A recent report from Education First (EF) ranks the level of English spoken across 60 countries worldwide; in short, things don’t look good for Latin America, which is the worst-performing region worldwide in terms of proficiency. Of the 16 countries EF has designated to have a “Very Low Level” of English, an equal percentage (44%) were divided between Latin America (including Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala) and the Middle East. Five Latin American countries (Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Uruguay) obtained a slightly higher distinction as having a “Low Level” of English. The only Latin American country that obtained a “Medium Level” of English proficiency within the report was Argentina. The report concludes: “A poor level of English is still one of the most important competitive weaknesses in Latin America.”
Luckily, there are a couple of entrepreneurs that are making strides in turning this all around.
Changing the language-learning status quo
A year and a half ago, Cynthia Rajchman and Shlomy Kattan were married professionals working in the United States. Cynthia, a native Uruguayan who had previously been a teacher and curriculum developer at a preschool in New York City, was working as a psychotherapist in the states. Shlomy, who has a PhD in Education from UC Berkeley where he researched language acquisition among children of immigrant families, worked at Boston Consulting Group, advising technology and media companies on strategy and operations.
Because of their backgrounds in education and child development, parents and teachers were constantly asking Cynthia and Shlomy about the best second language-learning methods for children. The problem was, neither of them trusted the effectiveness nor the value of existing products enough to recommend them.
The husband-wife team began to think about how they could create their own solution to address the gap in the language-learning market. With deep roots in Latin America (Cynthia is Uruguayan, and Shlomy previously lived in Ecuador, where he managed educational services for a chain of language schools), they began to consider the significant market opportunity for a second language-learning solution in Latin America. They believed that providing a mobile language-learning software for preschoolers would allow children to start learning English at an earlier age, enabling them to excel in English later in life: thereby addressing the competitive weakness of unsatisfactory proficiency in the region.
Excelling through accelerators
Cynthia and Shlomy took the plunge, and assembled a stupendous team of animators and developers, creating a product that was not only effective, but fun for kids to use – and named it Kudo Learning. In 2012 they applied to Start-Up Chile, and were among the 105 companies accepted to the program from 1,400 applications. Start-Up Chile allowed them to relocate to Chile from California and commence the product development process. At the time at which they were accepted to the Start-Up Chile accelerator program, Kudo Learning was no more than an idea on paper. The initial funding provided through the program, as well as the chance to be in Chile for seven months to test their hypotheses about market fit, presented a tremendous opportunity. In addition, the accelerator presented them with the chance to meet all of their current angel investors through ChileGlobal Angels. After a highly successful year, the duo were accepted to Start-Up Brazil in July 2013, and relocated to Rio de Janeiro where they are currently working with Pipa, an accelerator focused on education and impact investment. Shortly after moving to Brazil, the Kudo Learning was selected as the “Best Startup” in the Seedstar World regional competition in Rio.
When asked about the greatest influence the accelerator programs have had on their business, Cynthia asserts: “Most importantly, being both in Chile and Brazil has allowed us to get to know the education landscape, as well as the key players in the region.”
Value proposition and business model
Kudo Learning creates fun, easy, and effective ways for children to learn a foreign language, developing interactive, adaptive educational content for mobile platforms to provide an engaging and intuitive experience for young learners. Kudo Learning’s unique adaptive learning method takes full advantage of children’s innate language learning ability with interactive episodes that allow children discover a foreign language through play, movement, song, and storytelling. Click the link below to view a video of a child playing with Kudo:
Kudo! is sold to both educational institutions, as well as individual consumers. For the former, per-student licenses are offered, as the company works primarily with distributors. In the consumer market, Kudo! is now available for download in the Apple App Store. They are launching a suite of apps that will include both full lessons as well as mini-apps for kids to gain further practice; the apps will be available for download on the iPad and iPad mini in all Spanish and English-speaking countries. By leveraging an “appisode” business model, Kudo! offers a first lesson for free, with following lessons offered for $4.99 each. They have plans to offer subscription pricing in the future.
Opportunities and challenges in Latin America
The impact that Kudo! is making hits close to home for these entrepreneurs. As an Uruguayan, Cynthia says, “Being able to provide a product that can actually create an impact is really rewarding. Being bilingual makes you smarter, helps you do better in school, and it has even been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life. People who are bilingual have greater opportunities, being able to access better education and better jobs.”
Cynthia asserts that besides significant consumer demand for second-language education within Latin America, there is a shortage of qualified teachers. As she states, “In order to be competitive, people need to start learning English, and the best age to start is as young as possible.” At a small price, especially when compared to the pricey English learning academies that are ubiquitous throughout the region, Kudo! allows learners to construct the foundations for fluency at a young age.
Despite the huge opportunities for this type of technology, Latin America does pose its unique set of challenges. As Cynthia told AndesBeat, there are three distinct challenges posed by region; (hey entrepreneurs: listen up, because her comments are remarkably insightful and can be applied to startups across the region): 1) Each country, despite linguistic and cultural similarities, is a completely different market, so it’s important to make sure that the approach used in each country is the right one for that country. This is especially true for institutional sales, where requirements vary significantly across the region. 2) Tablet penetration here, and especially the iOS footprint, is not what it is in North America. Nonetheless, we expect that market segment to grow in the next two years. 3) The attractiveness of the Latin American market means that there are many entrants from the US and Europe trying to figure out how to grab a stake of this market.
What to look out for next
Though the challenges may be formidable, Kudo! has a tremendous market opportunity and its team is on a roll. Their plans for 2014 are exciting; in addition to launching Kudo! in Spanish and English throughout North and South America, they are planning to develop more content to help kids learn and grow in a second language. In the second half of the year, they look forward to developing their products in Portuguese for the Brazilian market.
The Kudo! team is also partnering with EduTone Single Sign-On Marketplace, part of Intel® Education, which is launching this month.
Thanks for keeping us plugged into your progress, Kudo! Best of luck in Start-Up Brazil!
Editorial note: Here at AndesBeat, we love start-ups that do well by doing good. Kudo’s learning software has tremendous potential to revolutionize the way that young learners interact with other languages. This is important from both an educational perspective, as well as an economic perspective. In the coming years, educational institutions throughout Latin America would be well-advised to embrace initiatives that promote English proficiency, with the goal of increasing overall global competitiveness in the workplace. Software applications like Kudo! that target young learners are not only low-cost and effective educational tools – they are crucial to promoting success in the workforce’s next generation.