The role of robots in education has been the subject of human imagination and fantasy for a long time. As we worry about the fourth industrial revolution and its implications around reskilling, there’s also the role that artificial intelligence can play in helping us improve learning within the classroom and level the playing field. One company working towards such ends is CENTURY in London. CENTURY is present in hundreds of schools in the UK and globally. It bills itself as the “the intelligent teaching and learning platform” and focuses on “using learning science, artificial intelligence and neuroscience” to create “adapting pathways for students and powerful assessment data for teachers”.
QRF sat with Priya Lakhani the founder and CEO of CENTURY to learn more about her company’s journey.
QRF: Thank you for being here with us. We are excited to learn about your entrepreneurial journey. Can you tell us about yourself - what is your story?
I began my career as a barrister specialising in libel and privacy law before starting my own successful food business, Masala Masala, in 2008. I then sat on the Department for Business’ advisory board, where I learned that nearly 2 million children in Britain alone were learning in failing schools - a tragic situation that is holding back communities across the country, and across the world.
I knew things had to change, so I combined my entrepreneurial mindset with the latest technologies that were disrupting and improving most other sectors, and in 2015 CENTURY was born. CENTURY is the first truly artificially intelligent teaching and learning platform for schools, colleges and universities - it learns how each student learns and provides them with a personalised path to mastery in any subject. It automates marking, planning and administrative tasks and frees up the teacher to get on with what they joined the profession to do - teach.
QRF: What are the biggest challenges you are facing today?
In just a few short years we have grown organically into hundreds of schools across the world, and once headteachers see the platform, they always love it. But one challenge we face is reaching them in the first place. In many countries, especially in England, the school system is fractured and decentralised, with each individual school making their own decision about technology solutions. We’re spreading like wildfire through word of mouth, and currently putting in place a robust marketing strategy.
QRF: What are your top two or three lessons from your journey so far?
Firstly, you have to persevere, persevere, and then persevere some more. There will be countless hurdles to face, many of which will seem insurmountable, but you have to be able to pick yourself up and keep going. That’s the only reason we have been able to succeed - because we never contemplated anything else happening.
Secondly, it’s vital to have a support group around you - not just to pick you up when you fail, but people off whom you can bounce ideas and gauge whether you’re onto something. I’m lucky to have people like that around me - people on my board and founder friends like Emma Sinclair, Jon Buss, Gi Fernando - we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Thirdly, you have to work in an area that inspires you personally. For me, there’s nothing more reaffirming than when you meet a teacher or a pupil using CENTURY and they’re talking about how it has helped them in glowing terms. When I go into schools and 8-year-olds talk me through what they have learned, and you meet their parents and they’re finally able to properly keep up with their child’s progress at school, it makes every late night and every struggle worthwhile. You can’t get that sort of motivation from anything else.
QRF: Most education entrepreneurs enter the space with the goal of creating a positive social impact, in addition to healthy financial returns. How do you balance mission and profit at CENTURY?
For me, there can be no profit without mission. Profit comes from providing your customers with what they want - and schools aren’t stupid, you can’t do that unless you have absolutely nailed your product and ensured that it will make a real, demonstrable impact on their outcomes. In order to do this you need people who believe in what they’re doing to an almost fanatical level - every single person at CENTURY truly believes they are changing the world for the better. If you combine genuine belief and passion with an excellent product - then profit almost becomes a secondary issue. If we were chasing profits, we’d be doing things completely the wrong way around.
QRF: What recommendations, or thoughts, do you have for improving the state of educational innovation and entrepreneurship? How can governments and policy makers better support education or social entrepreneurs?
I mentioned that the English system is fractured, but we do have an Education Secretary that is open to the role technology and artificial intelligence can play in improving education. This is critical because we have a long way to go, and there is a big role government can play - including the creation of the right policy environment and the right incentive schemes.
One great story to tell is EDUCATE, a unit set up at UCL by Professor Rose Luckin to explore and advance the use of technology in education. The support given to us by Professor Luckin and her team has been invaluable in ensuring we continue to be an evidence-led platform. I believe other ecosystems would benefit greatly from collaboration between academia and entrepreneurs that aids in the development of evidence-driven tools that put impact first.
QRF: Thank you for your time and insightful answers. We wish you and the team the best of luck going forward.