Lucy Stonehill - Re-imagining the Education Workflow!

Lucy Stonehill in the co-founder and CEO of BridgeU, an incredibly exciting edtech startup using predictive analytics and smart technology to make higher education and early career decision-making, intelligent. For anyone that has been through the extremely laborious and stressful process of applying to university and the subsequent career choices that follow you will wish you had been introduced to BridgeU...and for anyone for whom that scenario is pending - listen up! We talk about the power of bringing machine learning to the traditional and stale education industry, how she approached fundraising and the power of mission-led startups! 



Meet Lucy

Current Job Co-Founder and CEO of BridgeU  

First Job Paralegal for a large Manhattan law firm working for the chair of litigation – thought I wanted to go into law!! 

Education Dartmouth College. I studied English Literature and Psychology 

Go to meeting spot Ozone Coffee in Shoreditch

Favourite book/blog/podcast Blogs would include: First Round, a16z and Tomsaz Tunguz. Books include: Crossing the Chasm and 4-Hour Work Week – this got me into the whole start up world.  

Necessary extravagance Reformer Pilates. I am not that extravagant though!  

Favourite productivity tool/app Todoist 

Female inspiration Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem

Top networking tip Be ruthless about your time - maximum of 3 mins with someone – get a business card and follow up. 

Hottest tech company at the moment (apart from BridgeU!) Property Partner and what3words. I also like Farmdrop...I find increasingly that I am drawn to mission-led startups. 


The Journey

What was the inspiration (or frustration) behind founding BridgeU? 

A typical story of not having enough clarity when going through the university admissions and decision-making process myself. There is an information problem - it is difficult to predict forward as information on future pathways (education and career paths) is just not available. Up until now, information has tended to be fragmented, limited and inaccurate. There is a workflow problem, also, insofar as the process of actually applying is also a laborious experience. It's particularly bad if you are applying to universities in multiple countries, which I was. I started to help friends in similar situations, before founding a business specialising in admissions consultancy, and realised quite quickly that this was a universal and painful problem. I realised that there is no predictive analytics around the experience either, and I felt that there should be better ways to inform and enhance decisions that, for better or worse, are so crucial to future outcomes. 

How has your previous employment experience aided you at BridgeU?

It didn’t really! I was only working in a traditional sense for 18 months so was quite young when i founded my first business - Stonehill Educational Consultants - which served as the inspiration behind founding BridgeU. I suppose working in a law firm after university taught me how to create order out of chaos – which has come in handy running a startup, when you are constantly trying to bring structure to what appears to be chaos, or at least something that feels amorphic for a very long time. Being able to communicate well with different people and across teams is also something I had to do a lot at the law firm and those skills have become central to my role now. 

Why did you decide to join Seedcamp and what were the highlights? 

I had been living in the U.S. through university and early employment and when starting BridgeU, I decided to come back to the UK and London as i knew the international school sector would be central to my go-to-market strategy. I wanted to be involved with a powerful startup ecosystem and Seedcamp seemed to be the pre-eminent programme on offer for technology companies at the time. I’d started to attend industry events and realised there was a hub in East London, centred around Google Campus, and I wanted a way to involve myself with the energy that seemed to be quite unique to that space. One of the most under rated things is how powerful the network of Seedcamp founders is – i've found that if approached in the right way, Seedcamp founders will always make time for you. It’s a very close network. 



What is BridgeU and what problem is it solving? 

It’s an education technology business using predictive analytics and smart technology to make higher education and early career decision-making intelligent. There are 2 core problems it is solving: it is firstly focussed on the work flow problem and offers careers guidance (as a service) trying to create a one stop shop for 14-18 year olds planning their futures. It facilitates the building of your skills profile and your own personal brand and relates these to various professional and educational opportunities as you are progressing along that spectrum. The other problem we're solving is really a data issue - which is how you connect the inputs of who you are today with the outputs of who you may be tomorrow, if there is no tool or infrastructure guiding in a predictive manner. Also how you relate yourself (today) to opportunities that may exist - tomorrow. 

