‘Awash in Cash’ Ed-Tech Firms Still Vie for PPP Cash

By Courts Monitor Publisher, Sara Schinella

Collective eyebrows have been raised across several industries as the government discloses just who received those Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans/grants, and education providers are no exception.

The controversy falls well short of Shake Shack returning that $10 million, but several online-education providers have drawn attention. Of course, that could change with California and other states headed to a fall back-to-school period like no other; even edtech firms may find themselves facing more pressure.

For venture-backed companies, the stakeholder-shareholder divide could become a sticking point.

Obviously, the public policy question arises: When a company has access to capital from publicly traded equity, why would they need to access government funds meant to provide a lifeline to small businesses? Yet, as one report noted, “… even an investment firm that has supported dozens of edtech startups appeared on the [PPP] list.”

To make the point more clear, note the opening words of a story in the education community news website EdSurge, where Managing Editor Tony Wan wrote: “Even the biggest names in the education technology industry, awash in private capital, are seeking public support during the pandemic… a review of the data by EdSurge for notable education technology software and service providers found more than 60 for-profit and nonprofit organizations that were approved for a PPP loan between $150,000 to $5 million. (ISTE, the parent organization of EdSurge, was also approved for such a loan.)”

(I should note that ISTE, or International Society for Technology in Education, is a nonprofit educator-membership organization and EdSurge, launched in 2011, is now an “independent news and research” initiative of ISTE. I might also note that PPP approvals offer a range of “up to” an amount and it remains unclear just how much of the approved money firms have accessed and used.)

After setting the table, Mr. Wan underscores his point: “And though the program was designed to help small businesses, some education organizations approved for loans have previously raised hundreds of million from private backers. Even an investment firm that has supported dozens of ed-tech startups appeared on the list. . . investors themselves are also split over whether internet startups should take advantage of an essential lifeline targeted toward local mom-and-pop shops that operate in-person businesses without venture capital support or connections.”

Some companies that seemed to illustrate Wan’s point were called out for special attention, like Altitude Learning, which EdSurge noted has raised the most capital among the listed firms: some $176 million. EdSurge said the San Francisco-based company, “. . .which now offers an online education platform to schools and families, was approved for a loan between $2 million to $5 million.”

In addition, Sphero, the former consumer robotics toy firm that pivoted to the education market, reportedly raised $148 million from investors — and was also approved for a loan between $2 million to $5 million.

RaiseMe, described as “a provider of an online scholarship platform for high school students” that previously raised $31.5 million from investors, was also approved for a PPP loan in April.

I noticed that tutoring outfit Noodle Pros, also made the EdSurge list of potential shame. They were approved for up to a million dollars of PPP funding while listing among the most funded of the firms, at $36.3 million. I know about the Noodle education companies mostly through Noodle Partners, an online program management company, and because Noodle founder John Katzman was also a high-profile founder of 2U, the big OPM that fuels the University of Southern California program I’m attending this fall. Mr. Katzmann left that company several years ago, and Noodle Partners is now a competitor.

So, EdSurge has previously reported that the four Noodle companies have been collectively funded for more than $40 million and that Mr. Katzman determines how that money gets allocated among several of the “Noodles.” It might be argued that, with that sort of clout, it’s another million from Uncle Sam? To its credit, EdSurge has previously disclosed that Mr. Katzman has been an investor in their company.

In June, it was reported that the Noodle raised another $16 million to address the Covid pandemic-fueled interest in remote learning that “significantly accelerated interest in its services.” That was raised through a Series B round led by ValueAct Spring Fund and joined by Lumina Foundation and existing investors.

The industry-focused among us may recall that, way back in April, the Small Business Administration issued guidance for PPP that companies applying for coronavirus relief funds must certify that the loans are necessary and that they cannot tap their sources of funding. The Noodle $16 million was raised through what’s called Series B fundraising, led by Value Act Spring Fund, the Lumina Foundation and existing investors. Clearly, access to venture capital might qualify Noodle companies as seeming to “have other access to funding.”

Actually, we should be slow to judge. Anyone in finance will tell you it remains easy to make the case for even those “awash in private capital” to take the PPP money, and multi-entity setups like Noodle illustrate new advantages for taking taxpayer money in one entity and raising capital in another. We might assume that tutoring and online education companies are enjoying windfalls right now, but could the future be more uncertain? If your job is to “extend the runway,” then an extra million here and there has to be considered.

