Tao Mantaras, co-founder and chief financial officer of BibliU, tells GUV editor Thierry Heles how his company is fundamentally changing academic publishing and the learning experience.
Anyone who has been a university student will remember how expensive it can be to pay for textbooks on a reading list, or how difficult it can be to find the one chapter that will prove highly relevant for an essay when using a library’s search system. The experience may not be quite as dreadful as scouring through physical library cards anymore, but – especially considering a smartphone has more computing power than space agency Nasa had at its disposal to send mankind to the moon – can easily feel like the dark ages.
Enter BibliU, a New York and London-based edtech platform fresh from a rebranding effort last Tuesday from its original name of Bibliotech. Global University Venturing sat down with Tao Mantaras, chief financial officer and one of three co-founders, to talk about the company’s origins, its $4.2m seed round backed by university venture fund Oxford Sciences Innovation last year and its ambitions for the future.
BibliU’s proposition is deceptively simple: universities subscribe to the service for an annual fee and students can access the materials on their reading list. The company shares its revenue from its institutional deals with academic publishers, of which it has partnered more than 2,000 to date – including global giants such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Macmillan, Elsevier and Wiley.
The company, which won the Future Planet Awards 2019 run in partnership with Global University Venturing at the GCV Symposium in May, was co-founded by Mantaras, chief executive David Sherwood, a Rhodes scholar, and chief technology officer Daniel Engelke.
left to right: Daniel Engelke, David Sherwood and Tao Mantaras
“We were all at the same residential hall back in Perth, Western Australia, and became close friends during university,” Mantaras explained. “The idea of BibliU was really borne out of the frustrations of being students ourselves – we found the cost of textbooks extremely high and on top of that the medium through which we went about our learning – the textbook – was inefficient and outdated.”
Showing their entrepreneurial spirit and tapping into their digital native skills, the three quickly figured out that academia was not just outdated in and of itself, but was also far behind all other types of content.
“If you look at any other type of content – be it the news, music or videos – the experience you have when engaging with any of them is both aggregated and personalised,” Mantaras explained.
He offered the example of Apple News, a subscription service that gives users access to a wide range of publications through the smartphone. “You open the app and immediately have access to thousands of stories from a range of different publications. Stories are personalised based on your preferences and you are never restricted to reading from any one publisher.
“Compare that to the way students are going about their learning – it is very much a one-size-fits-all model where the student reads from the textbook their professor assigned them. We wanted to change this and really revolutionise the way students engaged with their educational content.”
BibliU is headquartered in London, which may appear an obvious choice for a startup whose origins can be traced to University of Oxford, but the journey to London was actually a whopping 9,000 miles – Mantaras, Sherwood and Engelke all hail from Perth.
“It is an amazing city, with gorgeous weather and beautiful beaches,” Mantaras reminisced, “but it is extremely remote. Coming to London connected us to the rest of the world, especially being an edtech company.
“The UK is quite unique in that there are 160 institutions densely packed within the country and you can feasibly visit several in a single day. This made it a great place for us to start an education company. We also had an affiliation with University of Oxford through Sherwood, and subsequently Oxford University Press (OUP).”
Starting in 2016, Mantaras said, “the first year and a half was spent building out the platform, testing various business models and signing content from our first major publishers”.
Easier said than done, Mantaras acknowledged, as the company suffered from a chicken-and-egg problem – without content from academic publishers, they could not sell their platform to universities, but without metrics showing they had a workable business model, publishers were not willing to turn over their materials.
“It was really quite frustrating,” Mantaras said, “but we managed to get over that hurdle by signing a small portion of content from OUP and using it to prove that our business model worked.”
The early success convinced OUP to open up its full catalogue – no small feat for Mantaras, Sherwood and Engelke, as it is the world’s largest academic publisher. That, in turn, led to other publishers slowly signing over their content – today, the publishers on BibliU’s platform cover some 95% of reading lists.
Having solved the initial challenges, the company spent the following 18 months selling its product to universities, initially focusing on the UK but lately also expanding into North America. It has now partnered more than 40 institutions, with clients including University of Oxford, Imperial College London, New York University and Grand Canyon University.
“We have been able to scale very quickly over the past two years, having grown more than 700% year-on-year” Mantaras said. “We focus on the UK and North America primarily, but have had inbound interest from universities globally, including Southeast Asia and mainland Europe.”
The deal offered to universities is very much a personalised package, Mantaras explained.
