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How Ex Twitter India Chief Is Reimagining Education In A Virtual World

How Ex Twitter India Chief Is Reimagining Education In A Virtual World

Like Amazon disrupted ecommerce space and Netflix and Prime did entertainment space, the education sector needs a similar disruption, says former Twitter India CEO Manish Maheshwari on his new startup

Unlike the existing corporate solutions such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Metaversity is designed in a way where bandwidth is prioritised to meet the immersive experience requirements, he adds

We are building a complete campus experience with end-to-end solutions, which includes library, campus placements and so on, says Invact Metaversity cofounder Tanay Pratap

Former Twitter India CEO Manish Maheshwari and Tanay Pratap, a former senior software engineer at Microsoft, recently launched Invact Metaversity, offering an immersive campus experience to students.

The startup has just raised funding from 70+ global and local investors, including global leaders (former and/or current) from Microsoft, Meta, Coinbase, Google, Twitter, Uber, Amazon, Softbank, World Bank, Ford Foundation, Qatar Foundation, McKinsey, Spotify, GoJek, LinkedIn, Notion, Disney, among others.

Indian angel investors who participated in the round include: Future Group’s Kishore Biyani, Manipal Group’s TV Mohandas Pai, Plaksha’s Ritesh Malik, 2AM Ventures’ cofounder and partner Hershel Mehta and former Facebook India’s head Kirthiga Reddy. New-age entrepreneurs from startups such as Zilingo, Zerodha, Razorpay, Sheroes, Snapdeal, Koo, CARS24, Bounce, Leap Finance, Suki also participated in the round..

Inc42 caught up with the cofounders, Maheshwari and Pratap on the company’s future plans, challenges, competition and more.

Excerpts from the interview.

Inc42: What made you launch Metaversity? 

Manish Maheshwari: During COVID times, we saw how students suffered when everything moved online. Most of them could not go to college. They missed classes and good placement opportunities. Even the relationship between the student and the college was not full of trust. The college wanted them to attend exams in person while students could not travel. I saw all the pain and anguish on Twitter because all these hashtags were trending.

It occurred to me — “Could we do something to reimagine how education is delivered in the virtual world?”

People were forced to use Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. But these platforms were not created for classroom learning or educational outcomes. These platforms were created for office meetings. The problem with these platforms is that you essentially have a teacher in one square box and students in other square boxes. It’s very transactional. There is no social or community layer.

For us, college life is one of the most valuable social experiences. We used to love going to college because we used to hang out with friends in the cafeteria, in the library and so on. It was a social experience. It’s a dilemma that exists in online learning, there is no social angle. That’s the first form factor.

The second form factor is that you’re watching a recorded video, like a YouTube video behind a paywall or it’s Coursera or others courses. You go to a recorded video that you listen to in isolation sitting in your room all alone. It’s a very boring, and isolated experience.

No wonder, the completion rate of these online courses is less than 10%. It has been a cumbersome experience. For instance, you have to go to Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom to attend classes. For the community purpose, one has to go on Discord or Slack and they have to use a separate learning management system.

This is how we realised that there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Inc42: How did you (cofounders) meet? 

Manish Maheshwari: During the COVID times, I found that it was Twitter where all the major conversations were happening in the country. And, my team (at Twitter) was keeping a track of the movers and shakers in different industries, all the way from politics to entertainment to education. And, this is how Tanay’s name popped up as someone who has a very strong connection with students, someone who has a high engagement. And later, I learned that he was also running a cohort-based online training programme.

I thought I should meet him. We both were in Bengaluru. So, I invited him for dinner. And we hit it off really well. We found out that our hearts beat for education. We both come from small towns in India. And, we have seen the challenges that people face here to get a good quality education.

Tanay Pratap: The best thing which came out of this almost day-long discussion was that we have to reimagine the entire education system and not just fix pieces of it. Whether it is online education or degrees to show your credentials, everything needed to be reimagined differently.

How about making everything including students’ credentials, educational background, work experience and so on, available on chain!

This is how we came up with the idea of Metaversity.

Inc42: You have launched Meta MBA on Metversity. What’s the plan? Is it going to be limited to higher education only?

Manish Maheshwari: What you see on the website is our first programme, a 16-week business foundation programme that includes immersive learning. We will soon launch other programmes, like Meta Engineering and so on.

Now, in response to your question, let’s take an analogy. Amazon started by selling books. And by selling books, they figured out the whole logistics, the auditing and the payment process. Then they added furniture, apparel, electronics and whatnot. Then they invited third-party sellers to sell on their platform. And they took care of all the logistics, ordering and more. Sellers had to simply register and list the products on the platform.

Similarly, we are building the core experience where we will also run a few courses ourselves, to begin with, to understand what works and what doesn’t work in order to perfect our system. Once we have figured that out, we will invite other colleges and universities to set up their campuses on Metaversity. In fact, we’re already talking to IIT Madras in this regard.

Inc42: Can we call it a marketplace then?

Manish Maheshwari: Yes, a marketplace embedded with the layers of community and social experiences.

See, I went to Wharton (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania). Wharton made its campus on the bank of Schuylkill River, on acres and acres of Victorian land. However, if you’ll see, hardly anyone paid a visit to the campus since the onset of COVID. The entire campus is vacant. This has been the dilemma with most colleges and educational institutions.

