From small-town boy to co-owner of Next Education, Beas Ralhan built a startup before the internet was popular in India

Next Education claims its services are used by over 150,000 teachers, having an impact on 10 million students across 10,000 schools in India

NextEducation Co-founder and CEO Beas Dev Ralhan

NextEducation Co-founder and CEO Beas Dev Ralhan

For this Punjabi boy, business had never been his cup of tea.

Born to a middle-class family in a nondescript village in Hoshiarpur in the Punjab province in India, Beas Dev Ralhan was more interested in storytelling and comedy as a child, unlike his businessman-father who owned a small shop in their neighbourhood. Like any other kids of his age, Ralhan wanted to chase his dreams and become a popular stand-up comedian, but fate had something else in store for him.

When he was in the 6th grade, his father’s once-flourishing business began to crumble, smashing his dreams. But it was a blessing in disguise, as Ralhan likes to call it, as it taught him some important lessons in life.

“The losses made me realise that the only way out of this situation was to work towards the best outcome using the resources I had, rather than focus on what I was good at but didn’t have the resources for,” Ralhan tells me. “When looking back, I realise that this is one of the best natural instincts I have developed, and it has helped me survive so many situations in my professional career.”

Ralhan’s childhood was a roller coaster ride. Things were pretty good in the early part of his schooling, but the situation began to change when he recached the 9th grade.

“Struggles began to creep into our lives when I was in the 9th grade. The loss of dad’s business affected our family budget, and were struggling to meet the ends. It put me in a fix — I had to either choose a career in story telling, or to continue studies so that I could find a good job to support the family. I chose the latter because I had to focus on what I could do the best with the resources available, than what I was good at but didn’t have the resources for,” he recounts.

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“So, I applied my natural gifts of imagination, hard work and ability to quickly learn Science and Maths, and got into Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, one of the premier educational institutes in the country,” Ralhan adds.

At IIT, he chose Science (Integrated MSc) and focussed on solving scientific problems, which he believed would make a significant impact in the world. However, when he started doing research and working in the summers in a professor’s lab, he realised the best way to create impact was to build companies, and not work in research labs. Also, the growth of the internet and related technologies in that era made him think that those might help create greater impact.

“This change in approach brought forth a series of changes in my life. I had to study on my own to successfully go through Computer Science courses (which resulted in bad grades in core subjects). Also, it meant that I had to work with my juniors,” he chuckles. “In fact, along with one of my juniors, I completed a few Linux-based projects for local cable operators to better understand the mindset of technology entrepreneurs.”

Giving back to the society

After graduating from IIT, Ralhan was always keen on starting something on his own. A degree from IIT was always a privilege. “But the very thought that IITs in the country are run on taxpayers’ money put a sense of gratitude in me, and I wanted to give back to the society.”

In order to achieve this objective, Ralhan joined a technology startup, built by a group of IIT Bombay alumni. After a brief stint at this startup, he moved on to join an IIT Delhi alumnus Anurag Dikshit and a few other IIT alumni to work on various internet B2C ideas.

“In the following three years, we tried nearly 10 ideas in various forms and formats, but could not reach any level of success. Therefore, I decided to move out and work in the US. I joined Indian software giant Infosys and worked for three years at various locations in the country. This experience helped me understand the US retail business in great detail, as well as to acquire qualities such as being straight, focusing on scale and doing business margin, which make American businesses and people very successful,” he goes on.

A few years later, Ralhan got an opportunity to be Head of Research (Technology) at PartyGaming, an FTSE 100 firm. This experience introduced him to the vast field of M&A, capital allocation discipline and technology research. This also sparked his interest towards getting an MBA degree to be a well-rounded leader and to be able to head technology departments or companies.

“I applied for an MBA at the London Business School. In the meantime, I worked for Onicle and focused on technology investment opportunities for the family office of Anurag Dikshit. My stint in London was my first introduction to old money and European culture, and also helped me develop an understanding of businesses in Asia Pacific and Africa. It helped me get a lot of diverse exposure to the world than the US,” he says.

After securing an MBA degree, Ralhan moved back to his home country to take the plunge into entrepreneurship in 2007.