“First, we look at how many students require access, and second, we consider how many books are required per student. So it is not a flat fee for all students across all subject areas – it depends on the institution’s reading list.”
“The university sends us their list and we upload that content to the platform. We integrate with all learning management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas and library search systems to ensure the content is readily available to students. The university will pay for a 12-month term up front.”
Giving the end-user free access to textbooks might be revolutionary to the student body, but a “Spotify for textbooks”, as the company has been called by University of Oxford in the past, would not actually be a ground-breaking proposition – at least not one netting the company a Future Planet Award and the co-founders the personal recognition of making it on to the Forbes 30 under 30 list earlier this year.
What makes BibliU so intriguing are the platform’s data analytics capabilities.
Publishers were – eventually – happy to turn over their content when they realised that it would double their revenue. As Mantaras explained: “Traditionally they would have seen roughly 25% sell-through within a class – meaning out of 100 students only about 25 would have actually bought the book new with the remaining 75 resorting to the second-hand market.
“On average, we see a 95% sell-through – so that is almost a fourfold increase in sales for the publishers. As a result, publishers are willing to give us extremely high discounts on content – up to 50% – which we then pass on to the institution and their students.”
Those analytics capabilities drive a significant amount of innovation. “We pride ourselves on the data analytics we offer to both our institutional partners and publishers.”
For publishers, BibliU’s ability to generate heatmaps and identify which chapters a student might find outdated or too complex is of fantastic value to an industry that traditionally has had no insight into the end-user’s experience of its products. In the longer term, the company also hopes to offer benchmarking tools for publishers to understand how their content fares in an industry-wide context.
“For students, we are revolutionising content discovery, changing the way information is consumed and retained. Students can use our search feature to instantly search across their entire library and pull out the most relevant learning object – that can be a definition, a specific example or a figure.
“We use machine learning to help boost results depending on relevancy to the student in question. We look at a number of different data inputs to personalise these results including past preferences, what their peers search for, and so on.”
The personalised approach means a student’s behaviour will adapt to search actively for what they are trying to learn, and thanks to BibliU’s algorithms, they are guided down the most efficient pathway for their specific learning curve.
The third part of the equation is the university, which can tap into the data to identify students at risk of dropping out and put measures into place to increase retention rates.
This unique proposition of satisfying the needs of all three users allowed BibliU to attract $4.2m in seed funding in September 2018, a rouund that featured Oxford Sciences Innovation, University of Oxford Innovation Fund, managed by Parkwalk Advisors, Paul Forster, former CEO and founder of job advertising platform Indeed, and Fritz Demopoulos, former CEO and founder of travel website Qunar.
“Oxford Sciences Innovation has been a great early investor – they have helped open doors through their network and have always been aligned with our long-term vision,” Mantaras noted.
“Paul Forster and Fritz Demopoulos have both built businesses from the ground up so there is no better place to get founder advice from. They have been extremely supportive and always willing to act as sounding boards.”
The advice has clearly been invaluable, not just because of BibliU’s dramatic scale over the past few months, but also because the company is currently in the midst of raising a new round and Mantaras was quick to point out that it was still not all about capital.
“We look for investors who can add value in more ways than just financial capital. We want investors who have experience in helping businesses scale and who can help navigate that next phase of growth.”
Forbes’ recognition of Mantaras, Sherwood and Engelke came at an opportune moment, creating a buzz around the company just as it was gearing up to pitch to investors. Beyond the media and investor interest, the 30 under 30 network itself has also proved helpful, Mantaras added.
“I have connected with a bunch of really interesting founders who are all part of the alumni of the list. I know there are a number of events that Forbes hosts throughout the year, but other founders are always happy to connect over a coffee or a call.”
When asked whether he had a deadline in mind for the funding round to close, Mantaras laughed and quipped: “As a founder? Yesterday.”
However, he offered reassurances that the company had a strong runway and was under no immediate pressure to close the round – acknowledging that due diligence processes could drag out over months. That can only be good news for the company’s 20 “highly ambitious” employees, who are split between an office in London and New York, with Mantaras spending an increasing amount of time across the pond as BibliU expands in North America. Sherwood, he added, was largely based in New York now.
While details of the funding round are being kept under wraps for now, Mantaras’s enthusiasm, the company’s trajectory to date and its potential for transforming higher education leave no doubt that investors must be flocking to the company. Keep an eye on GUV to find out more as soon as it is official.