Tuesday 10 November on Zoom, CBN will host scientists, startups and investors for the Play and Learn Initiative. Here you will find an interview with Enrico Poli from Zanichelli Venture, who will assess participating startups. If you founded a Play and Learn startup, apply on F6A to pitch your project and join our community on Mighty Networks.
CBN: Zanichelli is not only one of the most prestigious publishing houses in Europe, but also the first venture capital fund focused on education technology investments in Italy. Which is your main focus as investor and what do you expect from the startups involved in CBN Play & Learn initiative?
Education is ubiquitous. Learning through the exchange of – possibly permanent – symbols is one of the distinguishing peculiarities of our species, as much as storytelling (and the two are of course linked). Everyone goes through increasingly more elaborate learning and teaching experiences throughout their lives.
You don’t change such a complex system overnight – both inertia and unexpected side effects and feedback loops are tremendous and will thwart naive interventions.
This is the reason we are interested in tools that can act as radical power-ups of the learner’s experience while slipping seamlessly – almost unnoticed – into the current education system, or in alternatives to the current education system starting from clearly defined, promising niches and yet having the potential to move from niche to dominant.
CBN: The convergence between play and gaming, on the one hand, and edtech and learning innovation on the other hand, looks like a world trend. Does it have something to do with the transition from an industrial society focused on production towards a post-industrial society focused on digital services? Why “play” is so important to learn?
A satisfying answer would require that we first agree on the meaning of «play», «game», «fun» and probably a few more intricately layered words. I will just say that one of the most pleasurable, and fun, experience for a human being is mastery, and one reaches mastery by learning. Learning can be – and, often, is – a scary, messy experience: try to master swimming when someone thrust you into water. Play – which, incidentally, has nothing to do with «gamification» – can help setting up a trusted space with clear rules and limited stakes.
It’s worth noting that play doesn’t exhaust learning: you won’t master quantum mechanics only through play – all play and no work makes Jack a dork – and, sooner or later, you will have to move into the real world and keep learning in an unplayful space with painfully uncertain rules and very high stakes.
CBN: As a whole, edtech startups and creative companies often show an unbalanced distribution of competencies: they’re usually strong in terms of product and service innovation, but they’re often weak either in business, design, pedagogy or technology. What can be done to foster the growth of a resilient learning innovation ecosystem?
I’m not sure you can be strong in terms of product and service innovation if your company is weak even in just one of the core dimensions you mention: business, design, technology and, when talking about an education company, pedagogy.
There’s no silver bullet: flawless execution generating true value will always be scarce. And yet, you can try to ensure people are exposed and have access to the opportunity to learn and master business, design, technology and pedagogy. No one will ever master them all, so you also need to ensure diverse, talented people can meet and join efforts toward a shared mission.
While assessing a potential investment in a startup, venture capitals usually check how a startup performs in terms of facing a problem, defining a solution, analyzing the market, develop a business strategy, build the right team to become a sustainable and scalable business. What really makes a difference in such a challenging environment?
People seem to think venture capital is about risk when it’s really about de-risking: the checks you mention, the terms, the wide spreading of the investments are no surprises. The trite truth is money is dead matter and, left alone, will rot into mouldy pulp; some human beings can create truly new value sometimes, and this makes a difference. You can foster this process; you can’t engineer it.
As a director of Zanichelli Venture, Enrico is looking for nascent companies who are tilling daring ideas about education and technology and searching for pre-seed or seed funding to grow these ideas into products empowering anyone – from children and parents to adult, professional lifelong learners and their mentors and coaches – to learn and teach better. He cares about how people teach and learn, how they tackle complex or difficult information, how they get to solve problems together, studying the ways new technologies can help and not hinder them. Education offers a critical testing ground.