Tell us about the successes of the company to date!

The first big win was Seedcamp in March 2014. First school we won in January of 2015. We then raised $2.5m in seed capital last summer – led by Octopus with Seedcamp and a few other funds participating. This validated the early traction that we had been working towards as a small, scrappy, hungry team. Getting our first 100 schools was also a big milestone. And we've also been lucky enough to win a range of awards, the most significant being named, last year, as one of the top 20 Edtech Companies in Europe. We are now in secondary schools from over 30 countries, and opening an office in Hong Kong - both of which we celebrate, as being global in our mindset and in our product is something that's very core to our identity. It has definitely been an exciting and fast-paced 18 months in particular, and i look forward to the company's continued achievements. Although once in a while, I have to pinch myself, as I still remember so vividly those days back in early 2013, when i sat sketching out on a notepad the initial version of what would become BridgeU, in my mum's kitchen!

Your product uses machine learning - keen to understand more...

Admissions is similar to a lot of key moments of our lives, where we make decisions today that might impact our futures tomorrow, and don't really understand, or at least struggle to have any control over the outcomes. One of the benefits of machine learning is that it enables us to close the feedback loop behind those inputs and potential outputs in order to create something that is predictive, based on an ever growing volume of data. This then gives you a more accurate or realistic sense of what for example (in the case of admissions) might be your chance of acceptance onto a particular programme...

There are 40,000 courses in the UK alone and that data (along with new available course information, and employment stats from said courses) is constantly changing, and so its very hard for students and secondary schools to manage that volume of data in an effective way, based on a diverse set of criteria. The machine learning we perform is helpful because it takes real admissions data and closes that feedback loop to expose results that over time, constantly become smarter. BridgeU is really trying to make a notoriously opaque process more transparent, and in so doing we are able to equip schools and students with the tools to make smarter decisions. 

What is the long term vision for the company as well as more imminent milestones? 

We have a global customer base and will be opening a HK office in the Autumn. We will also launch Singapore and Australia as destinations this year. It's an important part of our growth plan that we are seen as a one destination space where students can compare and contrast courses globally. At some point we also plan to raise another round of funding to fuel growth. However, this year is about taking the early traction we have built in certain segments and solidifying this to become the market leader across those segments. 

What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?

For a SaaS business, we have traditional KPIs like MoM growth, churn, ARR. However, engagement is an area we are increasingly concentrating on as a way of constantly improving the product, and ensuring high retention. This is with all our user groups - students, parents and schools. Key revenue millstones are also pretty big, particularly year on year, in order to re-establish ourselves as one of the faster growing Edtech businesses. 


Women in Tech

Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital? 

On the one hand fund raising is scientific and on the other it’s a complete art. In my experience, institutional fund raising from VCs and funds is very heavy on the relationship side so you need a rock star in your team who has high levels of emotional intelligence and is good at building relationships with lots of people, in a short period of time. Early relationships that I made from Seedcamp became very useful 6-9 months down the line, when I was raising a significant amount. Founders sometimes forget how long they really should be building the relationship with the fund before investment – the average is apparently 6 months. This is something that people need to remember - it’s a slow burn process. So quitting your job and expecting to raise funding very quickly is not realistic. 

Parts of the ecosystem, however, are supporting this process in a powerful way, in my view. For example, the accelerator programmes in London and in other tech-hubs around the world can be really valuable. And there is an emerging segment of angels, who are part of the community, and highly incentivised through government schemes like EIS/SEIS. How you tap into these independently wealthy people is not obvious though, and an area that I believe warrants improvement. 

Do you consciously think about building a diverse team and how can we do better to attract and retain more women in those teams? 

My team is diverse in certain ways, but still quite male --- something my co-founder, Hywel Carver, and i often think about ways to change. We are racially diverse, though, which is unusual for a tech company and something we're proud of, and over half our team hold non-UK passports. We also attract male candidates (largely from traditional engineering backgrounds) who are big fans of diversity, and are particularly attracted by the opportunity to be part of a tech team that actively solicits and celebrates people from different demographic and cultural backgrounds.

