Getting Smart: Opportunities in Educational Technologies and Services

Key Takeaways

  • Four powerful trends are providing the educational products and services segment with strong and steady tailwinds, attracting the attention of financial and strategic buyers.
  • A wide variety of business models and value propositions are creating compelling opportunities for an equally diverse range of buyers and investors.
  • Recent Harris Williams transactions exemplify these opportunities, demonstrating the many ways to participate in the educational space.

Many Ways to Play

The educational products and services segment is large, diverse, and driven by strong tailwinds, providing compelling opportunities for many different types of buyers and investors. It encompasses companies specializing in early, K-12, and higher education as well as corporate training and technology.

“There is a massive part of our economy that touches the education market in some way, shape or form,” says Mike Wilkins, a managing director in the Technology, Media & Telecom Group. “Education has evolved in ways that impact all of our lives. Whether from a consumer perspective, business services perspective, or a technology perspective, the opportunities for companies providing solutions in the education space are significant.”

There are also many different business models finding traction in the segment, adds Brent Spiller, a managing director in the Consumer Group: “We’re seeing innovative consumer-facing businesses in the space, as well as business-to-business offers, technology plays and hybrids. And that provides opportunities for a wide range of buyers and investors.”

Four Powerful Trends

Advancing Technology

Across these end markets and business models, technology is helping to drive many of those opportunities. “Due to advances in mobile technology, people can be educated pretty much anywhere at any time now. The wealth of educational content that is available at home, at work, and even in certain leisure situations has expanded dramatically,” says Wilkins.

For instance, school administrators—whether they are operating professional, K-12 or higher education institutions—have eagerly adopted new educational technologies that enable more accessible and effective ways to engage with parents, students, teachers, alumni and content creators. Technology is not only an enabler of more widespread educational content, but is also generating demand for it. As industries, companies and jobs become more tech-centric, workers must learn and apply new skills on an ongoing basis.

Evolving Consumer Perceptions

Changing consumer attitudes toward education add to the momentum. “We’ve seen a shift toward greater uptake of early education programs, and higher standards for those programs,” says Spiller. “Parents also want more engagement with their kids’ education. They want to be able to track progress and results, which is creating more demand for new educational technologies. And people are increasingly seeing education as a lifelong pursuit, whether in the context of their profession or their personal development.”

Regulatory and Compliance Requirements

Regulatory and compliance trends are another important factor. An increasingly stringent body of rules governs educational and training standards across many sectors of the economy, providing opportunities for companies that can help their clients stay up-to-date and in compliance.

In K-12 education, for instance, the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has raised the bar for the demonstration of educational outcomes, creating the need for new technologies and approaches that can help schools understand and apply these more demanding protocols.

Similar developments are underway across a host of industries, from real estate to health care, financial services and others, notes Andy Leed, a vice president in the Technology, Media & Telecom Group: “More businesses are under pressure to be compliant with such standards, which means their workers must be credentialed and adhering to current regulatory dictates. That helps education vendors create stickier customer relationships, and provides some buffer against economic cycles.”

Shortage of Trained Workers

Finally, the dwindling supply of fully trained and credentialed workers is making education and training increasingly relevant to a range of industries. According to the fourth annual Harris Williams/Inc. survey on exit strategies, finding the right talent to fuel growth is a top-of-mind issue, with more than half (54.5 percent) of business leaders saying that growing and retaining a workforce is the one issue that concerns them most.

Chris Rogers, a managing director in the Aerospace, Defense & Government Group, corroborates these concerns: “In commercial and business aviation, there is a real shortage of qualified aircraft mechanics, with older mechanics leaving the workforce, and younger ones lacking the requisite training and experience. The aerospace industry is facing a similar supply/demand imbalance with its pilots, and in many key engineering and technical roles within systems design and advanced manufacturing.  Educational product and services are becoming increasingly important to the industry in light of these trends.”

Matt White, a managing director in the Energy, Power & Infrastructure Group, sees a similar dynamic in his industry: “Training is a big topic. It’s a key strategy for expanding the labor pool in many of the skilled, blue-collar services offered by companies in the downstream energy, utility, and other industrial and infrastructure segments.”

A Rich Variety of Opportunities

Harris Williams has extensive experience in the education sector, helping facilitate the sale of a wide range of innovative companies. The following four clients demonstrate the breadth of the segment in terms of end markets and business models, and the wide range of investment and acquisition opportunities it presents.

The Learning Experience: Consumer-Facing Early Education

The Learning Experience directly benefits from the rising awareness among parents of the importance of early education.

