earlier, online study app 1ASK received VND1 billion ($44,000) in investment from Facebook, and Monkey Junior, an English learning software developed for children under six years of age, received support of $100,000 from Google.

Vietnam’s business community saw a boom in startups last year, in both number and investment. According to the “Vietnam Startup Deal 2017” report conducted by the Topica Founder Institute, the number of startups receiving investment last year was 92, almost double the figure in 2016 with a total of $291 million, up 42 per cent. Along with tech startups, education startups reached a level of quality that exceeded expectations, bringing in investment from both domestic and foreign funds. 

Inspiring growth

Established in March 2017, Teky Academy has enrolled more than 1,000 students and had made the Hour of Code (HOC) free program available to 3,000 students in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as at March, according to Chairwoman and Founder Ms. Dao Lan Huong. It also cooperated with prestigious schools such as Doan Thi Diem and FPT to teach information technology (IT) to children. 

The quality of its training has been proven by its students winning five Wecode International Children’s Program Medals in 2017. It was also recognized as one of the ten most influential projects in Southeast Asia (out of 2,000 projects in the region) by the Australian Government and the University of Melbourne, and was among the top four Excellent Projects at the NextGen Conference in Switzerland.

TechKids, another education startup, designs software courses for both child and adult students. After getting underway in late 2015 with a small office near the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, it has developed 17 courses and 15 software technologies and its campus has expanded to around 1,000 sq m. It also announced it has enrolled over 1,000 students of different ages, 15 per cent of whom are going abroad to study or are working at large companies. TechKids has also introduced job candidates to more than 100 local and foreign companies.

CEO Nguyen Thanh Tung said success for the project isn’t in terms of revenue or profit but of inspiring children to learn IT. TechKids’ students are also getting younger, with most previously being university students or office workers but now being from 12-18 years old. 

As a startup in teaching English in an interesting way, Monkey Junior software has recorded significant achievements. CEO Dao Xuan Hoang said the English learning software is quite popular in the US, where it has regularly topped the 100 most-downloaded educational apps. More than half a million people have installed Monkey Junior worldwide, with users mainly coming from the US, which accounts for about 43 per cent, while Vietnamese users account for 10-20 per cent. The startup was the only one in Vietnam to receive Google’s $100,000 support package.

Inevitable challenges

According to industry insiders, getting a startup underway is a stressful journey and there are many issues to be addressed at the same time during the first three years. The major challenge is securing capital to operate and develop products. “Most rely on investment from its founders for the first three years and don’t record a profit,” said Ms. Huong. “Few have sufficient capital, and this often results in failure.” Limited capital is also an obstacle when attempting to recruit talented employees. 

Mr. Hoang spent about three or four months learning how to design apps and build content, but once he started the company there were many problems to deal with. It was a costly period that saw him spend VND10 billion ($440,000) while developing the software.

Another barrier for Ms. Huong was a lack of experience. In the early days she headed overseas to learn about the education model and build relationships. “At times I was exhausted from balancing work and family, but I told myself I was doing something useful and my family supported me in doing it,” she recalled.

Mr. Tung said that product development and expansion is more difficult in education than in other sectors. “Our products are for human beings, who can be influenced by the teacher or by the nature of the lesson, so we must be careful,” he said. 

Despite the many hurdles, Ms. Huong said she decided to establish Teky Academy because she understood the important role IT will play into the future. “I realized the enormous effect technology has on society after working in the industry for 15 years and the need to prepare children with sound knowledge,” she explained.

Upcoming plans

Despite the obstacles, Vietnam’s education sector still holds great potential, given that parents do whatever it takes to give their children a good education. This makes Vietnam a fertile land for education startups, which have adopted their own plans for development. Mr. Tung told VET that TechKids aims to nurture talent from an early age. With basic knowledge and necessary skills, they can confidently study or work in developed countries at a later time.

He also wants to expand to large provinces in Vietnam and develop its brand. Along with software training for students and employees, they intend to create conditions for students who are passionate and want to make a career. He expects to bring job opportunities for his student. “First, we will meet business’s needs for IT human resources and provide them with potential candidates,” he said. “Secondly, we will build projects and allow our students to participate.” He will also create a co-working space and attract technology startups to work on resolving the needs of students.

Becoming the No. 1 academy in Southeast Asia in providing STEAM training to children in terms of student numbers and the leading EdTech platform is the goal of Teky Academy over the next three years. “We expect to open another technology center in Ho Chi Minh City this year with 15 to 20 classrooms, cooperate with 50 satellite training centers around the country, and hold 150 plus HOC events for more than 5,000 children,” Ms. Huong said. In the next two years it will build ecosystems for technology training centers, STEAM communities, and technology education systems.

Industry 4.0 will result in major changes to all sectors in Vietnam and see IT become important in economic development, while also creating new trends in employment. Soft skills and foreign language and technology skills will become indispensable. Most IT employees in Vietnam, however, lack the professionalism employers seek, according to a report from Navigos Search. Education startups are therefore expected to provide the necessary skills to students from a young age.

“Education investment in Vietnam is very lucrative because Vietnamese people are studious and most parents are concerned about their children’s education. The market is big, with many successful startups in English language studies. In Industry 4.0, however, foreign language skills will not be enough to approach international markets, and technology skills are also needed. Children must learn technology from a young age because the future is digital. If they do not have technological knowledge, they will miss out on many opportunities. Startups can look at demand in society when developing products.” 

Mr. Nguyen Hoa Binh, Chairman of the NextTech Group 

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