These institutions have invested so much in real estate, but due to COVID, no one visited them. And, even after COVID fully goes away, people will not go to campus 100% of the time; they will go once a week or so. Just like now, you and I don’t go to the shopping mall every day, but once in a while. Other times, we shop online, same with movies, we don’t go to the cinema hall all the time but watch movies on Amazon Prime and Netflix. It will happen to education and students will not go to college every day.

See, how the top retail brands Nike, Adidas, Zara and Chanel once refused to go online because they thought of themselves as premium brands and wanted to limit themselves to physical stores only. However, as everyone started shopping online, these brands had no choice but to sell online. Similarly, colleges that have invested so much in real estate are in a dilemma: what do they do now?

Now that all learners are online, colleges and educational institutions have no choice but to go online. We are building Metaversity as a platform, where each of these colleges could make their own campus and start offering their courses and experience online.

We also plan to open it for third parties. For instance, if a math teacher wants to teach at Metaversity, they can use the platform. We will take care of the marketing, distribution, experience, everything.

Suppose a university campus opens at Metversity, a student from Georgia and a student from Gurugram will have the same campus experience and the same library experience.

Inc42: Don’t you think this could be easily replicated? While the Indian government has already announced plans to launch a digital university, edtech startups like BYJU’s and Unacademy too may come up with similar offerings later?

Tanay Pratap: One thing which we need to realise here is that we shouldn’t confuse content with the university. Content has always been there. There’s been an open course from IIT for the last 10 years available for free on Youtube. One can learn there, but how much it has made the needle move?

So, with the digital university or with any kind of content, learning doesn’t happen only via YouTube content or video content. It happens in the community and it happens with experiences. It also needs to have placements and accountability factors. So, at Metaversity, we are coming up with an end-to-end solution.

We are basically providing the whole university experience. Our game is when we say university, we mean from admissions to placements. We are working on this experience piece, building a community base and providing end to end guidance to a student, instead of just offering a few courses.

In offline shops when you’re buying a product on ecommerce platforms like Amazon, you don’t have to interview the seller. You look at the product, you look at the pictures, you look at the catalogue and then you decide what you want to buy.

Similarly, if you’re hiring a candidate, you don’t have to interview the candidate, you can look at their proof of work, what assignments they have done, who has reviewed it, who has verified it, what kind of ratings they have gotten, who have given them critical feedback and you can decide that this person has this set of skills. And you can publicly verify everything because everything is on the chain.

Inc42: Are you going to run the backend operations on the blockchain?

Tanay Pratap: Not at the moment. We evaluated doing this and even built a proof of concept. I think the gas fee is too high and everything around Web 3.0 is not ready yet at the moment.

So, we are building an open database, an openly verifiable identity piece, which will be integrated with multiple colleges and hiring managers. But we are not exactly building it on the blockchain.

Inc42: But, there are still issues such as network and hardware accessibility, right? 

Manish Maheshwari: At Metaversity, universities could build their campuses and make them accessible to people at almost negligible cost. Unlike the physical infrastructure where you have to invest every time, here, you have to invest once and then you can deploy it anywhere in the world.

Hardware device price is going down. Today, if you look at Oculus, which is the latest VR device, it costs about $300 i.e. approximately, INR 22,000. The internet cost has already come down significantly since the Jio launch. The VR device’s price will come down to $100, as the demand goes higher. If you look at the last quarter data, sale of VR devices had outpaced Microbox Xbox sales for the first time.

Once VR devices become classroom essentials, the prices will come down to $10.

Tanay Pratap: Yes, these are very real challenges. Not everyone has the best phone or the best laptop. There is a hardware and network limitation. That’s why we are building our Metaversity on the web platform so that it’s easy to get in. And, at the same time, we have taken a series of measures to optimise the platform’s efficiency.

For instance, during our product research on VR, we saw that VR apps are not about photorealism. They’re more about the experiences because you are moving. So, you don’t notice the tiny pixels everywhere but focus on the experience that you are having. As a result, we have also not focussed on photorealism. This has helped reduce the bandwidth requirement. Unlike the existing solutions of Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, we have also prioritised the teacher’s audio and video over the others.

Inc42: Coming to funding, you have raised seed funding from 70+ global and local investors at a $33 Mn valuation. Any particular reason to include so many investors at seed level? Besides money, what else are you looking for, from them?

Manish Maheshwari: These are people who are top executives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, World Bank, and SoftBank. So, clearly, a lot of people are excited. It is because many industries have been disrupted, from retail to financial services to entertainment. But what has not been disrupted yet is education.

In ecommerce, a disruption came with Amazon and Flipkart. In entertainment, disruption came with Netflix and Amazon Prime. But, we haven’t seen a similar disruption in education. Unacademy and BYJUs of the world have just tweaked the existing offline concept for online. They are just delivering the same courses and lectures online. There’s no reimagination.

Having said that, we do have a lineup of VCs, which we’ll disclose in due course, who are also putting in money. And our view here is that we need to build a solid platform. We need to imagine what education should be in a world which is going to be increasingly virtual.

Technology makes many things possible. And it also makes it possible at a fraction of the cost. And when you reduce the cost and the barriers, it becomes very inclusive and affordable. So that’s why we are looking at it. And that’s why people are quite excited. In fact, I had to turn down money from investors because we were able to raise more than what we wanted.