Synopsis of the finals

48 hours can be a long time in edtech.

The ed-invent advance team gathered early on Friday afternoon to triple check the arrangements for the finalists and mentors over the next 54 hours.

Our venue, The Belfry sat amid a modern extension of the old Cambridgeshire town of Cambourne.

To make the hotel conference room feel a bit more “tech” we raided the St Neot’s Tesco, for flowers (from their extensive Mother’s Day Collection), sweets and treats. Unlike the John Lewis and PC World stores I had visited in London, Tesco had a well-stocked IT section with helpful staff. So to our trollies we added an iPad and keyboard, Hudl and other fun tech products.

The return journey from Cambourne to Cambridge (16 miles) to pick up some mentors and finalists took over two hours crawling through local peak hour traffic. Things looked better on Sunday, until planned engineering works meant rail replacement buses and missed connections. The BBC has recently described Cambridge as the ‘new Silicon Valley’, but without better roads and transport infrastructure, California needn’t worry.

By 7pm almost everyone had arrived and after introductions and a briefing about the structure of the weekend we headed into dinner. The food was good, but after demanding a detailed spreadsheet of all 33 people and their menu choices two weeks before the event, the Belfry’s kitchen was still unable to get it right. There was a similar shambles on Saturday and I was left wondering whether the local catering colleges were subconsciously channelling Fawlty Towers.

Post dinner we repaired to the conference room for more introductions and preliminary chats about the finalists’ ideas before heading to bed for an early start.

Saturday wasn’t one many finalists will forget. Usually they are the ones controlling the learning, but this time they had 15 mentors challenging their ideas from the Why? What? and How? to tech development, procurement, distribution, legal issues, measurement and a million other things. No finalists got exactly the same advice and the mentors were forced to switch finalists several times during the day. The day saw every finalist well outside their comfort zone.

As a change of focus before lunch, Josh Davison of Night Zookeeper and Ben Barton of Zondle gave master classes in pitching edtech ideas using the pitches they had recently been giving to investors. This gave the finalists fantastic examples of how they would have to sell their ideas to the judges on Sunday. Next came Kriss Baird of the Technology Strategy Board and unexpectedly announced TSB’s new £1.1m fund for innovative edtech ideas, which created quite a buzz amongst both the mentors and finalists.

Lunch was a pit stop to refuel bodies and minds in preparation for the afternoon work where the mentors and support team started to shift the focus to helping the finalists start rebuilding their ideas and draft pitches. At 4pm I exiled the mentors to a pre-dinner break to give the finalists some quite time. They looked frazzled, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that none (with one exception) had ever participated in a 54-hour tech weekend. We had deliberately chosen this format as the original idea for ed-invent came out of StartUp Weekend EDU. All of our mentors had been through similar events ranging from StartUp Weekend and hackathons to every variety of tech and edtech event in-between. Several mentors, including Ben Barton, Simon Walsh, Maria Brosnan and Kirsten Campbell-Howes, had to depart to fulfill family and business commitments, but their help had been invaluable and made a substantive difference to all the finalists.

At dinner most finalists and mentors were pretty exhausted but I was stunned to silence when one said to me, ‘As an educator I never thought I would have the opportunity to do something like this. It’s harder than university and has made be refocus on what it’s like to be a student learning a huge amount of new and often complex information’.

This made me quite proud because while we had a clear view of what we wanted ed-invent to deliver, I had forgotten just how much of a risk our participants had taken by participating in a new and untested edtech program. Several had been unable to get permission from their SMT and had taken an annual leave day.

Sunday was a beautiful early summer’s day. The first new mentor to arrive was Jenny Cook of Oddizzi, our guest judge. She was soon followed by Josh Perry of ARK Schools and Alex Goodenough from Big Society Capital.

Our finalists now had just three hours to recheck their ideas and to hone, or in one or two cases, start writing their pitches. Tension were high and the mentors not only facilitated, they also did a terrific job helping a few finalists who were wobbling after 50 hours of almost non-stop stress.

Our judges were:

  • Simon Lebus, Executive Chairman, Cambridge Assessment
  • Mark Dawe CEO, OCR
  • Alison Pearce, Curriculum Leader for ICT and Computing, OCR
  • Jenny Cook, CEO, Oddizzi.

Several people wanted to know why I wasn’t judging and my answer was that after running most of ed-invent and having worked with all the finalists, I wasn’t sure that I could be entirely objective.

Finalists had just three minutes to make their pitch followed by two minutes of questions from the judges. I was the timekeeper and anyone who went over was cut off by the throwing of a large rubber snake.

Of course nothing goes entirely to plan and with 10 minutes to go, the hotel’s projector shut down. In a few minutes uber geek Steev Goodwin hacked the projector software and brought it back to life.

In what seemed a matter of minutes all the finalists had pitched and been questioned by the judges. Tensions were high as the judges went to choose the winners.

Derek Croghan won the £3,000 first prize for Striver, his primary school fitness project, with Martyn Coleman claiming the £1,000 second prize for his data storage idea Deep 6. Each got an oversized cheque and a thunderous round of applause. Simon Lebus then went on to award the tech prizes and internships.

The weekend ended not with boring speeches, but with loads of photos, clapping and quite a few (very uneducational) hugs. It had been a great effort from the finalists and mentors and from John Rance and Alison Pearce of OCR. By 3.30 the room had been emptied of everything including the bean bags, table tennis table and flowers, all of which went to new home with the finalists and mentors.

ed-invent has been in effect an edtech start-up. We’ve had successes and failures, pivoted and tried to create something where we thought a gap existed.  Our goal hasn’t been to try and turn educators into edtech entrepreneurs and get them out of the classroom. It has been to try and create a forum to put the voice of educators at the heart of edtech. We hope that 99% of our alumni will take their experience back into their institutions and share it with their students and colleagues.

Now that we have run the first phase of ed-invent and delivered what I think is a successful finals program, it’s now about planning for the future. As in any start-up raising money is never easy but I’m hope that we will have done enough to convince our supporters to continue our partnership. If not we, like any start-up, may have to (once again) pivot!