Five years ago, entrepreneur Dan Sommer bet big on the adult learning space when he was building out Trilogy Education, an online and in-person bootcamp in collaboration with universities to train workforces on the latest tech skills.
In 2019, Sommer sold that company for $750 million to 2U in one of the largest edtech exits to date. And today, Sommer is launching a new venture-backed startup in education that goes a few steps earlier in the learning journey: high school.
Edge Pathways is a for-credit, first-year program built in collaboration with universities to help aspiring engineers navigate entrance into the confusing, and often intimidating, field of science, technology and education. Along with launching to the public today, Edge Pathways announced it has raised 8 million in a seed round led by First Round Capital, Emerge Education, Rethink Education and 2U. First Round Capital’s Bill Trenchard will take a seat on Edge Pathway’s board of directors.
Instead of helping employed techies stay sharp, Sommer’s new startup is helping aspiring techies get a degree in the first place. When asked what changed between his two startups, he says it boils down to one single insight: the point in which a founder has to start helping support students to be ultimately successful.
“A lot of companies over the last two years are looking to group talent and looking at the old class of engineers,” Sommer said. “Starting earlier in this stage of the process is a way to help resolve the skills gap and help capture more students at a time when they’re impressionable, willing to learn and willing to support new kinds of pathways.”
Edge Pathways helps schools offer a program for credit that replaces the first year of college. Inspired by co-op programs at Drexel and Northeastern, Edge connects students to project-based learning and internship opportunities to replace a traditional lecture-style education. The startup is ultimately a services provider to colleges that want to open their doors to incoming engineering students.
Edge Pathways is more than a trial-run at college since it is for credit. To help colleges, the key stakeholder for Edge, stay happy, that means that the startup lets institutions make decisions on which students get admitted to the program, which faculty are involved and how the curriculum is created. Edge’s involvement is simply in the execution and daily support.
After the first year is completed, Edge stays with students to provide coaching and job opportunities throughout the college experience.
For the program, the startup charges students around $15,000, slightly lower than the price of in-state tuition. As numerous studies have shown, attrition rates in STEM fields are high due to changing majors or leaving the degree as a whole, which doesn’t help the some 3.5 million job openings out there for engineers, Sommer tells TechCrunch.
Edge’s largest challenge will likely be finding product-market fit with consumers. While it has created a curriculum in tandem with colleges, the startup needs to make sure the program fits a student's wants and needs too -- and those key decisions shouldn’t be without its end-customer in the room. Sommers, naturally, is optimistic that he’s on to something.
“So many students, particularly today, don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning in the classroom and don’t see how it ties into the world,” he said. “It’s hard to make that connection, so we designed a model to help universities support this gap.”
The other large challenge ahead for Edge is finding universities to work with. Sommer declined to share information about its inaugural partner, but said he will announce it “very soon.” Notably, the founder thinks early adopters will be transfer institutions because about 40% of students that get STEM degrees are transfer students.
“So many institutions today are really focused on the transient population of students,” he said. Edge hopes to “support more students through these hard disciplines, through hard subjects, and give them a reason to have inspiration.”
It’s an ambitious play, but by weeding out the weed-out classes themselves, Edge could make a big difference in the opportunity some students see for themselves in the world of STEM.
Editor's note: 2U has been added as an investor to this story.