Blog Post

Bretton Woods: The Next 75 are about Innovation and Entrepreneurship


Wed, Sep 11, 2019

by Nish Acharya


Nish Acharya is the Executive Director of the Equal Innovation Institute and a Member of the Bretton Woods Committee. This blog post is a submission to the Bretton [email protected] initiative: a global dialogue to honor 75 years of economic progress and to revitalize the spirit of Bretton Woods now and for the future. 

In a generation, it’s possible that the Bretton Woods institutions will be among the largest startup and early-stage financing organizations in the world. Increasingly, international development and sustainability are being driven by innovation and technological change. New organizations like Beyond Meat are rapidly scaling to become household names in just a decade, and the advent of new technologies, such as mobile phones, cloud computing and social media are empowering people in the developing world in ways we never imagined.

As the world changes, so will the Bretton Woods institutions. In addition to providing large loans to governments for infrastructure projects, the World Bank, IMF and others are already investing in startups and supporting entrepreneurial ecosystem development. It’s not that large-scale infrastructure is no longer necessary, but technological change like 3D printing and mobile connectivity are making business and social enterprise into the primary operators of change – supplanting government and changing the capital requirements to scale solutions along the way.

An amazing example of this transition is English Helper. In 2019, over 2.5 million children across 12,000 schools worldwide will use English Helper, a leading English & reading software provider based in India. In less than a decade, English Helper has registered one of the largest user bases of any education technology company in the world and has done it at a fraction of the cost of other leading software and education technologies companies. By 2022, it expects to be used by 100 million children worldwide for reading and English. With nearly 45% of the world’s population under the age of thirty, it is imperative that society identify successful academic interventions and bring them to scale.

English Helper was founded in 2010 by Dr. Venkat Srinivasan, a Boston-based entrepreneur, to create an artificial intelligence-based, multi-sensory technology platform that could be used to improve learning outcomes in English, reading, writing and other educational topics. Its leading product, ReadToMe, was launched in 100 government (public) schools in India in 2013. Spurred on by the encouraging results, English Helper, in partnership with state governments in India, scaled to 9 states and 60,000 students over the next two years. By 2015, English Helper was being used by one million students in 5000 government schools in India. Today, the software is being used in North America, South America and for a unique project across every school in Sri Lanka. Major multilateral funders like the US Agency for International Development have supported English Helper’s expansion.

English Helper’s ability to scale is important for several reasons. First, there is a lack of education organizations that have scaled to have such reach across nations, languages and demographics. With the popularity of English language classes and the proven value of information technology as a learning tool, having organizational models that have scaled and can be replicated is important. Secondly, English Helper’s use of technology, existing frameworks, standards and rigorous evaluation has expedited its adoption by schools and districts. And lastly, the data collected by English Helper and its use of analytics and machine-learning will transform measurement and evaluation in real time.

How has English Helper achieved such remarkable scale when most education software and Internet companies have struggled in the K-12 market? There are three aspects to its rapid growth.

  • Machine Learning-enabled Platform – ReadToMe trains itself on the prescribed English textbook using a proprietary digitized format. By using approved textbooks, the platform can be used during the school day and data analytics collected across classrooms.
  • Ease of integration – English Helper products can use existing IT infrastructure at schools such as PC’s and Android devices. In addition, the software only uses government-approved educational material, making it easy for teachers to use the platform during a regular school day.
  • Built to scale – The software platform is designed to be deployed as scale. Through a combination of DVD’s, web-based tools and downloadable software, English Helper grew from 100 schools to 5000 in just three years.

By collecting data on millions of children and running complex data analytics and machine-learning algorithms, English Helper is able to collect real-time information on student performance and how to measure common variables across different situations – possibly the first time that educators can measure “apples-to-apples” across schools and nations. With data available in real time, schools can more quickly identify and implement changes to curriculum, student progress and pedagogy than ever before. Rather than taking years, states and nations can improve standards within months. English Helper is constantly updating its software to integrate these learnings and disseminating best practices to its teachers through trainings and updates.

Over the next 75 years, there will be many examples like English Helper, or One Acre Fund in agriculture, Logistimo in supply chain and d.light in electrification. Bretton Woods institutions can drive large-scale transformation at the country and multilateral level by promoting early-stage interventions with proven success and helping organize the ecosystem required for the solution to scale. The institutions can put their significant resources and expertise to use to evaluate new technologies and their applications. They can frame evaluation, best practices development and advocacy in the same manner as they have for larger projects in the past, but earlier, and with greater frequency. And of course, they can make their capital available in creative ways to helps researchers, early stage startups, growth companies and entities ready for scale up. There is no question that the world will need the Bretton Woods Institutions over the next 75 years, but they may need them differently than before.