Generation Start-up: How Educatly is creating the LinkedIn of the education sector

The UAE-based venture is disrupting the highly-fragmented higher education ecosystem by digitally mapping and integrating it on to a single platform for students

(From left) Joan Manuel, Mohmmed El Sonbaty and Abdelrahman Ayman, co-founders of Educatly. Photo: Educatly
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Mohmmed El Sonbaty is a risk-taker who tasted success and failure at an early age. He succeeded in running a successful outdoor advertising business in bustling Cairo when he was 19 and later launched a small tourism venture on the Red Sea coast of Egypt.

However, he did not succeed in lifting his fashion business, selling Pink Floyd-branded merchandise, off the ground.

Every venture was an experience for young Mr Sonbaty, shaping his life and maturing him as an entrepreneur along the way. However, none of those experiences was as transformative as his quest for higher education after he graduated from Egypt's Ain Shams University as an electrical engineer in 2013.

Despite having the money saved up from his entrepreneurial pursuits, the struggles he faced, the procedural hiccups he had to go through, and the sheer information overload he encountered while searching for appropriate courses and universities online, was overwhelming, he says.

After sifting through hundreds of universities, Mr Sonbaty eventually picked Italy’s Politecnico di Milano for his master's degree in engineering management.

It was there that he realised something was needed to ease the pain and anxiety students faced when making one of the biggest decisions of their lives, and the idea of launching Educatly was born.

“I witnessed myself the kind of challenges that you have to face as a student, to answer the most important questions: what to study and where to study,” Mr Sonbaty says.

“I really wished that I could make that easier so I started working on the first version of it [Educatly] … which is the company that we have right now.”

Today, Educatly is disrupting the highly-fragmented higher education ecosystem. The education technology platform allows students to make informed decisions about their future, and at the same time brings the cost down for educational institutions that spend a considerable amount on marketing to attract students.

The AI-driven digital platform aims to empower students, schools and recruitment partners, helping them interact in the digital world, cutting costs and hassle for all involved.

The launch of Educatly in 2020, however, was not easy, and Mr Sonbaty says he “did the hard yards” before he could lift the company off the ground.

After completing his education, Mr Sonbaty joined LinkedIn, where he nurtured the idea and saved money to fund the venture.

“So actually the company [Educatly] was a side project inside LinkedIn,” he says. “And then afterwards when the time was right, when we almost secured an investment round, it kicked off from there.”

It was at LinkedIn that Mr Sonbaty met Educatly co-founder Joan Manuel, and they were then joined by Abdelrahman Ayman as the company was launched in Ireland before their eventual move to Dubai.

“We started the company initially in Ireland mainly because our first investor was the government of Ireland’s Enterprise Ireland,” he says.

“Then because our operation focuses on supporting students in the Mena region, we set up an office in Dubai to tackle this whole region, and then in Egypt from an operational point of view.”

There are about 235 million students enrolled in universities around the world, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). Yet despite the boom in demand, the overall enrolment ratio is 40 per cent, with large differences between countries and regions, the UN body data says.

The growth in the number of students seeking higher education is increasing exponentially in the Mena region and data suggests that nine out of 10 students search online for higher education options, and are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what is on offer, Mr Sonbaty says.

“If you think only about the first top 100 universities, they have over 100,000 programmes and that leaves you with a lot of information that is very hard for a young kid,” he says.

Educatly aims to transform the entire journey by digitally mapping and integrating the world education ecosystem on to a single platform.

“So in very simple terms, we're trying to build for the education [ecosystem] what LinkedIn is for jobs. Think of the impact of LinkedIn on the jobs market and this is exactly what we want to do on the educational side,” he says.

Educatly collates data from different educational institutions, including information on their programmes in different disciplines and admission requirements. It presents that information in a “more structured format” and has in-house counsellors to offer advice and help students make faster and more informed decisions.

“We have 500 university partners” and that pool of education institutions across regions is expanding fast, he says.

Educatly's university partners are spread across English-speaking countries. It works mostly with institutes in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and most countries in Europe.

In the future, it plans to expand its partnership pool and include community colleges, high schools and even institutions that offer only online degrees.

“We started … I think with a bunch of like maybe five universities that I reached out to personally … and then we grew this in the first year to 100-plus universities,” Mr Sonbaty says.

