Tampa-based educational technology firm Knack has closed a $1.5 million seed round that included several well-known local investors alongside funders from Boston and Silicon Valley.
The capital raise will allow Knack to amplify its sales and marketing efforts and tackle a new partnership strategy with greater speed, said Samyr Qureshi, Knack co-founder and CEO.
Knack, with an app and technology to connect students in tutoring and mentoring relationships on more than 40 college campuses, now has begun working directly with universities that want to boost their performance metrics and with corporations that are looking for good workers.
“A consumer business becomes difficult without raising a ton of capital,” Qureshi said. “We realized that while it was a viable path, there was a larger opportunity. I would call it a pivot and also an evolution.”
The company’s formal announcement today was previewed by Qureshi in a September interview with the St. Pete Catalyst.
Accounting and consulting giant PwC and Tampa software developer ConnectWise are among the first companies to work with Knack, and will subsidize the cost of tutoring. Lynn University in Boca Raton and Arizona State University are the initial academic partners, with another six to eight schools expected to be added in the first half of 2019, Qureshi said.
Arizona State University Enterprise Partners was among the investors in the just-closed seed round, which was co-led by Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Fenway Sports Group partner, alongside Charles Hudson’s seed fund, Precursor Ventures in San Francisco.
Other investors in the round include Bisk Ventures, the corporate venture arm of Bisk Education; Doug Feirstein, the founder of Hired, uSell, and Liveops; Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer and chair of Tampa BayWave; Tom DiBenedetto, a partner in the Fenway Sports Group; PAR Inc. in Tampa; and Elysium Venture Capital in Palo Alto.
“It’s important to have local support,” Qureshi said. “We love to be part of this community not just from a product and services standpoint but from a financial backing standpoint as well.”
Knack launched two years ago with a direct-to-student model. Its app helped students who needed tutoring find and directly pay other students who could provide that service.
Knack now will also license its technology to universities — many of which already have on-campus tutoring centers, but can use Knack’s technology as a supplement, filling in gaps and increasing coverage for courses they may not have the money or resources to cover.
The model is based on universities’ financial interest in student success.
“Beyond the natural expectation of students graduating and getting jobs, there are performance-based funding metrics for universities,” Qureshi said. “Every state does it differently. In order to get funding, your graduation rate, retention rates, and first year out of college salary have to be at a certain level. By directly increasing access to peer tutoring, coaching, mentoring and advising, they have a better shot to lift those rates.”
Knack also found that its tutors were getting jobs at nationally sought-after companies that value the communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills they developed.
“We realized we’ve gotten good at recruiting high-caliber students, so we should reach out to corporations and see if they are interested in this talent,” Qureshi said.
Corporations that subsidize the tutoring are building a long-term pipeline of talent, for both internships and full-time jobs, he said. “They have the opportunity to engage students in a way that’s more responsible than the typical career fair.”
Students still pay for tutoring, but at a lower cost, Qureshi said.
For ConnectWise, working with Knack is part of the company’s dedication to social corporate responsibility, said Jennifer Locklear, chief talent officer.
“Partnering with Knack was such an easy decision. It gives us not only the chance to engage top tier talent, but also the opportunity to invest in our future workforce and leaders who will, in turn, help us create a better tomorrow,” Locklear said in a prepared statement.
Both Arizona State and Lynn University also are enthusiastic about the new partnerships.
“We are excited to leverage Knack to help our students improve their grades, create flexible campus jobs for our high-achievers, and enable additional pathways for post-graduate employment and corporate engagement,” said Gregg Cox, vice president of academic affairs at Lynn University.
Knack is hiring aggressively, Qureshi said. The company currently has seven full-time employees in Tampa and wants to bring on two senior engineers who can help Knack keep up with customer demand, and keep its technology up to date.