Dispatches from the Front
EdTech Leaders Face Covid-19
This is the fourteenth of a series of mini-interviews ODP conducted with EdTech Founders and Senior Executives to gain insights into how industry leaders are adjusting their strategies and evolving their management practices during the current pandemic.
THIS WEEK: Conor O’Sullivan, CEO of Adaptemy
Conor O’Sullivan, CEO

Conor O’Sullivan co-founded and leads Adaptemy, a specialist provider of adaptive learning technologies to several of the world’s leading educational companies. Based in Dublin, Ireland, Adaptemy’s main client base comes from the K-12 sector in Europe and Asia. Adaptemy’s award-winning adaptive learning technologies provide the intelligence inside a wide variety of learning products, from curriculum exercising products to online tutoring systems and adaptive learning platforms. Prior to founding Adaptemy, Conor spent more than 10 years in various educational technology leadership roles, including as CTO of Folens, Ireland’s largest educational publisher.


1. Now that the school year is underway, what has surprised you the most about what your customers are doing and what’s happening in your market in general?

When the pandemic started, the initial conversations were all about deferred investments.  The surprise is that every part of the market in the places we have a presence has done well this year.  Traditional publishers had crisis meetings in March and were worrying about major declines in revenue.  Then they ended up beating their revenue targets.  So we see a picture where traditional publishers are having a good year and the digital disruptors are having a great year.  The education companies with their roots in the B to C market, who have products that are not based on legacy programs, are having a really strong year.  In this space are companies like Twinkl, Snappet, AulaPlaneta, Squla and Shaw Academy.  Many used to be seen as operating on the margins of education; now they are seen as important players.

2. You mostly serve a B to B customer base.  How have your customers’ needs and priorities changed since the pandemic began?

Our customers are giving much higher priority to their learning platforms and developing clear roadmaps for the future.  Initially, their mindset was, “I hope my platform doesn’t collapse because so many people are using it.”  For a long time, their platforms weren’t getting much usage at all; then all of sudden, when the pandemic began, everyone was using them.  They hadn’t seen that before. So they said:  OK, the platform is important.  A lot of people got in touch with us to discuss their product roadmaps, and our customers accelerated development of their learning platforms.  Some signed deals to move forward; some decided to build their platforms in-house. 

A big fear of publishers with strong backlists is that they need to get the metadata and the publishing processes right.   We did a good bit of consultancy business this year in this area.   Even companies that won’t be building adaptive products in January 2021 want to know that what they are building today is future-proof. 

What’s interesting is that we’re seeing companies’ product roadmaps emulating what the B to C education companies have been doing, and seeing how much investment is going into them.  There was lot of hype about digitization and adaptive learning in 2015-16, but in the last two to three years traditional products have done better than expected — print revenues held up.  Now learning platforms are being prioritized in a genuine way.

3. Do you think education will go back to what was considered normal before?

​​​​​​Some of what we are seeing is just accelerated digitization.  An interesting change, however, is the role of the parent.  To some degree, teachers have been found out; parents have seen how little their children learn in school. Parents come to this with experience with B to C products.  Now they have been forced to use school products, and they prefer the ones that are learner-centered and designed to be self-directed.  The role of the teacher will continue to be very strong, but the good products are ones that enable children to work independently, where the teacher’s role is more one of reinforcement.  This is where the digital disruptors that started on the B to C side are doing well. 

Since parents have been exposed to what their kids are doing, product developers have been forced to up their game.  A lot of companies are taking their lead from the B to C education companies.  As a result, I think we’re going to see a lot of consolidation:  B to C companies will start to be acquired by the big educational publishers.

4. What other kinds of changes have you been seeing in the market?

We have also seen changes in sales and marketing.  Schools have been closed, so sales reps couldn’t visit them.  This doesn’t change education but it does change sales channels.  Companies with large sales forces have had to set up remote sales process and do much more digital marketing.  There’s been a big rise in online purchasing, which is a big change for large organizations. 

Also, on the product side, we have seen changes in how to approach adaptive learning.  For years, we did adaptive learning the traditional way:  you diagnose the competencies of students against learning objectives and design the learning paths accordingly.  We got a lot of inquiries this year about students’ emotional well-being:  for example, can you assess their level of stress? Teachers who are teaching remotely have trouble knowing how their kids are doing. We already had ways to monitor learning and motivation — that’s something we model – but before we just looked at abandonment and panicking.  Now we are finding more ways to monitor stress levels and analyze subjective feedback within the process.  For example, we ask younger students how they are feeling with smiley faces or use language analysis on open responses to understand how they feel a session is going, and build that into our learner models.

5. Since your customers are mostly outside of North America and our readership is predominantly in the United States, can you share some insights about what’s happening around the world that an American audience should know about?

In Europe, my view is country by country.  What is different here from the U.S. is that a lot of countries are less mature, in terms of their use of digital products. Companies will be forced to accelerate their digital transitions.  As a result, there will be consolidation in the market.  You’ve seen Sanoma’s acquisition of Santillana Spain (announced in October), a leading Spanish provider of K-12 materials.  Some smaller companies will see the same thing happen.  Big companies have had a good year, but they recognize their own strategic weaknesses.


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Oaklins | DESILVA+PHILLIPS is an investment bank for clients that operate at the intersection of content, technology and services. This includes enterprises operating within the media, advertising & marketing, education, healthcare, information services and technology sectors.  Over 24 years, clients have included Advance Publications/Condé Nast, Deutsche Börse Group, Elsevier, Hachette, JP Morgan Partners, Microsoft, The New York Times, Time Inc., TPG and Wasserstein & Co., among others. The firm is the TMT practice co-head and industry specialist in Oaklins, the world’s most experienced mid-market M&A advisor, with over 850 professionals globally and dedicated industry teams in more than 45 countries. We have closed 1,700 transactions in the past five years.At Oaklins, we are passionate about M&A. It’s what we do, every day. We give nothing but our very best to do justice to the extraordinary effort our clients put into their businesses. Our partnership with our clients works because we both believe in never settling until we deliver excellence. Coming from every corner of the world and with a diverse range of backgrounds, together we are one global team. The world’s most experienced advisor on mid-market deals.Oaklins is the collective trade name of independent member firms affiliated with Oaklins International Inc. For details of the nature of the affiliation, please refer to www.oaklins.com/legal.

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Robin Warner

Managing Director

Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips

(212) 651-2605