Labster scores $21M Series B to bring VR to STEM education

Napkin Takeaways: Michael Jensen of Labster

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Making education fun can be difficult as today’s students have increasingly short attention spans.

With distractions like social media, content streaming and gaming, educators worldwide are fighting a losing battle to engage their students and raise learning outcomes.

That is the challenge Michael Jensen, founder of virtual science provider Labster, aims to overcome. Inspired by the world of 3D gaming, Labster’s vision is to virtualize and improve science education for aspiring scientists while reducing costs at the same time. The Copenhagen-based startup has so far built a catalog of over 100 virtual science labs, which enable some three million students from more than 1,000 universities and 3,000 high schools worldwide to learn science without leaving their homes, according to its website. Labster is also GGV’s first investment in Europe, with the deal taking place in spite of Covid-19 and conducted entirely online. Here are four features driving Labster’s success:

1. It has an innovation-based strategy

One of the biggest challenges in science education is the need to invest in building expensive laboratories. These costs make it difficult for even top schools to provide their students with the high-quality facilities and resources required to experiment with science.  Having previously managed a gaming company, Jensen used his experience in that industry to develop a strategy of virtualizing education with lower costs. “We set out to find ways in which we can replicate the success of flight simulators to train pilots and essentially just virtualize as much as we can, without compromising the quality of the learning experience. We seek to virtualize education wherever we can to help save costs, increase engagement, and reduce the time to learn, or make it safer, which typically is the case in these virtual worlds,” he told GGV.

2. It stays connected to its mission, despite uncertainty

When Covid-19 first hit, Labster was ill-prepared for the volatility that rocked the industry.  “But we really were committed to helping our partner institutions get through these challenging times, so we actually made large parts of our product freely available to schools affected by Covid-19,” Jensen recalled.  This involved a series of rapid decisions, including making the product easily available in a highly scalable way within a period of just one weekend. But within weeks, more than 50,000 teachers across the US had signed up.  While there were doubts over whether it would be viable for Labster, the bold move raised awareness for the platform across the education sphere, particularly in the US. Today, usage is roughly 20 times higher than a year ago.  It was the right thing for our customers, and it was the right thing for our company as well. It put us on the radar for many institutions across North America and Europe, and massively accelerated our growth, which was already at a high pace before Covid-19,” Jensen said.

3. It has identified and is addressing the barriers to long-term growth

Even though Labster has worked with Google and Arizona State University to launch a fully accredited, four-year online college degree in biology using immersive 3D simulations and virtual reality (VR), adoption rates have been much slower.  While research shows that learning retention rates improve by up to 20% in more immersive environments, hardware costs can rise significantly, making the product very difficult to sell.  But Labster calculates that it will take just a few more years to bring down the cost of a VR headset to around U$100 each for educators and students, and it is staying the course. “We continue to support VR, as we know that it will be on the roadmap in the future together with augmented reality. So our entire technology and platform is actually designed for that, and all our simulations now work across mobile,” declared Jensen.  To optimize growth, Labster is also building VR learning tools that empower educators not just in science but across other fields like history and math. Jensen explains that these are very simple modules which require no coding to use.  “We have now more than 2,000 assets and modules that make it very quick and easy to build simple simulations in hours, or maybe a few days for more complex simulations,” he explained. 

4. Its founder has rich experience and big dreams

Jensen first developed a keen interest in computer technology at the age of 14, when he worked at an internet café and was forced to learn code so he could remotely turn off the computers of recalcitrant Starcraft and Counter Strike gamers at the cafes. The customers would get very angry if he physically turned the power off when their time was up, “Through that experience, I learned that I could use my passion for technology to help people and come up with solutions to real-world challenges.” As he grew older, Jensen reached a point where he was running two companies while juggling his studies. At the same time, he was also teaching in a school, which frustrated him because it was hard to engage students and get them excited about learning. “I realized the only way I could get through this was to learn really effectively, because I didn’t have much spare time to study. During those years, I developed this deep passion for understanding how to design an immersive experience where students truly learn,” he related. “Merging that with engaging storylines and project-based learning for students is where you really start to see huge learning outcome benefits from the same amount of time invested.”  And now that he’s turned immersive learning into a scalable business, Jensen reckons his true calling is to empower scientists around the world by giving them “the tools, the resources, the knowledge, but also the passion and self-belief to solve global challenges.”
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