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Investment firm throws support to education tech startup

Brian Hartz

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Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Tampa-based Florida Funders, a venture capital fund and angel investor network, has participated in a $3 million seed funding round for ChalkTalk, a New York tech company whose platform uses machine learning to generate personalized curriculum for high school teachers.

ChalkTalk’s goal, according to a news release, is to help educators quickly and effectively build lesson plans that align with the standards and schedules of the specific class that’s being taught.

Florida Funders Chief Investment Officer Ryan Whittemore. Courtesy photo.

“It’s personalized, individual learning but the teacher can teach across an entire classroom,” Florida Funders Chief Investment Officer Ryan Whittemore told the Catalyst. “It begins to challenge students based on their own learning — the questions they’re asked evolve. But it’s also an easy-to-use platform for teachers. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from teachers is the time and energy required for lesson planning and monitoring students and grading tests. [ChalkTalk] takes a lot of that away and simplifies it for the teacher, while allowing them to still provide customized learning opportunities, tailored to the student.”

ChalkTalk is specifically targeted at 11th and 12th grade students who are preparing for capstone exams like the ACT and SAT. And because use of its platform has been shown to raise graduation rates, ChalkTalk has been good for schools that need to meet and exceed state accountability standards if they want to increase the funding they receive. It’s also met with approval from teachers and administrators whose contracts are tied to performance.

“We’ve been trying to improve our graduation rates for years,” Lake Nona High School Vice Principal Donielle Gregory stated in the release. “This year, all we did was add ChalkTalk for 14 weeks and we raised our concordant test scores by 19 percent.”

Also, the release stated, ChalkTalk’s platform can be adapted for virtual, in-person or hybrid education settings, making it a particularly well-timed entrant into the market. While K-12 is the company’s initial go-to-market focus, it can also serve higher education, corporate training and lifelong learning institutions.

ChalkTalk founder and CEO Mohannad Arbaji. Courtesy photo.

That broad scope was appealing to Florida Funders, as was founder and CEO Mohannad Arbaji, who achieved perfect scores on the SAT I and SAT II exams and then wrote a SAT prep book and founded a pre-ChalkTalk education company while studying engineering, computer engineering and economics at Brown University.

“Mohannad,” Whittemore said, “had recently landed several contracts within the state of Florida and was already working with some school districts here. He was researching venture capital firms and reached out to us.”

Whittemore declined to disclose the exact amount of Florida Funders’ investment in ChalkTalk but said it’s in the seven-figure range. According to terms of the deal, which closed on May 21, a member of the Florida Funders network who has experience in EdTech will take a seat on the ChalkTalk board.

“Once we started doing our due diligence, we gained more and more confidence in Mo and his team,” Whittemore added. “We really felt that having a platform that the district superintendents, teachers and students all liked is a big win. If any of those three [groups] are not big fans of it, that makes it much harder to scale. But all three seemed to like it, based on the feedback we got, and that makes for a winning formula.”

It also helps that Florida has already proven to be fertile ground for ChalkTalk’s offering. Arbaji, in the release, stated that “90 percent of our users, including teachers and students, come from the state.” Two of Florida’s largest school districts — Orange County Public Schools and Duval County Public Schools — have adopted the technology. Boston Public Schools is also a client, as is Dysart Unified School District in Arizona’s Maricopa County.

As more school districts have signed on, ChalkTalk’s annual recurring revenue has grown from $45,000 to $1.25 million over the past 11 months — and that’s without a formal sales team in place.

“Education in America is broken,” Florida Funders Managing Partner Tom Wallace stated in the release. “ChalkTalk has taken both an innovative and technology-driven approach to helping teachers be more effective both in the classroom and remotely.”

He added, “ChalkTalk is seeing the most traction in Florida. With the state having some of the largest school districts in the US, including Miami-Dade, ChalkTalk is quickly evolving from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have’ for both teachers and students.”

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