How do you learn CEO skills as a young founder - any tips? 

I learn through seeing and experiencing, as well as building relationships with others; I have been quite active in reaching out to older founders through my Seedcamp and Octopus networks. Seasoned founders in those communities have embraced me and they have been really generous with their time and energy, which has aided my professional development tremendously. This has been the best way for me to learn and I can’t recommend this tactic enough.

Follow Lucy!

Dr. Vivian Chan - Democratising Science!

Vivian and I met for a cup of tea at Albion, close to her office in Shoreditch to do the interview. Her journey to entrepreneurship evidences why she is unbelievably credible to lead a company undertaking no mean feat - to democratise science. Vivian did a degree in drug design and development after which she spent a year as a VC on the life science side before returning to academia to do her PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge. Rounding this off she was also President of Cambridge University Technology & Enterprise Club and part of the inaugural class of Entrepreneur First, where she met her co-founder. With her intelligence, charm and passion it is not surprising the quality of investors that Sparrho has already attracted - she even hustled her way to chat to Bill Gates when she was a speaker at the Dutch Presidency this year! Sparrho helps anyone and everyone to stay on top of the latest research and Vivian's vision is to transform discoverability, accessibility and understandability of science! 


Meet Vivian

Current Job  CEO and Co-Founder of  Sparrho  

First Job  Investment process manager at  Uniseed  in Australia  

Education  BBiotech in Drug Design & Development, The University of Queensland; PhD Biochemistry, The University of Cambridge 

Go to meeting spot Department of Coffee and Social Affairs  on Bishopsgate 

Favourite book/podcast   The Hard thing About Hard Things  by Ben Horowitz. I also listen to a bunch of podcasts including  Player FM  and a whole range of  TEDx  stuff. I also love  StartUp  - it's from the same guys who do  Gimlet Media.  The first one was actually about the founders of Gimlet Media starting their company. 

Necessary extravagance   I don't know whether it’s extravagant but on Sundays I like to cook and to have the time to just stay in the kitchen for half a day or a few hours - its really relaxing for me. I guess because I was a scientist the kitchen is the next best substitute for a lab!!  

Favourite productivity tool Slack 

Female inspiration  Ada Lovelace, Sheryl Sandberg, Sherry Coutu  

Top networking tip  Give everyone you talk to quality time  

Hottest tech company at the moment (apart from Sparrho!)  Speakset  -  simple remote care service; EDITED - real time analytics for retailers 


The Journey

After graduating you joined Uniseed, a pre-seed/seed stage venture capital fund. Tell us briefly about your role there, best experience and biggest takeaway? 

I was the investment process manager on the Life Sciences side.  I  liaised with the research commercialisation arms of the top three universities, trying to identify which life science research was suitable to be spawned out into a company. We would discuss the IP, how they would monetise it and why it was different to the competitors. The management team and their ambition was also a critical factor, especially when it comes to science.  I would then pitch the ones that I liked back to my team. I was also in charge of the investment process, so I attended all the board meetings too. Life Science is tricky as it’s a much longer cycle (10-15 yrs).  

You relocated from Australia and embarked on your PhD at University of Cambridge. Can you give us a layman's overview of your dissertation and share how a PhD prepared you (or not) for start-up life?  

The objective was to build a three dimensional structure of what a certain protein looked like for the purpose of working with scientists to design drugs in order to inhibit them. The more that you can visualise how the protein interacts then you can think of ways to either block it or kill it. To understand the structure, you have to crystallise the protein and then go through a series of other complex procedures. My original starting point  was to look at a particular protein in TB, but that wasn't so straightforward. Proteins  all have individual personalities actually. I ended up doing my PhD in the same protein but in a different bacteria. 

Four years of problem solving trains you to be very persistent and analytical. I think it has prepared me to be a very, very good entrepreneur because there are a lot of highs and lows in science and you spend weeks on an experiment and the results are often inconclusive and its unclear what it means or what the next steps are. Also, being one of the top researchers in that particular field, means not a lot of people have the expertise to help.  So there is a lot of self-learning, problem solving and figuring things out for yourself. It’s very much like a start-up - very chaotic with an unclear future.  

