Guest Blog

Jewish EdTech: If You Build It, Will They Come?

By Jarred Myers and Nicky Newfield on August 9th, 2017

This is part 10 of the series in eJewishPhilanthropy, Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.

Developing the Jewish EdTech ecosystem requires an agile investment approachThe optimal framework for this is an application of the Lean startup methodologyoftenreferred to in the social sector as the Lean Impact Methodology.


Our previous article discussed the importance of an ecosystem; let’s take a closer look at the strategies and tools needed for creating a specifically Jewish EdTech ecosystem. It begins with asking the right questions…

In this post, we’ll look at the benefits of an agile investment approach to the Jewish EdTech space. We’ll also consider the limitations of traditional accelerator programs for niche sectors, and investigate how to tweak the approach for Jewish EdTech in particular. The post will conclude with a working hypothesis expressing the author’s vision for a reinvigorated Jewish education environment.

Applying intuition scientifically

Developing the Jewish EdTech ecosystem requires an agile investment approach. The optimal framework for this is an application of the Lean start-up methodology, often referred to in the social sector as the Lean Impact Methodology. The approach is intuitive and rigorous. Just as a scientist sets hypotheses and tests them experimentally, the Lean Impact innovator will set a hypothesis with three potential outcomes: validated (yes), invalidated (no) or unclear (maybe) results. If tests show that the hypothesis is supported by evidence, the innovator has reason to scale up the operation. If tests show the hypothesis to be false, the innovator should revise the hypothesis. Unclear results call for revised tests. This way, testing enables the innovator to make step-by-step evidence-based decisions.

Step 1. Hypothesis: We believe that… Step 1. Hypothesis: We believed that…
Step 2. Test: To verify that, we will… Step 2. Observation: We observed…
Step 3. Metric: And measure… Step 3. Learning and insights: From that we learned that…
Step 4. Criteria: We are right if… Step 4. Decisions and actions: Therefore we will…

Interactive Whiteboards by PolyVision

The Lean Impact methodology is not a magic formula for finding optimum solutions. The answers will only be as good as the questions, a topic addressed in an earlier article in this series. The learning process proceeds by asking questions (“hypothesis generation”), effectively testing the hypothesis, and then extracting meaningful lessons from the conclusions. Successfully following this approach requires agility, flexibility, and humility.

How does this fit into the broader impact objective

The lean impact model described above is the best way to accelerate innovation in the sector. Once effective solutions are identified the next step is to catalyze these innovations by supporting scale-up efforts. And finally, those initiatives which prove impactful and scalable require support to achieve sustainability. Currently, the bottleneck is innovation, and it is for this reason that we’re focused on accelerating innovation.

For funders who are uncomfortable with the risks associated with innovation and experimentation there is still room to meaningfully contribute. This can be achieved by supporting knowledge management and best practices about effective solutions. And also by actively participating in mobilization of resources for scaling and sustaining successful innovations.

Finding solutions that work

Traditional accelerator models are well understood, particularly in the technology sector where they have been refined over decades. There are by now clearly defined benchmarks for impact investing in terms of what constitutes an outcome and how to achieve outcomes.

However, the rigorous selection processes that make incubator models so powerful creates a blind spot for niche sectors such as Jewish EdTech. In a robust ecosystem, innovation can be driven successfully by developing more accelerators in conjunction with impact funds. However, such extremely selective winnowing practices depend on an adequate supply of innovators, opportunities and funding to produce successful entrepreneurial ventures. The model is effective in major commercial sectors, but seldom works in smaller sectors, such as education.

Advancement in the impact investment sector has enabled more accurate filters to select investments and to better monitor real impact. However, the model’s stringency can also be a limitation. The model assumes that optimizing the selection process is the path to success, which is only true when there are adequate candidates to select from. In niche markets, optimizing selection will often produce zero opportunities that meet the required criteria. Understanding this “market failure” is fundamental to building solutions for the “real world” rather than “ideal world”.

Experience has taught us that for-profit companies often have the skills but not the incentives to address social problems and not-for-profits have the desire to address social problems but lack a business model for operational effectiveness. This realization led us to develop a hybrid methodology, which acknowledges both the limits of the market and the social imperative of addressing those problems.

Impactful Investing

By shifting the emphasis from the traditional testing standards – whether or not you have a viable business model – to an emphasis on can you get the job done, we are able to target the most appropriate revenue models that support the best solutions, regardless of whether they are not-for-profit or for-profit enterprises. Many problems can only be served through social fundingsince a viable market will never existbut the methodology at least ensures these solutions will be optimal in terms of impact.

The methodology seeks to answer different questions as potential solutions emerge:

  • Which innovations work
  • How can effective solutions be scaled-up
  • What is the optimal funding structure to maximize impact potential of effective scalable solutions

We’ve looked at how to construct an approach that asks the right questions in order to find effective solutions. What would this look like in practice?

We can use the methodology to create an ecosystem heat map that maps out what our ecosystem contains and what is missing, providing a broad overview that enables data-driven decision making at an ecosystem level.

Then we develop a heat map of the ecosystem maturity, with green, orange and red indicating decreasing levels of maturity in that order. The example below has zoomed in on the Day Schools segment:

Green = most mature | Orange = medium level of maturity | Red = least mature

Data driven insights will emerge from the heat map, such as:

  • If we create content for school-age children will we bottleneck in implementation?
  • How can we develop the “implementation” vertical in Grades 3-9 where we have better content already available?
  • How would our funding strategy need to change to achieve this?

Having identified “Implementation” as a constraint in our example, we can further drill down into focus areas to identify opportunities to promote effective change:

We’ve developed a theoretical model to illustrate how the process would be applied to the Jewish EdTech Ecosystem. Of course, the following analysis is not an actual assessment of the ecosystem, but simply serves to demonstrate the methodology in practice.

Building knowledge for the ecosystem

We start with an overview of the ecosystem:

Putting a program in action

We can extract valuable action points from the report, Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy

The report recommends eight “Best Bet Investing Strategies”:

  1. Invest in collaboration among the best of existing Jewish EdTech producers
  2. Partner with companies and organizations already active in the EdTech space
  3. Invest limited funds in pooled EdTech investment funds
  4. Track and commission EdTech products that emerge from the general EdTech space for the Jewish audience
  5. Invest significant grants in developing new content using “Big/Proven Talent” and general EdTech companies
  6. Invest with smaller innovation grants and in field building
  7. Invest in crossover opportunities
  8. Infrastructure

The Jewish EdTech ecosystem should follow a lean start-up approach to building the ecosystem. This entails an agile, relatively quick cycle of (1) testing a hypothesis, (2) learning from early results and (3) implementing solutions based on these findings. The hypotheses would be aligned to the learning agenda as mandated by the funding group.

As a first step in generating an ecosystem heat map, in the coming months we’ll be launching a centralized product and service index to inform and empower this methodology.

Our recommended investment approach includes prioritizing the following four recommendations:

  • Partner with companies and organizations already active in the EdTech space Invest in collaboration among the best of existing Jewish EdTech producers
  • Commission EdTech products that emerge from the general EdTech space for the Jewish audience
  • Invest limited funds in pooled EdTech investment funds
  • Invest with smaller innovation grants and in field building

Jarred Myers manages an Innovation Portfolio for a Private Family Foundation, using venture philanthropy and mission investing tools, he focusses on technology driven solutions for education and employment. Nicky Newfield is the Founder and Executive Director of Jewish Interactive and is a trustee of the Glatt Charitable Foundation.


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