Axios Pro Exclusive Content

Exclusive: Sharpen chalks up $11 million for its ed tech platform

School bus with money

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Sharpen, a Concord, Mass.-based reading program focusing on early-risk assessment, raised $11 million in Series A funding, president Jack Kelleher tells Axios exclusively.

Why it matters: In an effort to supplement educational staffing shortages, there is a focus on tech-enabled tools providing a human connection for students.

How it works: Sharpen's digital platform can inform parents of a child's potential reading struggles through assessments of family history and early language development. That sets them up to observe milestones and statistics.

  • It's based on an established reading program that makes up activities and curriculum to provide adaptive learning.
  • The subscription-based model heavily involves parents, which Kelleher says is vital to avoiding the "gamification" of the content.

By the numbers: Nearly 70% of U.S. fourth graders are reading below grade level, according to the latest NAEP National Report Card, and research shows that when at-risk children don't receive early intervention there is a 75% chance they will never achieve reading proficiency.

  • Only in the last five or six years have states started to mandate screening earlier in a child's reading journey, Kelleher says, noting follow-up intervention has lagged.

The big picture: Funding in the ed tech space has been steadily dropping since 2021, per PitchBook, but the sector is projected to see substantial growth globally, in large part due to technology like AI that will reduce costs and open up more opportunities.

  • Jennifer Carolan, co-founder and partner at Reach Capital, says that ed tech funding often mirrors the broader landscape and that there has been an influx of global companies making up Reach's pipeline.
  • "We actually saw our numbers grow a bit, but we also saw fewer deals, fewer transactions and fewer companies being invested in," Carolan says.
  • "People are concerned about cash, people are looking at breakeven scenarios and funders have more pressure," says Kelleher. "Everyone is tightening their belts."

What's next: Companies that are mission driven and understand the high stakes of the education business will differentiate themselves from others, especially as the last tranche of pandemic-related federal and state money is spent by school districts, Carolan says.

Details: Learn Capital led the round.

  • Kelleher says Sharpen is iterating on existing products and also looking at other potential products in the enterprise business.
Go deeper