Ashish Fernando can thank a collapsing job market for his path to entrepreneurship with iSchoolConnect. In 2008, he put aside dreams of becoming a microbiologist in India to pursue an MBA in the US, where he believed a lot of innovation in information technology and biotechnology to be happening.
But, a year later, despite having invested in educational consultants, Ashish, 31, found it hard to narrow down a master’s programme at a reputable American university. He faced a lot of difficulties dealing with agents while trying to sift through the limitless information online.
These challenges, which also included pursuing standardised testing, getting financing, and a student visa in the bag, led Ashish to co-found Mumbai-based iSchoolConnect in 2017, a startup that streamlines the college search and application process for students around the world.
It is a global platform that matches prospective students with educational programmes using predictive modelling and lets them create and submit their applications through a single interface.
“Our platform uses deep learning techniques to provide corrective actions on student essays, resumes, and video interviews, all in real-time, thus reducing the need for time-consuming human intervention,” says Ashish.
He adds that the startup focusses on students originating in Asia and travelling to the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK for their further education.
How does it work?
As soon as the student registers and provides their information and resume on the iSchoolConnect platform, they can apply for different graduate programmes at foreign universities from its platform. The student can also mention their search preferences.
Ashish explains that based on the information given, iSchoolConnect’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology shortlists and recommends some university programmes.
“The students can also schedule one-on-one sessions with our in-house experts for advice or consulting. These consultants have over 15 years of experience in foreign universities, and provide guidance to the students on matters such as scholarships, SOP writing, letters of recommendation, and visa,” explains Ashish.
The platform works on two models.
1. Recruitment as a service (RaaS): Under this, iSchoolConnect will charge a commission on every international student enrolled in a programme through the platform.
2. Technology as a Service (TaaS): Here, iSchoolConnect will charge a setup fee of minimum $15,000 in addition to a minimum monthly subscription of $300 for each of the tools (‘Essay Grader’, ‘Video Analyzer’, ‘Document Reader’, ‘Conversational Assistant’) deployed at the institution.
The startup charges $400 (premium) and $2,000 (pro) per year depending on the subscription model.
The basic model, which is free, allows the user to log in, apply for different universities and get one session of expert counselling.
The premium model gives them the shortlisted options on top of the features available with the basic model along with access to its interview and SOP grading tool.
The pro model allows students to interact with the consultants as well as use all its features, including visa and loan assistance.
Since inception, iSchoolConnect claims that its user base has grown 3X month on month.
“Our website currently gets 1,00,000 visits per month. With respect to the customer base, our existing conversion rate to paid customers is 10 percent of user registrations. We strive to continue growing our user base by the same rate for the next years. Our unique product offerings, great online content, and exceptional customer service have been the major growth drivers,” notes Ashish.
Some of the universities which iSchoolConnect helped students get into include the Boston University, the Northeastern University, the University of California Berkeley, the Bentley University, and the Penn State University, among others. The platform has helped students go to countries such as the US, Canada and UK for higher studies.
The company claims to have a total of over 7,000 registered students on its platform until now.
Life before starting up
Ashish started his career as a software engineer with Thomson Reuters in 2009 and then went on to take multiple executive roles in programme management at the R&D wing of HCL Technologies, India. He then joined an AI startup Quantiphi in 2015, where he managed the Data Science and Engineering business.
Ashish has a master’s degree in Biotechnology from Sathyabama University, Tamil Nadu, and is also an MBA graduate from Bentley University, Massachusetts.
After he graduated from the Bentley University, he noticed that there was no single comprehensive platform available to help students cut through the clutter and home in on the best university for their next programme. He then decided to launch a bias-free machine learning-driven model that is fast, accessible, and reliable, and helps students understand their right fit and apply to institutions within minutes.
Ashish had started iSchoolConnect along with MBA classmate Don Kphury. However, Don had to leave the startup to pursue other responsibilities and Ashish now runs iSchoolConnect himself.
The startup currently has two business locations — one at Massachusetts, US, and the other at Mumbai. “Our investors are based out of Massachusetts and India and we use their premises to host the company,” says Ashish.
iSchoolConnect had received $400,000 in pre-seed investment in January 2018, and seed funding of $400,000 in June 2019. It was also granted $100,000 in marketing funds and $100,000 is cloud credits by Google in 2018.
Today, it is a 35-member team.
The market space
The Indian edtech market is pegged to touch $1.96 billion by 2021, according to a report by KPMG and Google.
According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with an annual CAGR of three percent, the number of students travelling abroad for higher studies in 2019 is estimated to be 4.6 million across the globe.
iSchoolConnect competes with startups like studyportals, MyMBACircle.com, and gradschoolmatch.
So how does iSchoolConnect stand apart? Ashish says, “The platform operates within a fully secure and encrypted environment on the Google Cloud platform that integrates optical character recognition, data science, and AI technologies in a user-friendly way. We focus on delivering recruitment and technology-based services to both students and educational institutions.”
He adds that in order to develop the iSchoolConnect platform, the startup continuously uses cutting-edge technologies, including Machine Learning, Big Data, data mining, and decentralised and distributed systems.
On the startup’s immediate plans, Ashish says, “Our plan is to grow iSchoolConnect’s product offerings beyond international admissions into online learning and career services. We believe that the biggest ‘last-mile ROI’ comes not from getting the best education but from getting a job/starting a business, etc. We don't want to stop at turning our customers into successful international graduates but go on to help them become successful international professionals and global citizens.”
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)