Now, the only challenge will be if the edtech venture-funded companies must endure the social pushback of other such firms, like chain restaurants or Trump-affiliated operations. My guess is not, because except for very fine industry watchdogs like EdSurge, the public gaze is focused elsewhere.

So, perhaps the lesson is that PPP offers the well-funded an even longer runway, as they say. But that doesn’t mean the runway lacks the occasional pothole.

 

Sad news for Courts Monitor family

We are sad to announce the passing of Tony Ming Schinella, husband of Courts Monitor publisher, Sara Corcoran Schinella.

Outside of public view across some 30 years, Tony achieved high rank, earned the respect of senior government officials with whom he worked, and garnered numerous awards for his work here and abroad. Without question, he was among the finest officers of his generation at the CIA.

Tony’s singular talent in his chosen profession drew upon and reflected both his astonishing intelligence and an heroic work ethic.  At the time of his death, he was serving as the National Intelligence Officer for Military Issues on the National Intelligence Council, functioning as the most senior military analyst in the US Intelligence Community. His rise to that position from his start in 1991 as a graduate fellow was a steady one.  He had a seemingly limitless ability to comprehend and retain an enormous amount of information, discern underlying patterns, figure out causal relationships and draw clear conclusions about the nature of events. His ability to express his conclusions in clear, precise language made him invaluable within and beyond the CIA in any number of crises across the past several decades. In conflicts ranging from the Balkans, to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq, he provided unique insights and a clear decision advantage to the most senior US policymakers.

Over the decades, whenever the nation called, Tony responded by taking on some of the most difficult analytic assignments confronting the Intelligence Community. He followed nearly the entirety of the Balkan conflict and his analytic judgments helped US diplomats bring a restive peace to Bosnia. Volunteering after 9/11, he was among the first to help US forces understand Taliban military capabilities, saving US lives, and providing direct support to the US forces and allies who fought al­ Qa’ida in Afghanistan.  For years his work on the  ground war in Afghanistan was required reading for policymakers struggling to bring to a conclusion America’s longest war, just as years earlier he and a small group of colleagues were instrumental in forging a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play within Iraq.

Read more about Tony’s significant accomplishments here.

Update: Court sides with Mary Trump

The Washington Post reports that one day after imposing a restraining order to allow the parties to present arguments at a hearing about whether or not Mary Trump, the President’s niece could publish her tell-all book, “A New York court on Wednesday lifted a temporary restraining order against the publication of a book by President Trump’s niece, enabling publisher Simon & Schuster to continue printing and distributing the explosive insider account by Mary L. Trump.”

Publication of Trump Tell-All Book Halted by New York Judge


The book jacket for “Too Much and Never Enough” by Mary Trump. Image credit: Simon & Schuster as published in The Washington Post.

Originally filed in Queens County (New York) Surrogate’s Court but rejected, President Donald Trump’s brother, Robert Trump, then filed a petition with the New York State Supreme Court to request an injunction that would halt the publication of a tell-all book scheduled to be published by the President’s niece on July 28.

According to The Washington Post, “A New York judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the publication of Mary L. Trump’s scathing book about her uncle, President Trump, which describes him as the ‘world’s most dangerous man,’ saying no copies can be distributed until he hears arguments in the case.”

The article explains that Judge Hal B. Greenwald ordered a hearing next month and that Robert Trump has argued that Mary Trump is not allowed to publish anything about her family as part of an inheritance settlement.

Given the temporary restraining order, it is uncertain whether the book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” will publish in late July. The book is already topping the bestseller lists in presales.

Roundup Settlement Announced

When Bayer took over Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion, it inherited myriad legal disputes around its glyphosate-based weedkillers, including its best-known product, Roundup. Bayer announced earlier this week that it will settle those disputes.

“Bayer AG, after more than a year of talks, agreed to pay as much as $10.9 billion to settle close to 100,000 U.S. lawsuits claiming that its widely-used weed killer Roundup caused cancer, resolving litigation that has pummeled the company’s share price,” Reuters reports.

“Bayer wisely decided to settle the litigation rather than roll the dice in American court,” said Ken Feinberg as reported by Reuters. Feinberg was appointed settlement mediator by a federal judge over a year ago and has mediated other high-profile legal disputes, including the September 11th Fund, the BP disaster, and Volkswagen’s diesel emissions violations.