Cambridge University Technology & Enterprise Club (CUTEC) elected you as President and subsequently Chairman. Tell us about the organisation, the highlights from being part of it and how it fits into your biochemist to entrepreneur journey! 

CUTEC tries to be the connecting point between students and those who are interested in entrepreneurship within the Cambridge community.  The eco-system is very vibrant, with loads of small to medium sized companies. Microsoft was already there and Astrazeneca are moving to Cambridge too, so all these big companies are moving in for talent, for knowledge and for the start-ups. There is also a group of  entrepreneurs, the Cambridge Angels, who are some of the most experienced Angel investors.  The role of President at CUTEC was one I just fell into. Through a friend I got involved with the organisation, ended up liking it and helped build this massive conference to facilitate connections. CUTEC is structured like a company –with a president, the high executive, and VP’s of five different teams: sponsorship,  content, marketing, external relations and ops. I was part of the content team first. I enjoyed it and was about to leave, when the president approached me and said: ‘do you want to be the next president?’ Then somehow I ended up being voted  President of this organisation, with thirty to fifty volunteers.  That role  taught me time management, prioritisation, skills to be CEO and especially people management.  

Tell us all about Entrepreneur First and your history with them

I was still president of CUTEC when Matt Clifford + Alice Bentick from  Entrepreneur  First approached me saying they were on the hunt to recruit 30 of the brightest graduates who wanted to be entrepreneurs.   I was part of their student advisory board which they also seeded the idea in my head that I qualified for EF as I was a fresh PhD graduate. I actually finally applied in a Starbucks in Hong Kong at the last minute!  



What is Sparrho and what problem is it solving?  

Sparrho is an artificial intelligence  engine that helps anyone and everyone to stay on top of the latest science. 

Inspiration or frustration - what were the origins of Sparrho and the evolution of the company to date?  

My biggest problem when I was doing my PhD was trying to stay on top of scientific research. In academia your only metrics of success is how many publications you can produce and in order to do this, you need to know what everyone else is doing.  And then in industry terms it's equally important from the perspective of things like patents and money raised for drugs etc. So staying on top of science is actually really important for many parties. Currently the search facilities available are poor. The digital offerings are simple linear keyword search engines or email alerts. They are not intelligent because if you don't know the right keywords to use you cannot find the correct information. When I was studying we had a great 'human' solution to this problem. I had a Postdoctoral researcher (Steve) who was a brilliant academic and he would spend maybe fifteen minutes every morning looking at a few journals that he knew were relevant for our group and send us relevant papers that linear keyword searches would never find. He would always be faster than any of the subscription services and provided us research that we would never have considered. These always provided us amazing step change innovations. Everyone relied on him.  

This is where the idea of Sparrho has come from, but instead of having one poor guy going through a few journals everyday, we use technology that can search millions of different articles and be able to learn what it is that’s interesting for the user and then recommend other things to read without the need to continually search.  We couldn't just draw up an MVP, so we partnered with the British Library and some of the scientific publishers and now we've got over 41 million pieces of scientific content and we'll be scaling very quickly this year.   Once  you've got the content this brings in the users. We also plan to supplement this by using science experts to summarise the rest of the cutting edge scientific research. We want to pay the PhDs - which is a very different model to anything else out there because PhD’s don't generally get paid very much - so for once they're being paid to summarise and put their perspective on a research article. They only have to answer three questions which are:  ‘why is this piece of research important to the general public?’; 'why is this research important for other researchers in biochemistry?’ and then ‘why is this piece of research important to other scientists not in biochemistry?’ So that’s the vision, and addresses the 3 different pillars that I’m trying to tackle - discoverability, accessibility and understandability. Once we get through those, then anyone and everyone will be able to stay up to date with whatever science is out there. That could include students, hedge fund managers, journalists, or concerned individuals  who want to find out what the actual latest cutting edge research is on their medication or illness.

