Atul Nishar, the founder of listed software services company Hexaware Technologies, has once again ventured into entrepreneurship (six years after exiting Hexaware) with new venture Azent.
Azent Overseas Ventures, is an online-offline Edtech startup, which aims to help thousands of Indian students find their right college abroad. Launched by Nishar along with his daughter Priyanka, an alumnus of Harvard Business School and Cornell University, it seeks to use the power of data crunching and machine learning tools to recommend colleges to students.
Azent, which will have centres in Mumbai, Thane, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru, will look to deploy INR 250 Cr that will be used over three years in developing technologies that help predict and contextualise options for students looking to study abroad.
The startup will help students (primarily those who are looking at a masters degree) in selecting the right course and university present in US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland and Singapore. The counselling service will also include aiding students with applications, visas and pre-departure processes.
“Our students can access over 1,200 universities across the world. We match students to the best possible universities where they will excel in their programs. Our comprehensive list of scholarships will guide students and further their possibilities,” said Priyanka.
Formalising Student Advisory Services
One of the theses for the startup is that the student advisory or counselling services for international admissions is a highly unorganised sector and still works a lot on paper and excel sheets when it comes to shortlisting right universities.
According to Atul, the importance of international education and the stakes it involves is too hard to ignore. Atul cited instances of parents mortgaging their apartment so that their children can study abroad and build a career as an example of how critical this option is for some middle class families and also the reason why he thinks the industry warrants a long-term player.
“I was an international student and have been through the application process myself. Finding the right information is like finding a needle in a haystack. In the US there are over 4000 universities and in a small country like New Zealand there are 300 institutes and so even if you know the destination it is difficult to shortlist. It’s not just about ranking of colleges but about suitability which meets your criteria,” added Priyanka.
Atul added that online counselling does not mean automated, but that the choices counsellors make are well-informed and that the company hopes to cater to lower-tier cities through its online programmes. He added the startup is very open to investing in or acquiring startups or companies that can complement its edtech vision.
The pricing of the services was not revealed but Priyanka said that this would vary depending on the target university, the number of open spots, and the region. For now, the startup has brought on board 25 counsellors who will start by assisting students during the ongoing applications season.
Educational Counselling, Inspired By Shopping
According to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), while spending on tuition and hostel fees by Indian students studying abroad has shot up 44% from $1.9 Bn in 2013-14 to $2.8 Bn in 2017-18.
With over 33 Lakh Indian students studying overseas, India is the second-largest source of international students after China. The growth in spending and the prevalence of international universities among the affluent class and sections of the middle class is expected to go up in numbers. That’s something Atul had at the back of his mind when it comes to the market opportunity given his previous experience with settling up of computer training platform Aptech, during the early days of the PC revolution in India.
Atul, who earned a cheque of INR 1000 Cr when he sold Hexaware in 2013, does not peg a market value on how big the student advisory sector is and a partial reason for that could be the unorganised nature of current services.
But Azent does seem to make the counseling experience more ordered and shopping-like in nature. One of the core goals of Azent is to provide a mix of online and offline experience, and the startup plans to open “state-of-the-art centres in the metro cities and suburbs that include Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Thane.
At these centres, the students can use tools such as virtual reality to walk on campus of various universities, something that is aimed at enticing the prospective and eager students. “Different kinds of courses come out every year and manually it’s an impossible task. What happens is that the advisor knows a few things and takes a call based on that. We also wanted to have reach across India and through the online medium we can cater to the aspirations,” said R V Ramanan, who was the executive director and president of Hexaware and is now helping Azent build its tech platform.