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Atama Plus, the Japanese startup offering AI-based learning materials for cram schools under the same name, announced Wednesday that it has fundraised about 5 billion yen (about $46.4 million US) in a series B round. In addition to existing investors such as DCM Ventures and JAFCO Group, participating investors include the Singapore Government-backed Temasek Holdings’ Pavilion Capital and US-based T. Rowe Price. This has brought the company’s funding sum to date up to about 8.2 billion yen (about $74.6 million).
The learning platform allows users to shorten the time to acquire basic academic skills. It can detect where students are likely to get stuck during learning, so it can teach the teacher when they are likely to get stuck, enabling precise and efficient coaching. It is being used in more than 2,500 classrooms, including Japanese notable cram school chains like the Sundai Group and the Z-kai Group, as it is expected to have a high learning effect.
In July of last year, the company began offering online mock exams, and in December, it launched a joint research group with Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto to link the company’s learning data to the university’s entrance exams. With the latest fund, the company aims to expand its business by increasing employees from the current 160 to 250.
Overseas investors joined the round for the first time
It is rare for foreign funds such as Temasek and T. Rowe Price to invest in privately held Japanese companies, but there have been a few cases in the past, including Studyst and SuperStudio (both from Pavilion Capital), and Freee and Sansan (both from T. Rowe Price).
Global investments (mostly in the US) in the first half of 2021 totaled $288 billion, up significantly from $110 billion in the same period last year. Among these investments, Temasek has invested in 47 companies in the first half of 2021 alone. Temasek invested in 47 companies in the first half of 2021 alone, while T. Rowe Price’s investments totaled $5 billion.
So, why haven’t they paid more attention to Japanese startups so far? As I heard from a local investor, typical overseas investors tend to evaluate deals based on market size. They simply evaluate companies based on their market cap, so the upside is Apple as their market cap hit $2.4 trillion as of this writing.
Manwhile, foreign investors are unlikely to invest in startups which cannot compete in the global arena. Conversely, these investors recognized that Atama Plus CEO Inada and his team could compete globally. In fact, Inada said that the reason for having foreign funds in this round is aiming for a global IPO.
Competing in the global market
According to Inada the global education market is estimated $3.8 trillion, while $226 billion in Japan alone including $9 billion for cram and prep schools. The Yano Research Institute’s report (forecast as of 2019) says that the market of cram schools, prep schools, language learning and qualification courses is estimated to be about $25.3 billion, with Benesse at the top of the industry with sales of about $4 billion while other businesses scattered across the country.
Meanwhile, as shown in the list of unicorns, Asian startups are making remarkable progress in the global education market. In particular, India’s Byju’s (valued at $16.5 billion) and China’s Yuanfudao (valued at $15.5 billion) may be definite rivals for Atama Plus in the global competition because both of the startups were founded back in 2017 when Atama Plus was so. By the way, Japanese largest education company Benesse is valued at about $2.4 billion (as of this writing).
Inada and his team’s idea wants to take a firm position as a top player by starting with cram and prep schools in Japan first (there about 50,000 schools nationwide), while at the same time expanding the business beyond cram and prep school materials, such as online mock exams and the joint project with Ritsumeikan. The platform used to have a problem taking a long time for onboarding, but now it has been streamlined and the introduction to cram and prep schools has become smoother than before.
Inada thinks that the education market in China and India is still under development, and the challenge there is offering better access to education rather than pursuing the quality of learning materials. The inflated valuations of education startups in these markets are much dependent on marketing-led growth but his company may have a better chance of winning the competition with the quality of products, he says.
Merpay’s Aoyagi joined the board
Prior to the latest funding, Merpay CEO Naoki Aoyagi joined the advisory board of Atama Plus. Inada’s intention having him on the board is to learn how to compete in the global market. In the past decade, we haven’t seen that many tech entrepreneurs from Japan challenging the world.
Aoyagi is around Inada’s age, and his experience having startups like Gree and Merpay grown up to giants will certainly be very beneficial for Inada’s team. Atama Plus uses the funds to expand to 250 employees, and such a growth at a startups is the first-time experience for Inada even if he has worked at the education business unit at an enterprise like Mitsui & Co. Inada wants to property deal properly with growing pains that may occur in the future by learning from him in advance.
The company’s latest funding has a huge potential in terms of not only a rare case of funding for a Japanese startup from global institutional investors but also a case study of those looking at global expansion. We’ll keep our eyes on how they will fare from now on.
Translated by Masaru Ikeda