Edtech has boomed since the start of lockdown as teaching has moved online, giving many startups a golden opportunity to grow their user base.
One such startup is Norfolk-based Developing Experts, a digital education platform for kids aged four to 14, which has seen a rapid growth in membership over the past year.
During lockdown, the startup made its entire bank of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) lessons free to use for schools struggling with remote teaching. More than 2.4k schools signed up, and over 80k students accessed the lessons — almost doubling the company’s user base in the process and earning its founder and CEO, Sarah Mintey, an MBE for services to technology and education.
Sifted spoke to Mintey about how to solve the UK’s STEM skills gap, and why Norfolk’s tightknit community of founders and angel investors was key for its growth.
Bringing employers to schools
Mintey, a former headteacher, cofounded Developing Experts in 2015 with the goal of bringing the science curriculum to life for students.
The startup has since grown its digital curriculum to more than 700 lesson plans for primary and secondary school teachers in biology, physics and chemistry on a membership basis. The platform also provides teachers with a dashboard so they can assess and track student progress in real time.
But it’s Developing Experts’ emphasis on careers that sets it apart; it partners with STEM organisations like Shell, Airbus and Network Rail, who sponsor schools to join the platform and pay to place relevant work experience opportunities in Developing Experts’ careers library.
The idea, says Mintey, is to bridge the gap between businesses and schools, letting students know what opportunities lie ahead and providing a clear pathway for young people to gain employment.
We show how STEM in schools can lead to real careers for anyone, regardless of background.
“We show how STEM in schools can lead to real careers for anyone, regardless of background. We make it simple for employers to recruit, simple for teachers to teach and simple for students to get involved and get excited about their careers,” says Mintey.
Closing the UK’s STEM gap
The UK has long faced a shortage of STEM skills in its workforce. A pre-pandemic study by education provider STEM Learning estimated a shortfall of 173k skilled workers in 2018, with 89% of STEM businesses struggling to recruit. More than half (56%) of those surveyed expected the situation to get worse over the next 10 years — and that’s without factoring in Covid-19’s impact.
“Since the pandemic outbreak the jobs market has changed. Career choice can no longer be left to chance. Countries and industries around the world need to strategically plan for their future economic growth, with future talent pipelines aligned to strategic development goals,” says Mintey.
Since the pandemic outbreak the jobs market has changed. Career choice can no longer be left to chance.
To aid this, Developing Experts recently secured government funding from Innovate UK to create an AI reporting dashboard. The dashboard will help its partners track STEM talent pipelines, with the aim of increasing gender and ethnic diversity in STEM industries. The edtech startup is also working on contracts with the Nuclear Strategy Steering Group and the National Skills Academy for Rail to develop their career and skills strategies.
Developing Experts is also growing internationally. It’s recently secured a contract with the Chinese government to develop STEM-based teaching resources in Mandarin, and has plans to expand into India and the US.
Norfolk’s startup ecosystem
Despite its global pull, Developing Experts is attached to its local roots. Mintey was born in Norfolk and chose to base Developing Experts there with cofounder and CTO Shane Morgan. The startup has grown to eight employees, and is on course to expand rapidly over the next year — but there are no plans to move away from the region as it grows.
“I’m committed to this part of England. The lifestyle, community, network of friends and talent here is second to none,” she says.
I’m committed to this part of England. The lifestyle, community, network of friends and talent here is second to none.
Developing Experts has partnered with a range of universities nationally, including the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, building a network of emerging local business and STEM leaders. “The University of East Anglia has been instrumental in the growth of our company, with executive MBA students writing our market entry strategy for the Indian market,” Mintey says. “We also benefit from being part of the university’s student placement scheme, with PhD science students able to complete a placement with us.”
The University of East Anglia has been instrumental in the growth of our company
Also integral to Developing Experts’ success was winning Tech Nation’s 2019 Rising Star award and being selected for Google for Startups 2020 UK Immersion Programme, both of which have provided the startup with valuable networking and business opportunities, says Mintey.
During the Immersion Program last year, Mintey had the pleasure of being mentored by Google’s director of EMEA go-to-market strategy, operations partnerships and privacy. Mintey is delighted that the director has since become a strategic advisor to the company, supporting the business to accelerate its market growth.
But it’s the local startup ecosystem in Norfolk that Mintey believes has driven much of Developing Experts' early success.
“Tech East are real champions of the ecosystem in the Eastern region. The New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership were founding investors in our startup and have been really supportive,” she says. “Norfolk in general has a fantastic network of angel investors — two are on my board and one is my chairman — and I’m grateful for the belief they have had in our company and the support they’ve provided.”
Tech East are real champions of the ecosystem in the Eastern region.
Mintey also recognises the role other startups have had in helping Developing Experts grow, citing the importance Google for Startups’ weekly founders’ stand-up sessions had early on in creating a network of likeminded peers. Mintey says she still meets (virtually) with other tech founders in the region once a week to share lessons and successes.
“Norwich has a rich base of SME businesses who are thriving and are happy to support your growth from the outset. They recognise the growing process all startups go through and know what’s needed at each stage, so we’re learning from them rather than costly consultants,” she adds.
This is the third article in our ‘Local Heroes’ series, where we explore ecosystems and startup communities outside of London through the eyes of founders. You can read the first in our series here, which is about how Edinburgh’s Neatebox builds apps to help disabled people live independently. Read the second article in the series here, which is about how Yorkshire-based Logically uses AI to track disinformation.
Find out more about the Google for Startups UK Immersion programme and startups here.