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Early childhood ventures get a leg up from new Colorado initiative

The opportunity and return on investment for these ventures is unparalleled in the edtech space


Education, thanks to the advent of technology, has rapidly evolved in recent years, giving rise to new verticals and ecosystems — edtech and, most recently, early childhood development. And, these ventures are becoming quite profitable. According to education news publication, EdSurge, edtech ventures raised nearly $1.66 billion across 105 deals in 2019, and government spending investments in early childhood development ventures increased 17% and private capital investments have increased 12% since 2016. 

Just one reason for the increased interest in early childhood ventures, which serve children between the age of 0 and 10, is that the return on investment is much greater. According to reports, for each dollar invested, the returns are between $4 and $9 for the individual, plus there are long-term benefits. Investments in technologies and solutions that serve the early stage of children’s lives can impact future learning capacity, behaviors and physical and mental health. 

But out of all the edtech ventures, early childhood sees the least amount of funding, which is why Colorado is pushing to be at the forefront of early childhood development with the introduction of Futurebound. Futurebound is a new initiative focused on building a thriving ecosystem comprised of startups, educators, healthcare practitioners, researchers, policymakers, funders, child care workers and for-profits/nonprofits. 

At the recent Fort Collins Startup Week a number of these stakeholders — including the Futurebound founding director Sarabeth Berk —  gathered to discuss the state’s burgeoning ecosystem. The discussion also included Bryon Bhagwandin, co-founder and CEO of Recalibrate Solutions, a startup looking to develop a monitoring test for identifying chronic stress in young kids; Liz Oertle, co-founder and CEO of Nanno, a startup building an on-demand childcare app; and Savannah Johnson, the program manager of Uncharted, a social impact accelerator in Denver that is partnered with Futurebound. 

The opportunity for the ventures that serve children under the age of five is untapped. Only 2% of public education funding goes to kids under the age of five and there are eight times fewer companies in early education compared to K-12 education. "Now is the time to catalyze this," Berk says. According to the panelists, while the opportunity is there and the existing startup and education community in Colorado is open to innovation in this space, there are definite improvements to be made. 

“I feel a tremendous amount of support, I feel momentum. People love what we’re doing and what to know more, we’re finding a lot of open doors” Bhagwandin says. “People are starting to see the value of investing in children, but we’re selling futures. It’s hard to articulate the value you’re getting for the investment.” 

For Oertle and Nanno, while Denver served as the perfect test market, their growth is limited by the lack of resources (including funding) in the city. “Denver is a good market because there are a lot of families that stay within 20 miles of downtown; it was a great place to launch, a great petri dish, but to grow beyond Denver has been a challenge,” Oertle says. “It is really hard to grow a high-growth, fast-paced company in Colorado; the resources just aren’t here. The ecosystem is really needed here.” 

With the creation of Futurebound, discussions like these (as well as discussions had at the initiative’s inaugural summit in November 2019) are helping drive the ecosystem toward meeting the needs of ventures like Recalibrate Solutions and Nanno. Through these discussions, the initiative has established a number of goals including attracting deal flow, new capital, research and talent by continuing to engage the entire ecosystem. 

On the way to meeting these goals, Futurebound has been studying the landscape and taking an inventory of all the Colorado ventures working on early childhood development problems to identify what exists and what the health is of the connections between them. In addition, it is hosting a monthly meetup, plans to host additional summits in the future, is building pilot program partners and has launched an acceleration lab with 18 ventures in partnership with Uncharted and Gary Community Investments. 

With this focus and drive, the initiative is attempting to achieve “radical disruption,” according to Johnson. “Social entrepreneurship is the only thing that will bring changes to the things we want to change. The early development years are so critical and the market is untapped.” It is the belief of the initiative that bringing together disparate groups in the space will enhance the vibrancy of these ventures, find new interconnectedness between the stakeholders and shift mindsets and cultures to allow for more early childhood ventures to emerge (and find success).  

“Social entrepreneurship is solving our biggest problems while also generating capital,” Berk says. “Futurebound is a movement of changemakers fueling innovation in early child development. Colorado is the place to do this: We have a huge startup community, collectively the environment is right, so why don’t we focus the state’s innovation on early education.” 

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Ali Longwell

Ali Longwell is the digital editor at ColoradoBiz. She has also written for SDxCentral, a B2B online technology publication, as well as Denver-area lifestyle magazines 5280, Denver Life Magazine, Avid Lifestyle and more. She can be reached at alongwell@cobizmag.com

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