How this Australian start-up is innovating maths education globally

How this Australian start-up is innovating math education globally

For some of us the thought of maths brings on sweaty hands and memories of staring at a chalkboard with tilted heads in utter confusion. But not for entrepreneur Mohamad Jebara. To him maths is beautiful. 'It’s a truth and it’s logic. It’s more than just formulas and equations, it’s art,' he says. He actually loved math so much he studied it at university and excelled. It’s what lead him to starting Mathspace. Mohamad and his team were the CeBIT 2014 Pitchfest winners. We caught up with him to ask how things were going a couple of years on and to find out how the innovative start-up is revolutionising math education globally.

What is Mathspace?

Mathspace is a cloud-based e-learning platform for mathematics. Users can solve problems on their phone, tablet or PC in steps and get instant feedback. It was launched in 2012.

How did Mathspace come about?

All great start-ups have a story and Mathspace is no different. Mohamad excelled at math in school. He did his HSC math exam at the end of year 11 (one year early) and scored 99%. He then went on to study math at university before graduating and taking a job with a derivatives trading firm Optiver. He applied for the job purely because he had to answer 80 questions in 8 minutes, he liked the idea of a challenge. He got the job and quickly climbed the ladder. After only 3 years at the firm he had his own team, but something was missing. While he was doing well on the outside, it wasn’t making him feel great. 'Derivatives are a zero sum game. You win only if someone else loses. I felt that I didn't want to spend my life working on something where not everyone was winning and there was no value added,' he says.

So he did what all 20-somethings do when they need to find themselves. He quit his hot-shot job, packed his bag and went travelling with an idea of coming back as a teacher. But, within 6 weeks of leaving Australia, the start-up bug bit him, and he came home and teamed up with his Optiver colleague Chris Vellis. Chris has been a math tutor in university and after some brainstorming, the idea for Mathspace was born.

How quickly did Mathspace get to market?

Between Mohamad and Chris they put together an excel spreadsheet of the syntax for the platform. 'It was really scrappy,' he says. 'We didn't look at it from a technology perspective as in what’s missing. We looked at it from a best practice for teaching and learning maths. It was a goal from the very start to replicate what a personal tutor would do,' Mohamad says. So they did what they could with the technical knowledge they had. Then came the job of finding a developer.

Finding the technical genius to complement their maths skills wasn’t easy. Eventually, they were introduced to Alvin Savoy through a friend of a friend of a friend. They got on instantly. The brains and the passion was there and Mathspace now had a CTO. Only 3 months later the prototype was released to the market.

'Without all of us there wouldn’t be a business,' Mohamad says. 'It’s as simple as that. Having a CTO who is a co-founder has been the best decision we’ve ever made.'

Getting into the USA

In 2015 Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, struck a deal to use Mathspace as a tool in their education suite. In late 2016 Pearson announced another partnership with Mathspace. There would now be a deeper integration into their platform. The deal required a lot of user testing and pilots, but after a year Mathspace is now a fully integrated mobile mathematics offering from Pearson USA. To give perspective, the partnership will see more students using Mathspace in the USA per year than Australia actually has students in high schools.

Before the deal there were approximately 100,000 Australian students using the Mathspace in more than 200 schools.

What’s next?

The small team of three has grown to 40 employees across Australia and the USA. While the business is always innovating and thinking about what’s next, what is interesting is the data the start-up will be able to collect now it has so many users. Mohamad says they’re beginning to get enough data to ask questions such as: Where do Australian students in grade 7 struggle? How does that compare to students in the USA? It’s possible this kind of data could help to steer the Australian education curriculum.

Advice from a successful start-up

Mohamad has been on the start-up journey for more than 4 years now. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. When asked if there were times he thought Mathspace wasn’t going to make it he said: 'Yes, a lot of the time actually. It’s a rollercoaster.'

What most start-up founders can probably relate to the most is Mohamad’s feeling of one day it feels like business is booming and the next everything is downhill and going nowhere. He’s given some helpful insights for all the founders out there.

  • Passion: is a must. Don’t get into it unless you are extremely passionate about the space. It’s always a lot harder than you think. It always takes a lot more time than you think.

  • Dedication: If you’re not prepared to spend the next 7 years of your life on it, don’t bother.

  • Advice: Have people who you can tap into for advice when you need it. I don’t have one mentor, I have a wide network I ask help from.
  • Pitching: If you have a compelling story pitching is easy. If you got into your business for the right reasons it shines through in your pitch. It’s easy because you’re just telling the real story.
  • Frustration: Mathspace’s selling-cycle is frustrating. The lead time for schools is quite long because school budgets and red tape slow it down. It’s been eye opening. So look for other ways to get to the market.
  • Co-founders and CTOs: You really need someone in the CTO position to be building your platform with the long term in mind. Don’t just hire someone to have them onboard. They need to be equally passionate about the project. It’s almost a must for them to become a co-founder.

In 2014 Mathspace won CeBIT’s Pitchfest. Since the win they’ve gone on to win pitches in San Francisco and the UK. Mohamad says the biggest perk of being the winner was the credibility and connections that came through after the win. If you want to expose your start-up to investors, people in government and some of the best technical minds in the country, learn more about CeBIT’s Pitchfest 2017 today!

CeBIT Australia Start-up Summary Report