Newsela Raises $4.1 Million to Help Students Master Reading

Newsela Raises $4.1 Million to Help Students Master Reading

Sep 17, 2014 7:30 am ET
Co-founders Dan Cogan-Drew (left) and Matthew Gross

Education-tech startup Newsela Inc. has raised $4.1 million in Series A funding to help any student become a master reader, Chief Executive Matthew Gross told Venture Capital Dispatch.

Newsela’s app delivers written news to readers in K-12 classrooms, presenting versions of each article that are tailored to be comprehensible but challenging to students at different reading levels.

As they improve their English language arts skills, students can share a classroom-wide discussion about current events using Newsela. Those who are struggling won’t feel left out, while those who are excelling won’t feel bored, Mr. Gross said.

Owl Ventures, a new venture firm that solely backs ed-tech startups, led the investment in the 21-employee New York City startup.

Tory Patterson, a founding partner at Owl, said Newsela impressed him with its mission and the uptake of its app among teachers and students in the U.S. so far. With the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Newsela is experiencing about 20,000 user registrations a day, the company said–about 2,000 teachers and 18,000 students among them, the company revealed.

To obtain its news content, Newsela strikes licensing deals and partnerships with online and print publishers, including Scientific American, McClatchy, Tribune and Associated Press. Newsela also employs staff writers–mostly from the fields of education and news–to adapt licensed articles from publishers for use within the classroom.

Newsela’s platform is free to use, but a premium, paid version lets teachers more carefully assess, in real-time, how students are progressing with a given reading assignment.

Schools or entire school districts are Newsela’s clients. The premium Newsela technology is used district wide in cities from Newark, N.J., to Palm Springs, Calif.

The learning assessment portion of Newsela’s platform helps teachers in these districts support the efforts of students who are succeeding, and intervene to help those who are struggling. Mr. Gross compared this to a hitting coach being able to watch and help adjust a player’s stance on the field, instead of waiting until after practice to tell the player he or she should try something a bit different with their swing.

Owl Ventures’ Tory Patterson said the rollout of new standards such as the Common Core State Standards for English language arts are driving the adoption of various ed-tech apps, and among these, literacy apps are on the rise.

Seed and venture investors have also backed startups such as NoRedInk Corp., which helps students improve their grammar and writing skills; Zoobean LLC, which delivers personalized reading recommendations to students; Lightsail Inc., which provides a digital library for students and quizzes them on material as they read along; as well as Tales2Go Inc., which lets students listen to stories online or offline on the devices of their choice, including mobile phones, PCs or tablets.

Mr. Patterson said he expects Newsela to use its funding on hiring and product development. Distribution and growth of sales is already going well, so he doesn’t expect the company to have to invest its capital in marketing as much as research, development and building new tools for educators.

Alongside Owl, Newsela’s Series A backers included Knight Foundation’s Knight Enterprise Fund, Cambridge Information Group and the startup’s earlier investors: NewSchools Venture Fund and Kapor Capital. A range of individual investors, primarily from the fields of Venture Capital and education, also participated.

The company previously raised about $1.5 million in seed funding and received a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build “next-generation literacy tools.”

Write to Lora Kolodny at Follow her on Twitter at @lorakolodny

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