Education, a massive opportunity 

When he returned to India back in 2007, India’s internet economy was still toddling. The startup ecosystem did not exist. Flipkart was still in the concept stage. Smartphones were an unheard-of thing. Many sectors in India were still run offline and were not impacted by technology.

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“We fancied ourselves as technologists and we knew it could bring massive changes to India. When we were chalking out plans, we realised that there were three main sectors that were not impacted by technology — retail, finance and education. Retail and finance were highly regulated, so we sniffed an opportunity in education. Plus, it was a huge industry. That’s why we fundamentally decided on education, and Next Education took birth,” he continues.

Started in 2007 by Ralhan (CEO), Raveendranath Kamath (CFO) and Daljit Singh (Director), Hyderabad-headquartered Next Education empowers schools with technology-based K-12 solutions. Its learning solutions cover the syllabi of CBSE, ICSE, Army, and 29 State Boards across seven Indian languages. Its services are used by over 150,000 teachers, having an impact on 10 million students across 10,000 schools.

The company not only provides content, but also the infrastructure. “The school tells us the number of classes they want to digitise, and we will set it up for them. It includes interactive board, graphics, mathematical tools, periodic tables, simulations, etc. We will maintain it for five years,” he explains.

The hardware is worth over INR 1 lakh, which will be collected from the school over a over a period of five years. The school pays INR 6,000 per class room per month.

All the content is prepared by its in-house team of 800-plus people, who have teaching and academic experience of more than 10- 25 years each.

Key products

  • TeachNext: An interactive e-learning solution combining the best of new-age technology, creative and interactive tools.
  • NextBooks: A solution for pre-primary and primary schools.
  • NextDeeksha: Training, accreditation services and consultancy solutions for schools by experienced and dedicated in-house educators.
  • NextLab: An experiential learning approach for schools enabling students to use hands-on activities to understand English, Maths, Science and Robotics better.
  • LearnNext: An independent, engaging and intelligent platform which fosters self-learning, and helps students grasp complex topics easily.
  • NextERP: An integrated school management system which streamlines all processes, departments and functions of a school.
  • NextGurukul: An online K-12 community which facilitates collaboration among students, teachers, parents and principals.
  • NextLearningPlatform: An adaptive technology solution to provide teachers and students a platform to envision, explore and create individualised learning materials.

Detailing the future plans, Ralhan says that the company is revamping its self-learning solution and launching LearnNext 2.0 early next year. Hands-on activity science and maths kits and modules for foundations courses are some of the new features that they are adding.

“We are currently busy making a common platform for all our products. Recently, artificial intelligence (AI) has made inroads into the education sector. For instance, Natural Language Processing (NLP) is bringing forth a revolution in the interaction between human languages and computers. We, as humans, have taught ourselves to identify the subject, verb and object in a sentence,” he shares.

“However, a sentence is just a set of characters for a computer. A set of algorithms make syntax and grammar rules clear to it, and then, the computer identifies the parts of speech. Thus, NLP integrated with our learning management system, NextLearningPlatform, helps students identify their mistakes while they are at the task. Stanford Core NLP Library, one of the most advanced NLP libraries, powers our language engine. In a year’s time, we will upgrade the functions of NLP. Computers will be able to detect if the answers written by students have sound logical reasoning and an accurate flow,” he elaborates.

Speech recognition is another feature Next Education is integrating with NextLearningPlatform. This will help the computer recognise spoken language and translate it into text.

With a strong 2,500-plus team, the company has five regional offices across India, with plans to open three more in Bangalore, Indore, and Chennai.

Next Education claims to have a 50 per cent marketshare for its flagship product, TeachNext. Its close rival is Educomp Solutions.

In 2014. Next Education raised US$60 million from Dixit. Last year, the company acquired three firms in this domain.

Despite all the achievements, why Next Education still maintains a low profile?

“Well, we strongly believe that one ought to first focus on being sustainable. Only then can marketing and branding help products gain the needed outreach. Now that we have become scaleable and sustainable, we will focus more on reaching out to the right audience through marketing,” Ralhan concludes.

Image Credit: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

The post From small-town boy to co-owner of Next Education, Beas Ralhan built a startup before the internet was popular in India appeared first on e27.

Author: Sainul Abudheen,
Puslished Date: August 22, 2017,
Published Time: 9:01 pm