Numbers game: Indian start-up aims to capture global maths market

by Jeremy

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The lockdown has brought the digital divide to the forefront, especially in the K12 segment. (Representative Image)

India’s contribution to the development of mathematics has been substantial—especially to the modern decimal number system, and many arithmetic and algebraic techniques.

Now, an Indian edtech start-up is aiming to capture a substantial share of the global mathematics education market (K12), on the back of unprecedented growth it has seen during the pandemic. “In the last financial year we grew 3x, and the aim is to grow more than 3x in this year,” Manan Khurma, the founder & CEO of Cuemath told FE. “Most of that growth will come from global markets.”

Cuemath is present in 20-odd countries, and it wants to reach over 50 countries by the end of this year. This plan includes strengthening its presence in North America, APAC, UK and Europe, and the Middle East, as well as entering countries in Africa and South America. “We would also explore inorganic growth,” he said.

While Khurma didn’t share Cuemath’s revenues, the start-up (founded in 2014) has raised $67 million so far. “We are not profitable yet, and would go in for a couple of rounds of funding in this calendar year,” he said.

Indian teachers

Within mathematics education, one of the largest players globally is the Japanese Kumon. Before the pandemic, Kumon—whose model is largely bricks-and-mortar centres—was generating revenues of over $1 billion annually. “I believe Kumon’s curriculum is not up-to-date with what the kids need today,” Khurma said. “Our curriculum is accredited by STEM.org, our learning outcomes are great, and we’re a Google for Education partner … all this gives us huge credibility.”

Mathematics is a universal need and the syllabus is also more or less similar in most countries, but it’s the teachers at Cuemath, which, Khurma believes, give it an edge. “We’ve about 10,000 teachers, some of the best; of all the applications we receive, we select only 3%. While we will hire foreign teachers as we expand, a large chunk will be Indian teachers,” he said.

Indian accent is fairly neutral, and around the world Indians are associated with strong mathematics skills. “Being taught by an Indian is seen as a positive.”

K12 and beyond

In its early years Cuemath catered to primary and middle school students, but now it covers K12. It’s not a test-prep company, but one that helps develop strong mathematics skills in kids, and this indirectly leads to better scores in both school exams as well as entrance tests. “We promise super strong foundation, and good scores in exams are a natural outcome of that,” he said. “At some point we may want to expand to higher education.”

Digital divide

The lockdown has brought the digital divide to the forefront, especially in the K12 segment. Privileged kids were able to continue education online, but the underprivileged lost out. Khurma added that while steps must be taken by the government and large private players—to enhance digital infrastructure and make access to low-cost devices easier—edtech companies can also do a lot. “Free courses can go a long way in attracting and retaining students,” he said. “And so can making such courses that are completely consumed on phones, instead of/in addition to laptops or computers.”

Online versus offline

With Byju’s (India’s largest online edtech start-up) acquiring the three-decade-old bricks-and-mortar coaching centre Aakash Educational Services, and with the pandemic-induced lockdown having shut down such centres temporarily, is it the end of offline coaching centres? Khurma said he doesn’t believe so. “I have talked to hundreds of parents over the last few months and I have a feeling that offline will come back for sure and in a big way. While the acceptance for online classes has gone up, we will see coexisting models—online players offering offline classes and vice-versa. We are also considering this model because prior to the lockdown we used to run offline classes—we had about 5,000 physical micro coaching centres, with teachers operating these out of their homes,” he said.

Edtech and teaching jobs

In an offline classroom, a teacher can teach a few dozen students at one time; on edtech, she can teach hundreds. Does this lead to job losses for teachers? Khurma said, on the contrary, edtech will lead to more teaching jobs. “No matter how much technology you employ, the human elements of empathy and encouragement are needed,” he said. “The role of a teacher may change, but her significance won’t reduce.”

Cuemath wants to employ as many as 1 lakh teachers, and be one of the largest private sector employers in the country. “We aim to create a footprint of 40-50 lakh students globally, and for that we need at least 1 lakh teachers; we will get there in 3-4 years,” he said.
It won’t be easy, but it appears Khurma has done the math.

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