It seems bizarre to me that we are still learning science from a science textbook. UK taxpayers are funding cutting edge research but no one knows how to access it. Sparrho changes that.  

Sparrho uses machine learning - can you elaborate on this element of the product?

We take concepts of your original search, even though want to move people towards thinking about it as a keyword filter.  Based on the keywords that you’re filling in, we’re able to formulate a concept of what you're interested in  - users can set up  multiple different channels, so it’s very similar to having multiple playlists on Spotify. For example, say you type in Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, Sparrho understands that you're interested in planets in the solar system, so then it can also recommend other planets in the solar system, or other related things without you needing to tell us exactly which planets. So, that is the first step… formulate some sort of understanding of who you are, then the more you interact with it, the more we understand what you're wanting.  

What is the long term vision for the company as well as more imminent milestones?  

The big vision is to help everyone and anyone interested in science. We’ve got the content, we’ve got the experts and now we’re getting our expert community to "summarise" cutting-edge research for everyone else.  Imminent milestones right now are scaling. Team wise I am trying to hire a few more people. And then we’re going to be rolling out more revenue models and fundraising later on in the year.  

What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team? 

We've got a very clear roadmap and each department has got their own milestones which relate to how many sign ups, how many retained users,  and monthly actives.  I also try to promote personal development goals. As a start-up, things move so quickly, so I want to remain aware of what my team want to do and how they wish to develop personally.  I try and push my team to seek experienced mentors - its been really helpful when we are unsure about a decision to have people to consult. I think as a company,  if the team, individually works, then the company exponentially will work.  


Women in Tech

Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital? 

Alastair Mitchell, an angel investor  who is the co-founder and former CEO of Huddle was our first investor. I was on a Skype call with him in San Francisco and he says, “okay I’ve got it, I love it, I’ll put some money in,  now show me what you can do”. That was the pin drop moment when I realised this was no longer a project and was actually a start-up. Three months after that call, I closed my first round of investment with my own term sheet. All the subsequent funding has been on convertibles, so I was able to raise more capital on a flexible structure. I also now have a whole range of other  investors, such as David Cleevely, Chairman of Raspberry Pi and great support from an external network  - people like Jon Bradford and David Rowan. All of these amazing people have really added to the success of Sparrho. 

Advice for women would be not to be afraid to be bold.  For example, at a dinner in Amsterdam, Bill Gates was the keynote speaker. I was also speaking at the Dutch Presidency the next day. After the speeches, I approached his table and pitched Sparrho. He gave me 10 minutes and then asked about my investors and gave me his e-mail address. I have emailed him multiple times, haven't heard from him yet, but I haven't given up! I think he is a great believer and advocate for open science - because science, especially knowledge within science is going to solve some of todays key issues, such as poverty or  sustainability. 

You are consciously building a diverse team - how can we do better to attract and retain more women in tech?  

I think that diversity is very important; it’s the same as the interdisciplinary skills that I was talking about in science.  I have a 50/50 gender split in the team at the moment, coupled with the fact that I think each of my team are averaging about two passports, so multiple different nationalities. This really adds to the strength of the business because people from different backgrounds and cultures think differently and all of that mashed in together is tremendously powerful. However, one of our strengths is also one of our weaknesses in that the initial team is still a bunch of scientists and we are now starting to move towards hiring specialists that are not scientists.  However, we have been shocked as to how difficult it has been to recruit women. Last year we got less than 20% of female applications. We discovered that women are less likely to feel confident in applying for a role if they haven't checked at least 8 out of the 10 boxes as opposed to men, who have applied despite only qualifying for 2 out of 10! 

How do you learn CEO skills as a young founder - any tips?  

On the job is the most important aspect because no matter what you read, or what you listen to, there are those moments when you’re like ‘Oh that’s what they meant.’  I have also done some CEO shadowing, where I spent a day with a couple of CEOs.  I could ask them questions, check the key things that were on their minds etc. This has been really useful in helping me predict things and not get blind-sided.

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