Inspiration, Incubation, Intermediation: Keys to Next-Gen Learning at Scale

Blog Series, Community, EdTech, Leadership, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Cities, Startups

A recent New York Times piece suggested that, despite $3 billion of global investment in learning startups, K-12 innovation was lagging. The business reporter made the typical arguments: lots of school districts, slow decentralized purchasing, and weak early academic results.

Delivering a public service like education is very different than business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C) markets. In efficient markets, businesses can quickly deploy products, feedback is rapid and direct, scale is rewarded, and capital flows to promising investments. Access to cheap devices and ubiquitous broadband rewards early and effective platforms (services like Uber, operating systems like iOS, retailers like Amazon) in a winner-take-most climate.

Public services are framed by policy and paid for with a mixture of local, state and federal investment. That should (but doesn’t always) promote equitable service delivery but it always comes with a lot of strings attached. When you add the idiosyncratic American history of local control, you have something very different than an efficient consumer market.

But it’s not just the bureaucracy that makes education different. Despite B2C breakouts like Lynda or Khan Academy, for most of us learning is relational, it happens in community. New products create new opportunities, but learning communities must adopt new tools, design and deploy new learning experiences. Education is by its very nature an intermediated enterprise.

So it’s different and challenging but we see an emerging solution to promoting to promoting quality public education at scale by promoting investment and innovation. The key is a new layer of services that provide inspiration, incubation, and intermediation.

Backstory. New school development was the most important improvement strategy of the last 20 years leading to higher achievement and graduation rates. The focus was replicating quality learning environments for underserved students and communities. Ten years ago there weren’t a lot of new tools, so it was the old fashion version of school. It was pretty effective but slow and expensive.

When venture investment started flowing into education six years ago, many of the startups followed the social media formula–offer a free product, iterate to promote viral adoption, and eventually find ways to monetize the network effects. This “west coast formula” has been only partially successful as a business model but it did create a new backdoor to the classroom–teachers, students, and parents found and deployed free and open resources.

Like the tech sector, EdTech startups clustered in the Bay Area, New York, and Chicago, around investors and tech talent. Conversely, innovations in learning sprang up anywhere there was visionary leadership (e.g. Yuma, AZ; Mooresville, NC; Piedmont, AL; Chugach, AK) but it was difficult to scale these innovations without an entrepreneurial context.  

Intermediation. Old schools don’t change easily. New schools aren’t developed quickly. Market signals are diffuse. What will transform this sector?

We think there’s has been a missing layer between schools and EdTech companies, a layer that provides inspiration, design, incubation, funding, and rapid feedback. Local innovation intermediaries play six key functions:

  • Grants: local support and guidance for new learning models (NGLC Regional Funds, Silicon Schools);
  • Incubation: capital, space, technical assistance and organizational development for startups (4.0 Schools, Edge, LearnLaunch, ImagineK12);
  • Conveners: Startup Weekend EDU (operated by 4.0 Schools, see featured image), Edcamps, EdTech meetups, Twitter chats, EdSurge summits, TEDx — all of which provide an on ramp to innovation and entrepreneurship for numerous stakeholders in and interested in education;
  • Catalyst: organizations that are embedded and trusted locally and connected nationally that serve as a bridge for innovators from inspiration to incubation (The Lean Lab, Educelerate);
  • Harbormaster: ecosystem coordination, advocacy, and convening (Education Cities members); and
  • Feedback: access to schools for short cycle EdTech trials (LEAP Innovations, iZone).

There are six other services which may be local, regional or national:

The big hunch of 4.0 Schools and the most important conclusion of our Smart Cities study is that an innovation intermediation layer will prove key for next generation learning at scale. It’s new intermediary organizations that are creating productive ecosystems where innovations are more likely, better supported, and have a shot at scale.  

Add us to a seventh national category–advocates for innovation intermediaries.

Ecosystem makers. There is a growing list of these new intermediaries creating productive innovation ecosystems. Following are some quick notes on cities where the future of learning is being facilitated by innovation intermediaries.

The big three are awash in funders, rich with talent, and have a growing number of innovation intermediaries:

  • Bay Area: Rogers Family Foundation and Silicon Schools provide funding and technical assistance to schools. Reach Capital and Kapor Capital provide seed funding and incubation to EdTech startups. (See Smart Cities Oakland, San Francisco, Silicon Valley and a recap of recent school visits.)
  • NYC: the iZone was interesting when Bloomberg was mayor but school innovation has stalled in the Big Apple with the exception of NGLC grantees like Brooklyn Labs.  Cottage Class will make the microschool opportunity interesting. There’s a handful of big players and Edge and 4.0 continue to support cohorts of EdTech startups.  
  • Chicago: while the district goes from crisis to crisis, LEAP Innovations has emerged as the national leader in short cycle trials.