With more than 300 centers operating or under development, the company is one of the nation's fastest-growing Academies of Early Education. Reflecting the greater national emphasis on educational development during the most crucial years of a child's growth, The Learning Experience places a prominent focus on programs that advance scholastic preparation.

As Spiller explains, the company has made the most of this opportunity by building a trusted, appealing consumer brand that resonates with children and their parents. It has applied its expertise in consumer branding to the way it engages with its customers, using media and technology to extend the brand beyond the classroom. In particular, the company provides at-home education via apps featuring kid-friendly animated characters, increasing the “stickiness” of its customer relationships.

“The Learning Experience caters to today’s parents, who tend to demand more from early education than previous generations,” he says. “Its customers want to get a leg up on educating their kids, starting younger than before, and they demand engagement in terms of results. The Learning Experience is a very consumer-friendly brand, and it attracted lots of attention from investors looking to leverage consumer experience into the education opportunity.”

IO Education: K-12 Educational Performance Improvement

​As consumer attitudes toward education change, and demands for greater engagement and measurement continue to increase, IO Education has a solution. Its software-as-a-solution (SaaS)-based assessment and data analytics solutions, student and classroom management solutions, and professional growth solutions help educators improve educational outcomes for K-12 institutions. IO Education’s solutions are used by more than 7,500 schools and 120,000 educators, supporting instruction for over 5,000,000 students.

“Over the last decade or so, schools have made a concerted effort to improve how they educate students, train and monitor teachers, and run their schools,” says Wilkins. “IO Education helps by integrating a vast array of data from disparate systems, from classroom statistics, to teacher evaluations, to learning and training information.”

As Leed explains, IO Education creates substantial value for schools by enabling them to derive meaningful insights from this diverse data: “For example, they can take multiple sources of data and create a unified view of a single student. That, hopefully, will help teachers educate that student more effectively and help them excel. The company can also help school systems operate more efficiently and effectively.”

Wilkins says the appeal of such outcomes is driving a trend toward end-to-end platforms that can improve insight and performance across the educational value chain. “We’ve seen a few platforms come together to offer seamless solutions to the education market,” he says. “In fact, the company that bought IO Education is doing just that.”  

OnCourse Learning: Corporate Training

OnCourse Learning (OnCourse) stands ready to use advances in educational technology to help its clients keep pace with regulatory and compliance requirements. The company is a leading provider of talent management, e-learning, and governance, risk and compliance solutions for highly regulated industries, including financial services, healthcare and real estate.

“The OnCourse team has built a compelling, multi-vertical B2B platform, bringing together best-in-class educational content with leading technology that enhances the digital learning experience and better equips businesses to navigate through increasingly complex regulatory environments,” says Wilkins.

As Wilkins explains, a major global media company acquired OnCourse as part of its effort to diversify into education. In particular, the buyer saw strong potential in the professional education space, specifically among large corporations facing compulsory training and education standards, such as health care companies. The ultimate goal: Create a leading, cross-industry, compliance-driven professional education platform.

The purchase of OnCourse has facilitated that goal, says Leed: “OnCourse is focused on online professional education training, workforce development and compliance across three markets: health care, real estate and financial services. It is one of the few sizable platforms in the space serving those end markets, and it is a great fit for the buyers’ business model.”

Precision Nutrition

Precision Nutrition provides technology-powered nutrition education and behavior change solutions to the health and fitness industries. By integrating the latest in nutrition, exercise, and psychology research with highly adaptive, practice-based technology and engagement methods, Precision Nutrition is able to drive sustained behavior change and fitness outcomes based on an individual’s specific goals.

The company’s solutions also empower health and fitness professionals to advance their careers with the industry’s most rigorous nutrition certification program while helping grow their businesses with a SaaS coaching management solution. With over 39,000 certified professionals and 50,000 consumers coached in more than 120 countries, Precision Nutrition has become the reference solution for both the professional and consumer markets.

The company’s platform provides scientifically based nutritional content to consumers on nutritionists’ behalf, leveraging automation to slash the time and effort involved. The result: Individual practitioners can scale their businesses without investing in infrastructure or technology.

“For many people in this profession, growth is capped by capacity constraints,” says Wilkins. “Precision Nutrition enables them to break though that constraint, using educational technology to deliver custom-tailored educational content to customers.”

Conclusion

Powered by advancing technology, shifting consumer perceptions, an increasing focus on compliance and a shortage of trained workers, the educational products and services industry is poised for strong and steady growth. The segment provides compelling opportunities for a wide range of financial and strategic buyers, with a wealth of business models and value propositions. Recent Harris Williams experience only validates the variety of ways to create substantial value in this dynamic space.

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Published November 2018