Interview: BridgeU turns university selection on its head with data-driven decision making

London‐based education technology start-up BridgeU has recently announced a seed round of $2.5m led by Octopus Investments. BridgeU is a British company attracting investment from home and the US, that is turning university selection on its head with data-driven decision making put in the hands of students exploring courses and university places. Launched in January 2015, BridgeU has already attracted multiple investment groups and has been adopted by schools and education groups across 16 countries. In a sector where resources are increasingly stretched, BridgeU helps students to establish a clear link between where they are, where they want to go and what they need to do to get there. We spoke to Lucy Stonehill, CEO at BridgeU, to find out a little more about the company.

Why did you start BridgeU?

I came up with the idea in 2013, after realising that the private admissions consulting business I was operating had serious defects - it wasn't scalable, and we were limited by the offline nature of the business. But, what bothered me the most was that it was never, as a business, going to reinvent the wheel and fundamentally shift careers guidance, as an industry. So I designed a prototype of a software-driven careers guidance service, and decided to validate the concept in a part of the world that is known for density of international schools.

I returned from a six-week long trip to Asia, where I had spent weeks presenting at several international schools, with strong endorsements for the product and the idea . Once back in London, I met Hywel Carver who became my co-founder. After building a prototype together, we secured early investment from Seedcamp in the Spring of 2014.

We launched the platform commercially in January 2015 with a UK and an international school product. We’ve now signed up schools and school groups in about 20 countries, with the majority concentrated in either the UK or Asia.

What problem is BridgeU trying to solve?

Educational decisions are often made in a vacuum, with either limited information about opportunities or inadequate tools to action such opportunities. To make matters worse, application processes are highly fragmented, admin-heavy and generally opaque. The cost of persisting with flawed decision-making processes and inefficient application systems can be measured in high student dropout rates and reports of student dissatisfaction with their higher education experiences.

And yet, the higher education industry is undergoing extraordinary change. More students than ever before are seeking a tertiary education (260 million by 2025). Families are spending more than ever to ensure their children are getting into the best institutions ($100 billion by 2017). And the very nature of where and how one pursues higher education opportunities is being disrupted by new technologies, and an ever-growing segment of globally mobile students.

Do you think students are ready to take a more analytical approach to choosing a university, or still really just about how the campus feels?

Absolutely. Students are acting more and more like consumers when it comes to mapping out their futures - evaluating the potential return on investment, or return on education for the opportunities they pursue. I would say they’ve been trying to be more analytical for some time, but haven't had access to the information or tools to enable that behavioral shift.

We want to equip students and schools with the right technology and data-driven support to ensure that students are making the best decisions for their futures. The platform uses machine learning techniques to recommend to students the best courses and appropriate universities for them, weighing academic indicators as well as social and vocational preferences. With a suite of cloud-based application strategy, research and builder tools, BridgeU also helps students leverage their unique strengths throughout the application process, build compelling CVs, and write powerful essays to express themselves and communicate their achievements and aspirations.

There are so many tech start ups entering the higher education space with students now being regarded as premium consumers what with the massive rise in student fees. How does BridgeU differ from the rest?

Most companies within the $70 billion global higher education preparation industry fall into one of two categories: they are bespoke and offline services such as consulting, tutoring or test preparation, or they are content-based websites, education agencies or course listings, who all profit from placing the student at select partner universities.

BridgeU adopts an entirely different model, choosing instead to align its goals entirely and exclusively with the student and the secondary school. BridgeU combines the expertise and quality of offline education support services, with the affordability and accessibility of online products. Unlike agents or content-based ‘free websites’, BridgeU is not financially incentivised by universities, and is therefore able to offer impartial, student-centric advice. With gamified tools and engaging content, BridgeU is built to appeal to the student. The individual features that frame the skeletal structure of BridgeU’s SaaS platform are each aimed at demystifying elements of the applications process that are opaque and hard to navigate. With its emphasis on developing software that is both intuitive to use, and technologically robust, BridgeU distinguishes itself from its competitors, who have failed to achieve this balance.

You’ve just secured $2.5 million of additional funding what will that be used for in the business?

BridgeU will use the new funding to expand its core product to support earlier stage student decision‐making, and diversify the range of post‐programme offerings to include alternatives to traditional higher education, such as apprenticeships and vocational training opportunities, foundation degrees and online programmes.

What once piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of building a tech start-up?

Validate your concept very early at the ideation process and cheaply (if possible). And know the industry you're trying to disrupt like the back of your hand!

What does the future hold for BridgeU?

As a business we are young, but very proud of what we have achieved so far. In March 2015, BridgeU was selected as an “All Star” to represent European EdTech at SXSW‐ Edu, and most recently, BridgeU was declared part of “EdTech 20” for 2015, the 20 fastest‐growing, most innovative EdTech startups in Europe, as determined by EdTech Europe.

This has been an amazing start for us, and we have some great ideas to keep that momentum going. 2016 is certainly a year where we will be focusing on ensuring BridgeU is more widely available to students in new territories, and to students who wish to consider non-academic post secondary opportunities, as well.

Image Credit: BridgeU