Ronnie Screwvala explains why COVID edtech boom is unlike demonetisation boost for digital payments

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  • The shift to online learning might not be a temporary change but could also lead the way for a greater societal change.
  • Ronnie Screwvala, media mogul and the co-founder of edtech startup upGrad, says online learning will make ‘aspirational colleges’ accessible to people in hinterland India.
  • In a conversation with Chiratae Ventures’ founder and Managing Director T C Meenakshisundaram, Screwvala shared his thoughts on how the pandemic has changed education.
  • However, he believes COVID-19 is more of an ‘acceleration’ point for edtech rather than an ‘inflection’ point.
India’s edtech startups have raised billions of dollars in investments this year alone, and valuations are soaring– BYJU’S has hit $10.8 billion, while Unacademy recently turned unicorn at a $1.5 billion valuation. However, upGrad’s co-founder Ronnie Screwvala believes that this is not similar to IT’s 2000 boom or the demonetisation moment for fintech firms like Paytm and PhonePe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed learning to online platforms as schools and colleges remain shut. Startups have seen a surge in their user base as not just students and teachers, even parents get accustomed to a digital first approach. “I would only sum it up as what COVID has done is that, what I would do in the next 4 years, I can now do in the next 2 years,” he said in a conversation with Chiratae Ventures’ founder and Managing Director T C Meenakshisundaram (TCM).

According to a Redseer and Omidyar network report, the market for online education for grades 1 to 12 is set to jump by over six times to hit $1.7 billion while the post K12 market will grow almost four times to hit $1.8 billion.

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The shift to online learning has a much larger potential for societal change

However, Screwvala, the media mogul-turned-edtech entrepreneur, sees this a bigger change underlying, one that will last much longer than the fall in cash usage after the 2016 note ban. “Whether we like it or not in India, the socio-economic reasons force people to take up a job very early in their lives and therefore skip education more as a necessity rather than as a choice and that’s what I think online will substitute for, where you can continue to work and learn and get a degree,” he said.

Simply put, people can choose to stagger their education over the course of their career based on the industry’s evolutionary needs and their personal growth. And as Screwvala sees it, people who live far away from the country’s ‘aspirational colleges’ now have an opportunity for remote access.

There lies a business opportunity for Screwvala. “The problem we wanna solve is lifelong learning as we believe that education is no longer an event and every 3-4 years everyone will need to in some form or the other upgrade themselves and they can’t take a year off, they can’t necessarily stop their working life,” he said.
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upGrad had recently raised a ₹50 crore debt fund from IIFL Asset Management. The startup now expects a ₹1,200 crore annual run rate with profitability and also expects a 100% increase in repeat enrollments in the portal.

“All companies would have taken another 3-4 years in concept selling, brand building, community building and that's been accelerated,” he said. Screwvala is willing to spend big bucks on brand upGrad for this rosy future that he sees. The company has bagged a ‘high value deal’ with Star and Hotstar to run advertisements during the upcoming Indian Premier League.

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