Qualcomm, the giant $26 billion wireless technology conglomerate, acquired EmpoweredU – a mobile-first learning platform available for the education market. What does this acquisition mean?
Who is EmpoweredU?
The company was created by CEO Steve Poizner in 2011 in partnership with Creative Artists Agency, the world’s largest sports and talent agency, under the name “Encore Career Institute”. The initial work was to offer continuing ed classes targeted at Baby Boomers through the UCLA extension. ((These are certificate programs for $5,000 – $10,000 total tuition.)) In essence, this was an Online Service Provider (OSP) model similar to Embanet, Deltak, Academic Partnerships and 2U. As described by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011:
Poizner, in an interview at the firm’s headquarters this week, said the company combines “three of California’s greatest assets” – its famed public university system, the creative know-how of its technology center, Silicon Valley, and the cutting-edge marketing savvy of Hollywood. [snip]
In addition to its employment potential for Baby Boomers, Poizner said, the collaboration could bring new revenue for cash-strapped UCLA and thousands of new students from around the nation to its online courses.
The company changed names to Empowered Careers and then eventually settled on EmpoweredU.
In the meantime they figured out that the OSP model is high risk and expensive, often requiring investments of $1 – $10 million per program by the OSP, with revenue-sharing profits occurring several years later. EmpoweredU has pivoted over the past year to become a mobile-first learning platform with content services.
The platform is built on top of the Canvas open source version offered by Instructure and started pilots at 15+ schools this spring (including specific programs at USC, UC Berkeley, U of San Francisco, etc). This may be the most significant use of open source Canvas, and it might end up competing with Canvas, at least indirectly.
As we’ll see later, EmpoweredU is also attempting to create a learning ecosystem that can combine multiple technologies.
Why is Qualcomm making an ed tech acquisition?
I interviewed Vicki Mealer (Senior Director, Business Development, Qualcomm Labs, which is the unit acquiring EmpoweredU) and Steve Poizner today. Vicki’s description of Qualcomm’s interest in ed tech is that they are all about mobile technology, and they have had a philanthropic interest in education for years (donating over $240 million cash to various institutions). Qualcomm wants to be a behind-the-scenes cheerleader, but they also need for an ecosystem to for each market. Qualcomm Labs started looking at education a year ago, trying to identify and overcome barriers for adoption of mobile technology. Some of the perceived barriers: Continue reading