Entrepreneur Bodo Hoenen felt powerless when his daughter, Lorelei, was diagnosed with a rare muscular degenerative condition that left her paralysed in her left arm. He knew that technology to help his daughter existed, but it wasn’t accessible.
“There was little we could do, the doctors didn't really have any solutions,” he says. “We did find out that there were brain-controlled exoskeletons being developed behind closed doors at research labs, but unfortunately the labs weren't able to share any information with us.”
He decided to take matters into his own hands and build his own.
The work eventually became his company, Lille-based edtech startup Nolej. One of the company’s products is an AI education tool that its founders say will let you achieve any learning goal in the most efficient way possible. The other product is already bringing in revenue. And they’ve just raised €3m from Educapital and Square Knowledge Ventures.
So, how did Hoenen go from exoskeletons to edtech?
Building the exoskeleton
Hoenen, who had sold his last startup to Google in 2013, had been working on a new project that he says was trying to use AI to “tap into collective intelligence to rapidly accelerate the way we can learn things.”
The vision was: allow the user to set any learning objective they could think of, and use AI to design a curriculum and learning materials — as well as connecting them with the relevant experts — to help them get there. Now Hoenen had an exoskeleton-shaped beta test on his hands.
“We want to build a brain controlled exoskeleton, so what are all the components that go into that? We need to learn how to 3D print, we need to know everything we could about brain signal processing, we need to know about brain machine interfaces,” he explains.
“We mapped those out and then we looked for resources that could potentially teach us about those granular components and also identified who are the experts at those granular components?”
From concept to product
Within a year, and with the help of experts at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) who lent their expertise in brain signal processing, Hoenen had built a working prototype exoskeleton for his daughter.
Cofounder Vincent Favrat tells Sifted that the project demonstrates how traditional education can be too rigid for people who need to learn something as fast as possible.
“If Bodo had done this the traditional way he’d still be stuck in the first year of a medicine degree,” he says.
Now Nolej is working to get a beta version of this tool ready for summer 2024. Favrat says that generative AI will be able to automatically identify all of the gaps in the user’s knowledge between them and their goal, and recommend experts to help them get there (with the experts getting paid for their contributions).
This ambitious edtech product, which will be sold to both individuals and educational institutions, promising learners a fast track route to reach their goals, is just one side of Nolej’s business model. The startup has built another AI-powered tool that it launched in July and is already being used by 50k teachers, via partnerships with schools and local governments in both France and the US.
The tool, called NolejAI, essentially lets teachers automatically create learning resources (like worksheets and quizzes) based on material like YouTube videos or news articles.
“We directly bring the tool to 625 schools and all of their teachers,” says Favrat. “We’ve already booked €1m in contracts for 2023.”
Nolej is one of a number of startups that are using generative AI to help automate the design of learning resources — others include New York-based Articulate and Dubai-based Easygenerator.
Favrat says that he believes Nolej has “first mover advantage,” having begun work on the product in 2019, before ChatGPT hysteria set in. He adds that he believes that this has allowed his team to build a “mature” product, with strong guardrails against creating inaccurate learning material.
Favrat says the team has achieved this through a process of cross-checking, where the AI essentially checks its factual outputs against the information provided in the source material.
“We have cross-validation processes to make sure that it's accurate, we take the source document as the ground truth,” he says.
The team will be using this fresh capital to continue developing its products, and to make key go-to-market hires in Brazil, its next target market.
Nolej will face stiff competition for its market-ready tool, as more and more edtech startups build AI into their offerings, while it’s yet to prove whether the more ambitious teach-you-anything product will be scaleable, when it relies on external expert participation.
Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s already made a big difference to Lorelei’s life.