Tech start-ups cram into Singapore’s education sector

Tech start-ups cram into Singapore’s education sector

Start-ups are eyeing a slice of Singapore’s education sector with apps that offer automated homework assistance and the use of data analytics to help students get into their dream colleges.

Miao's founder Betty Zhou and Ong Ze Xuan

SINGAPORE: There is a new breed of technology entrepreneurs looking to cater to the country’s emphasis on education.

By building automated homework assistance tools, online marketplaces to find and book tutors, as well as using data analytics to take a crack at overseas college applications, these education technology (edtech) start-ups hope to disrupt a lucrative market that continues to grow rapidly.

“When we started four years ago, people were like ‘Edtech … what’s that?” Mr Rohan Pasari, CEO and co-founder of local start-up Cialfo, recalled.

It was only in 2013 when things started heating up in the sector as tech behemoths, including Apple and Google, began aggressive moves into the sector. According to a report by EdTechXGlobal and IBIS Capital released last May, the global edtech market is expected to grow 17 per cent a year to hit US$252 billion (S$354 billion) by 2020. While US-based start-ups have attracted the lion’s share of funding thus far, Asia, in particular China, is giving their American counterparts a run for their money with the rapid growth in investments, the report said.

In Singapore, disruption is similarly taking root.

“Disruption in education is already happening,” Mr Pasari said. “There’s a lot more money flowing in … Even though the economy may not be doing as well, people will continue to bet on education because that is one sector that will continue to hold up in a downbeat economy.”

Cialfo, for one, has completed two rounds of funding with another expected to be completed this year. Founded in 2011 by Mr Pasari and his university schoolmate Stanley Chia, Cialfo uses a machine learning algorithm to help students score a place at an overseas university.

Cialfo founders Rohan Pasari and Stanley Chia

University schoolmates Rohan Pasari (right) and Stanley Chia (left) founded Cialfo in 2011. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

After sieving through a student’s profile, the platform generates a shortlist of colleges before in-house consultants work on a checklist that will help increase the student's chance of getting into his or her dream school. Students, parents and consultants can access the platform via a desktop computer and a mobile app to keep track of the process.

According to Mr Pasari, demand for Cialfo’s services has risen over the years and comes from an equal mix of local and foreign students. One of the start-up’s most gratifying moments happened last year when one of its polytechnic students got a nod from both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“We worked with him for about nine months on the college selection process. He is a very bright kid but the problem is, like many polytechnic students, he was to some extent aiming for less. We told him there’s no harm applying to the top colleges. In the end, he was accepted to both and he chose to go to MIT. He was extremely happy and so were we,” Mr Pasari told Channel NewsAsia.

Meanwhile, other start-ups are looking to meet existing gaps in the industry.

Tueetor - an online platform which matches learners and trainers across a range of subjects - aims to provide a faster and cheaper alternative to tuition centres. On Tueetor, users can filter their searches based on courses they are interested in, distance and prices. Since being launched six months ago, the online platform has attracted more than 1,500 trainers teaching close to 300 subjects ranging from mathematics, yoga to cooking.

According to founder Tan Han Sing, the platform offers lower prices, such as maths tuition that starts from hourly rates of S$15 and swimming classes at S$60 per session, due to its ability to do away with the middleman. However, trainers listed on Tueetor are not screened by the start-up. Users will have to depend on the ratings and review section to gauge the credibility of the trainers.

Mr Tan, who founded the start-up in September last year, told Channel NewsAsia that he was hoping to make the search for an academic tutor or sports instructor “as easy as booking a hotel on TripAdvisor or searching for a house on PropertyGuru”.

“For now, tuition centres act as the middleman but we want to automate and quicken these processes … After selecting a trainer, you can instant message the person to gauge if you’re comfortable with him or her. Basically, we want to be a platform like PropertyGuru or TripAdvisor that facilitates the handshake between both parties,” he said.

Tueetor's founder Tan Han Sing

Online platform Tueetor is the brainchild of 47-year-old Tan Han Sing. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Also trying to automate processes is free maths app Miao, which has been downloaded more than 10,000 times since launching its beta version in October.

The app allows users to snap and upload a photo of a maths question. Through the use of machine learning and natural language processing algorithms, the app throws up solutions and other similar practice questions in roughly 10 seconds.

“I was teaching tuition previously and I realised that students always ask questions or make the same mistakes for certain topics or type of questions. You realise that you end up explaining the same thing to different people,” co-founder Betty Zhou said.

“So I thought why not automate that process and with an app like this, students can use it anytime in the day and when there is no one around to ask.”

The app, which covers A-Level maths questions for now, will expand its database to include the O-Level syllabus soon. Co-founder Ong Ze Xuan hopes that the app can move from a “question searching tool” to an “educational aggregator” that can help to level the playing field for students across schools and backgrounds.

“With tuition now seen increasingly as a necessity, we hope this can be a free educational supplement for students who are less financially well-off.”

Maths app Miao

Maths app Miao has been downloaded more than 10,000 times since its beta launch last October. (Photo: Tang See Kit)


While some of these start-ups are still finding their feet in Singapore, some have already set their sights on overseas markets.

Cialfo ventured into China in the fourth quarter of 2016, offering its technology platform to education consultancies and high schools in that market. It has plans to enter another booming Asian market, India, in the near term.

“In terms of investing in technology and education, China is much more willing to spend than India but China requires a lot of localisation. For example, you can’t have a website in China without Chinese but in India, English works fine especially in tier-one cities,” Mr Pasari said.

“Also in China, you need to have a localised server and to have that, you need to have a local entity which took us some time. But in India, we don’t have this problem. So there are pros and cons but these two markets are definitely on our radar,” he added.

For new upstart Miao, while it may not have a specific overseas expansion plan for now, the app is already seeing a substantial number of users from the US and United Kingdom.

One reason is the established brand of the Singapore education system.

“We are based in Singapore with only local content but that has not stopped us from making our name heard in overseas markets because the brand of Singapore’s education system is very attractive overseas. Even in the US, parents are buying school materials from Singapore while many from Southeast Asia are sending their kids to schools here,” Ms Zhou said.

She added: “Besides, there’s no boundary when it comes to maths. If it’s a statistics question, it will be a statistics question no matter which country you’re in.”

Follow See Kit on Twitter: @SeeKitCNA

Source: CNA/sk