Nikolas Kairinos is the founder and CEO of Soffos, the education technology (edtech) startup leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to make knowledge accessible to everyone.
Kairinos founded and became the CEO of Soffos in 2018. Since launching, the company has raised $1.1m in venture capital. Its most recent raise occured in 2020 in a $750,000 seed funding round. The startup is not the only one in the edtech space to have enjoyed raising funding recently. Other significant players in the industry include Indian unicorn BYJU and Austrian GoStudent, which raised a $340m Series D round in January.
Over the course of the pandemic, edtech innovators have been quick extol the virtues of digital learning. China even suggested new regulation that could culminate in the introduction of a new agency to oversee all privately held education platforms.
The spiking interest is reflected in the the data. The number of deals in the global edtech sector jumped from 151 in 2019 to 326 in 2021, according to data from research firm GlobalData. However, while the number of rounds have jumped over the course of the pandemic, it seems if this hasn’t translated into bigger chunks of money flying their way.
Sure, the total investment injected into the sector jumped from $2.8bn in 2019 to $13.2bn in 2021. However, that’s lower than the record year of 2015 when 82 deals were worth a combined $67.9bn. It’s also lower than than the $23bn raised across 110 deals in 2018.
In this inaugural installment of our CEO Chat series, Kairinos reveals how having a coffee led to him founding Soffos and how the pandemic created an edtech boom.
Eric Johansson: Tell us a bit about yourself. What did you do before founding the company?
Nikolas Kairinos: I got into computer coding when I was just 11 – it all started because I was so interested in maths and I felt that computers could solve mathematical problems quicker than people, if we could just programme them correctly. AI felt like the inevitable next step, and from there, I started my first business at 17 years old and sold it at 19.
For over 30 years since, I’m proud to say that I’ve been involved in accelerating, nurturing and raising capital for a range of different businesses – everything from real estate, through to hospitality management, lead generation and social media platforms. Right now, I’m in the edtech field, but the prospect of harnessing the power of disruptive tech widely to solve some of the world’s biggest societal issues has always been close to my heart.
Where did the idea for Soffos come from?
I was having coffee with a friend in Cyprus, and we were casually discussing our frustration with how education is delivered; bizarrely, teaching and learning methods still seem to be based on Victorian-era practices, despite the huge leaps forward in technology that could make things much more efficient. This means that there are some pretty basic problems that still need to be solved when it comes to delivering lifelong learning to both children and adult learners alike.
One such problem is the fact that the world is currently facing a ‘knowledge explosion’. Never before has so much information and data been flying through the air or via fibre-optic cables – by the time traditional methods have been used to collate and curate this into a curriculum model, the knowledge is outdated. That’s why there is very little point in buying a textbook on anything these days. Try reading a book that’s been in print for only six months about, say, website design – not only can this way of learning be prohibitively expensive, but the information is highly likely to be obsolete soon after it hits the shelves. Essentially, most of what people learn is irrelevant based on specific problems to be solved.
In a world where knowledge changes faster than it can be productively passed on, this gave me the thought that teaching needs to be more personalised, easy to follow, sharply focused via micro-lessons on very specific subjects or scenarios. Likewise, if we don’t apply and use the information we learn almost straight away, we soon forget it. Soffos is all about putting these principles into practical solutions.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about edtech technology?
People think that AI-powered edtech software should just be able to interact like a human, straight out of the box. This mostly comes from the fact that people assume that we are much further down the line with AI than we are in reality, or those who don’t fully realise the limitations of natural language processing assistants like Alexa and Siri. These technologies simply haven’t reached full maturity yet, and problems are considerably more difficult to solve when dealing with more complex tasks, like producing personalized learning materials.
How did the pandemic change edtech?
It’s been said before that necessity is often the spur of genius. Without question, the restrictions imposed throughout the pandemic meant that edtech had to change for the better – and fast. Schools suddenly were forced to start teaching online remote lessons, which is something the majority were ill-equipped to do, while companies were already well-aware that their staff training procedures had to change to fit the modern age but had yet to meaningfully implement new technologies. With the vast majority of white-collar workers working from home almost all the time, naturally, the adoption of more effective solutions accelerated.
This sounds like a good thing – and of course it is – but the truth is that business leaders are still not the most informed when it comes to choosing the best solution for their business. Even now, many organizations are implementing multiple platforms across various departments – this causes inefficiency with many people pulling in different directions. The best solutions fit the needs of everyone in the enterprise, rather than just relying on anecdotal hearsay from various department heads as to their various preferred edtech options – so business leaders should spend more time doing their research.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CEOs?
One of the best pearls of wisdom I have to offer is to always hire people more intelligent than you and support them as much as you can – the best CEOs are the company’s first salesman, and it’s vital not to run out of money, so hiring smarter allows you to focus on these goals. For instance, hire someone with investor connections to do the heavy lifting in finding potential investors. Running the company while also spending more than half your time trying to raise capital for seed rounds is incredibly hard work, so don’t spread yourself too thinly. The same goes for other initiatives.
What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
Every day is different. The most pleasant surprise is how quickly people ‘get it’ and add value when you invest enough quality time and support – it’s a sure sign that you have taken the time to hire the right people for the job, and that is something that can’t be rushed. I also love being surprised by occasional bolts of inspiration from where you might least expect it – when the social media intern suggests a way around something that baffled the science team! Those lightbulb moments prove that everyone’s opinion counts.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
I have a few. The fact that there are never enough hours in the day is my most obvious bugbear, and as I’ve already mentioned, people’s misconceptions about AI can also be a source of frustration. Whether this is because they have seen too many Hollywood movies or otherwise, many folks think that AI is smarter than humans, or that it’s going to become self-aware and destroy us – but we’re not living in Terminator-land or dealing with Robocop. Even scientists aren’t immune to misapprehensions about AI – in fact, many seem fixated on doing things the ‘textbook’ way, by relying solely on deep learning, when the bigger picture of symbolic AI should always be considered.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
Many people would find this strange, especially those who get a little bit tetchy about being on an airplane – but I really enjoy flying from place to place when I have the opportunity. It helps me think, especially when there’s no internet or email access in the air!
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
The convergence of various technologies, such as AI, virtual reality, augmented reality , 3D printing, IoT, internet everywhere. In short, the learners of the future get to look forward to a much more immersive educational experience, wherever they are in the world. Learning is all about experiences, and these technologies will hopefully make it possible for people to have access to a whole range of different opportunities, wherever they are in the world and whatever their individual circumstances. I think that is very exciting.
What’s your backup plan?
Other than continuing to breathe and enjoy excellent coffee, there is no backup plan. I don’t believe in a plan B – I just make Plan A work! Obviously, there will be a few pivots along the way to make things work and get the formula right, but I believe that keeping steadfast with your vision is vital to success.