SoftBank puts money in India’s Unacademy as online learning spikes

SoftBank’s money is coming from Vision Fund 2, a successor to its initial US$100bil fund.

BANGALORE: SoftBank Group Corp is leading a round of venture investment in India’s education startup Unacademy, boosting its valuation to US$1.45bil as online learning surges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Investors in the US$150mil funding include existing backers Facebook Inc and Sequoia Capital, while SoftBank’s money is coming from Vision Fund 2, a successor to its initial US$100bil fund.

The startup’s valuation is tripling from US$510mil in February.

Bangalore-based Unacademy has distinguished itself in test preparation classes by recruiting star teachers who help attract ambitious students taking everything from civil service and banking exams to programming languages.

As classrooms shut during the pandemic, demand has soared for the startup and hundreds of other virtual learning companies in India.

Byju’s, which focuses on K-12 online education, is raising funds at a valuation of more than US$10bil, Bloomberg News has reported.

“In a young country where only privileged urban Indians could reach exam prep experts, Unacademy has democratised knowledge, ” said Gaurav Munjal, the startup’s 29-year-old co-founder.

Unacademy now has 30 million registered users and 350,000 paying subscribers, almost four times as many as in February. The platform has more than 18,000 registered educators.

Munjal started Unacademy as a hobby on YouTube in 2010 when he began offering Java coding lessons while still an engineering student. He became one of the most-followed people on Quora for questions about computer science.

He founded and sold two other startups before deciding to try building Unacademy into a business.

Today, Unacademy has videos and live-class sessions, where students can query teachers or exchange notes with each other. Every fourth class is dedicated to taking student questions, and mock tests are scheduled every weekend.

Courses range from US$20 a month for exam preparation for government-owned banks or Indian railways to US$150 a month for the tests to enter civil service jobs or elite engineering schools. It’ has expanded into pastry-making classes and chess tutorials.

“Good teachers whose classes were only accessible to the rich and well connected are now available online to people like me, ” said Siddharth Jena, a 25-year-old from a city without expert coaching centres who will try to crack the civil service exam next month.

Teacher Sharad Kothari, spent two decades teaching organic chemistry to classrooms of more than a hundred students in the western Indian town of Kota, a hotspot for test prep schools to get into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology.

Now with Unacademy, Kothari thinks online is a powerful medium for learning, given the ability to scale classes and introduce supportive technologies.

“Initially, I struggled to teach online as there were no students in front of me, there was no energy, ” said Kothari, who estimates prominent teachers earn upwards of US$125,000 a year. But no longer.

“Anybody with a smartphone can sign up for my class and my reach is massive.”

Munjal said his dream was to turn his startup into a unicorn – techspeak for a valuation of US$1bil or more – while in his twenties. He turns 30 on Sept 8. — Bloomberg

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