Sam Bhattacharyya and Tunde Alawode met at MIT where they worked together to establish an edtech startup called dot Learn. In this exclusive interview, Innovation Village spoke with Bhattacharyya who told us about dot Learn, recanted his experience at the “Next Billion Ed-tech competition” at the Global Skills and Education Form in Dubai where they were among the top 3 and much more. Excerpts
Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Sam Bhattacharyya, the co-founder and CEO of dot Learn, an education-technology startup using proprietary video compression technology to make online video-learning fast and affordable in emerging markets. While my parents are from India, I grew up in the US. I have a background in robotics and artificial intelligence, several years of experience in international development in Latin America, as well as an MBA from MIT. Tunde Alawode and I co-founded dot Learn while studying together at MIT, and we invented dot Learn’s core video-compression technology. I’m also a full stack developer, and fluent in 7 languages, including Spanish and Mandarin.
Can you tell us what dot Learn is all about?
Tunde and I co-founded dot Learn in 2016, to make online video learning accessible in places where internet is too slow/expensive to watch online video. We do this through our video-vectorization technology, which reduces the file sizes of videos by 10x to 100x, enabling fast/affordable access even on a 2g connection. Our technology is particularly effective on animations, screencasts, powerpoint lectures, Khan Academy style videos and many other formats commonly found in online video lessons. Companies can use our APIs / web platform to compress their videos, making their videos data-light and easily accessible for their app/website’s users.
What the motivated to set up dot Learn?
We have our own stories for Online Education. I was motivated by my inability to use online learning platforms like coursera or edx, for myself and for my students, while I was working on international development in rural towns in Latin America. Tunde went from Unilag to MIT’s PhD program, partly due to free internet access at Unilag’s library, which enabled him to take online classes from MIT to supplement his undergraduate classes.
How many markets are you located? How has the reception been like in the countries your service is available?
Our APIs can be used by any company anywhere, but we have mostly been used by companies in Africa and Asia. We are still in pilots with our early customers, but the excitement has been palpable, as few e-learning companies in these regions have successfully penetrated the mass-market with video, because of the challenges of data/connectivity fast by most students.
Can you tell us how making affordable videos can improve learning and education?
From first-hand experience, I can tell you that there are still a number of barriers to online-education, at least in Ghana and Nigeria, and one of the biggest is video file sizes. Many students who are studying for the WAEC / WASSCE exam, for example, have a number of options available: School, tutorial centres, private tutors, books, study cds and apps. While tech-enthusiasts would be quick to point out that online-video learning is probably the most scalable, effective way to provide a good education at a low cost for the mass market, students may not think that way. A student who just needs to pass and has several options might try out an app, but if it takes up lots of space on their phone, or consumes all of their data, they will quickly look for a different solution, meaning that these solutions never penetrate the mass market. When you multiply this across all the emerging markets with similarly slow/expensive internet, the problem becomes huge in scale. By solving this problem, we are enabling online-video learning in places where it still isn’t economical for the average student.
Your startup was named among the winners of the Global Skills & Education Forum. Can you tell us about your experience? What are some of the rewards of winning if any?
We were invited by the Varkey foundation to pitch our company at the “Next Billion Ed-tech competition” at the Global Skills and Education Form in Dubai. We competed with 42 other companies from around the world, who are all trying to use ed-tech to challenge pressing problems in education faced by the next billion. After pitching our company to a panel of 5 judges, we were selected as one of the top 6, to pitch in front of a live audience of over 2000 conference attendees, who included Al Gore, Nicholas Sarkozy, and education ministers from many countries, from Ghana to Paraguay to South Africa. Of those top 6, we pitched again and were named one of the 3 winners of the competition, winning $25k and the chance to pilot our technology in one of the partner countries. The experience was extremely helpful, not least to get the word out about our startup, and to reach more ed-tech companies who might be able to use our service.
What are some of the challenges of running your startup?
We are a very technology-focused startup, so part of the challenge is in just developing a robust product. As we refine our technology, we will need more computer-vision specialists on our team for example. Another challenge will be selling to large enterprises when we ourselves are still a small company.
Where do you see your startup in the next 5 years?
We would like to provide our technology to many other ed-tech companies in the developing world, as well as to large global ed-tech companies in the US / China / etc… Our ideal scenario would be to integrate our technology into youtube, thus providing data-light video to youtube’s billions of users around the world in one fell swoop.
What do you have to say to budding entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is like running a marathon through a maze. You need to recognize when to change direction, but be persistent enough to keep going the whole way.