A dozen cities are on the way:

  • Boston: home to an ecosystem of great universities and publishers, the bean is now becoming an EdTech hotspot with leadership from LearnLaunch, but there’s a weak connection with local schools (see Smart Cities Boston).
  • Baltimore: home of big education companies and big investors, Baltimore is quickly becoming an EdTech hotspot with help from Digital Harbor Foundation (see Smart Cities: Baltimore)
  • New Orleans: 4.0 Schools incubates talent, tools, and schools in NOLA (and NYC), a national model and emerging national network. NOLA was once in U.S. history opportunity to create a new platform, one where 95% of kids go to charter schools. The last decade is just a setup for a much more innovative future including work by NOLA Micro Schools and Rooted School.
  • Denver: strong fundamentals, good school board and legislative cover, good mayor/funder alignment, and a good charter sector.
  • Houston: a strong school district, great charter schools, and the best example of regional talent development makes Houston interesting. Microschool movers include A+UP and Talent Unbound.  
  • DC: the combination of CityBridge fellowships and an NGLC fund has been a game changer. Incubator 1776 is making DC an EdTech hotspot (see Smart Cities DC).
  • Indy: The Mind Trust has kicked things up a notch in Indianapolis by sponsoring fellows and incubating startups (see Smart Cities: Indianapolis).
  • Pittsburgh: driven by two great universities, Pittsburgh has emerged as an EdTech hotspot (see recent feature). Steven Hodas added, “They have a longstanding, robust harbormaster function in Grable/Sprout, a very large, authentic network of participating community orgs,” see Remake Learning as an example.
  • Los Angeles: there’s a growing number of startups and cool schools in southern California (see Smart Cities: Los Angeles part 1 on the EdTech scene and part 2 on schools).
  • Austin: Despite some big EdTech players and the venture/tech hub, there was limited school innovation in Austin until Acton Academy, Montessori for All and a few other charters, and conveners/incubators like EdTech Action and Impact Lab. (see Smart Cities Austin).
  • Phoenix: there lots of EdTech companies (Parchment, Edgenuity), innovative ASU, and an active Phoenix Startup Week and EdTechAZ. (See Smart Cities Phoenix.)
  • Research Triangle: Raleigh is home to Friday Institute and DigiLearn. Chapel Hill features Public Impact and Hunt Institute. (See Smart Cities Raleigh/Durham.)

There are a few up and comers where innovation intermediaries are making a difference:

  • Memphis: social structure, race/class lines blurred by growing mutual commitment to edu getting better as key to survival as city. The Achievement School District work is getting traction in Memphis than in Nashville because of leadership alignment.
  • Kansas City: given Kauffman’s continued support KC is on the rise, and conveners and catalysts/connectors like The Lean Lab. By April, 200 community members will have visited innovative schools in cities around the country. It’s the most interesting experiment in demand aggregation in the country.
  • Birmingham: good alignment with city leadership, TFA, maker, and creative classes.
    They have a new catalyst that is aiming to eventually also provide incubation in k12 Lean Labs that has already partnered with existing conveners like TEDxBirmingham Educator Fellows.
  • Las Vegas: there 10 digital learning models in Clark County Schools and a lot happening in the community (see Smart Cities: Las Vegas). Education Savings Accounts have interesting potential for new delivery models. With the Tesla battery factory near Reno they’ll have some money to try stuff.


As an added benefit beyond building individual education startup and innovation communities, we believe that these catalysts will become central nodes in bringing a diversity of education stakeholders to the table and kickstarting locally-driven solutions. We aim to create an overall community of these catalysts, who have deep understanding and relationships within their communities.

The work of these innovation intermediaries will push forward the pace of innovation and break down silos in education. We have a hunch this layer will pave the way for greater communication and standard operating procedures for launching new education solutions (from companies to organizations to schools) and sharing and scaling ideas and talent across the community with catalysts adapting these things to their local context.

It will take local knowledge, trust and community building to surface, support and scale innovations in each market. Those same ingredients are crucial as well to building a strong foundation and connecting early adopters. Beyond that, an active community that builds the capacity to innovate will enable more and more educators, parents, students and communities to join the ranks of early adopters, and possibly become innovators themselves.

We imagine a world with powerful local ecosystems of innovators across the country and a mesh of connections and national networks. We’re not the only ones who share this vision of collaborative innovation intermediaries:

  • Strive Together is using collective impact strategies to align local stakeholders in three dozen cities to a common vision of better education.
  • The US Department of Education partnered with Digital Promise to launch Education Innovation Clusters.
  • Mozilla Hive is powering local Learning Networks and Communities around web literacy (e.g., Hive Learning Network in NYC provide an array of intriguing learning experiences for middle and high school students).
  • Village Capital launched a program to enable ecosystem leaders to build better resources to support entrepreneurs.
  • LRNG is a MacArthur spinout that is launching a community facing learning platform and campaign with Cities of LRNG.

To build this innovation intermediary layer, 4.0 Schools launched the Community Catalysts program to empower local community builders to build their own education entrepreneurship ecosystems. In this yearlong program, intermediaries receive the coaching, connections and resources they need to build and sustain an education entrepreneurship community.

The layer of inspiration, incubation, and intermediation between schools and EdTech entrepreneurs is what will expand access to innovative learning environments and create aggregated demand for investment and new tools–and fuel the learning revolution.

For more check out:

David Fu is Manager of Community Development at 4.0 Schools. Follow David on Twitter, @davidthefu.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


Eric Howard II /

Enjoyable learning is priceless because this type of learning needs to last for an entire life time. Concerning all students of all ages etc.