“We were estimating that by end of next year, we will be at the benchmark of 1,500 institutions.”

The number of the students that have used Educatly has also grown exponentially, from 38,000 at development stage to about a million last year.

COMPANY PROFILE

Company: Educatly
Started: 2020
Based: UAE
Founders: Mohmmed El Sonbaty, Joan Manuel and Abdelrahman Ayman
Industry: Education technology
Funding size: $2 million
Investors: Enterprise Ireland, Egypt venture, Plus VC, HBAN, Falak Startups

Most users are from the Mena region, but “we have people that use the platform across over 120 countries”, he says.

In the past year and a half, the company has placed more than 5,000 students with its university partners and it plans to hit 15,000 placements by the end of this year.

The company does not charge students to use its database and generates revenue from educational institutions.

“Universities pay us according to every student we enrol in their programmes,” he says, adding that the percentage the company receives varies, depending on the different universities.

Based out of in5 Tech, a business incubator set up by Tecom Group, Educatly last year raised $1 million. It is edging towards the close of its latest funding round, and plans to use the funds raised to further develop its technology.

The higher global education system is one of the sectors that has been least disrupted from a digital perspective. However, Covid-19 was the watershed moment and education institutions are now thinking about how they can move faster in a digital environment, Mr Sonbaty says.

“That's bringing a lot of opportunity,” he says.

The company that started with just its co-founders has now grown to 35 employees. Mr Sonbaty expects to hire more talent this year and increase the headcount to more than 100.

Q&A with Mohmmed Seif, chief executive and co-founder of Educatly

Who is your role model and what is your mantra of success?

My ultimate role model in life is Prophet Mohammed, someone I look up to every day to achieve a balanced life. I believe that success is an easy formula that combines belief and actions.

Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?

I am a big risk-taker! Since the early days, I have always been associated with high-risk activities. When I was 19 years old, I launched my first business and risk-taking continued when I quit my high-paying job at LinkedIn. I believe that the higher the risk, the bigger the reward. As we evolve and mature, we shape our risk strategies to minimise negative outcomes. Leaving a stable job to launch my start-up at in5 in Dubai is an example.

What successful start-ups do you wish you had started and why?

My mission in life is to help advance people’s access to knowledge. This is something I realised during my entrepreneurial journey over the past 10 years, and since then I have been funnelling all my energy into it. Educatly is a manifestation of that mission, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than this.

Where do you see the company in five years from now?

I envision building a global education network where we digitally map and integrate the world's education ecosystems. While LinkedIn built a global professional network and brands like Facebook, TikTok and others built global social networks, we aim to build a global educational network. We want to bring every school in the world and every programme or scholarship they offer on one platform. We are also creating a database of every student, alumni and professor, using the power of technology to connect them.

In the coming five years, we will expand the reach of our platform and the network we are building. This will include geographical expansion, investment in technology and strengthening our network. We are fortunate that in5 links us to some of Dubai’s biggest tech and education communities and having such a framework to turn to makes our journey less daunting.

What mistakes would you like to correct?

The biggest learning I received through mistakes is not to settle with average or dispassionate people while building something remarkable. Great ideas require great people, and it’s important to realise this at the earliest.

What new skills have you learnt while launching the company?

My journey has been a rollercoaster of self-development. Some of the most important skills I learnt during this journey are leadership, consistency and patience. They are fundamental skills for any entrepreneur.

Vision is something that is also needed as without it you can’t go beyond what you see in the short term.

Company Profile

Company: Educatly

Started: 2020

Based: UAE

Founders: Mohmmed El Sonbaty, Joan Manuel and Abdelrahman Ayman

Industry: Education technology

Funding size: $2 million

Investors: Enterprise Ireland, Egypt venture, Plus VC, HBAN, Falak Startups

Updated: January 09, 2023, 4:30 AM
COMPANY PROFILE

Company: Educatly
Started: 2020
Based: UAE
Founders: Mohmmed El Sonbaty, Joan Manuel and Abdelrahman Ayman
Industry: Education technology
Funding size: $2 million
Investors: Enterprise Ireland, Egypt venture, Plus VC, HBAN, Falak Startups

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