A Kiwi startup that makes software for managing students, who check in to classes using their smartphones, has signed up more than 300 schools worldwide - including Eton College in the UK and the posh Phillips Exeter Academy in the US, best-known in recent times for its one-time fencing team captain, Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg
Its founders say their product could also help state schools in New Zealand as they grapple with rising absenteeism and mental health challenges - but that the Ministry of Education has not even responded to multiple approaches.
Orah (initially called Boardingware) was formed in 2014 by Auckland University architecture students Kurt Meyer and Paul Organ. (The firm was initially known as Boardingware; Orah is a riff on kia ora.)
The pair initially focused on technology solutions for tracking students throughout the day, such as using a smartphone to register their attendance at every class, or when they leave school grounds (the process involves check-ins on a phone, and can utilise NFC tags - the tech you use when you swipe your phone over a Paywave terminal. - rather than invasive GPS tracking).
They expanded into a full suite of school management and student engagement software, including their recently-released Nurture module, designed to make it easier for school counsellors to monitor and measure pupils’ wellbeing, as well as modules ranging from event-organising to crisis response and risk planning.
The emphasis is on providing a framework and the tools, then leaving it up to schools how they use it. With the Nurture module, for example, a school counsellor can decide which questions are asked, and how.
While there are competing products in each area, the pair pitch Orah as the only software that offers modules in all areas of student engagement - and in a cohesive fashion at a time when schools typically use a mish-mash of education software, spreadsheets and pen-and-paper.
Pricing is bespoke and depends on the number of pupils, and the number of Orah modules a school wants to deploy.
The firm - which has 47 staff, with another five coming onboard shortly - is about to embark on a fresh expansion push in North America with the new school year.
Orah already has a profile in the US, thanks to signing Exeter early this year.
Meyer, who attended the more meat-and-potatoes Mt Albert Grammar (Organ is an Auckland Grammar old boy), says Orah initially expanded from its initial focus on boarding schools to day schools in the independent market.
Their main focus was on private schools, however, "Because the sales cycles are repeatable," Organ says. "They act a lot like independent businesses, whereas the public system is a big beast. It's a big beast so it's harder to crack, but we know there's scope for it, for sure."
Meyer said it was also easier to work with independent schools on product development.
The expansion will be helped by a recent $3 million raise. Participants in the seed round included the Huljich family, who were early backers of Pushpay.
Another early Pushpay backer, Aaron Bhatnagar, also backed the round, as did Vaughan Fergusson, founder of Vend (the retail software firm sold to Canada's Lightspeed last year for around $455m).
Former Pushpay chairman Bruce Gordon also participated in the round, and was also named Orah's chairman.
But the startup's largest backer is also its earliest: Lance Wiggs' Punakaiki Fund.
"Punakaiki invested into the company in 2015, when the revenue was tiny," Wiggs says. Today, the fund is the largest single shareholder with a 29 per cent stake.
"We saw a great founding team, a strong product that replaced spreadsheets, and an attractive yet addressable global niche of boarding schools with the ability to step outside that niche to address the huge school market," Wiggs says.
"That's what is happening now, and Orah's products software is used in many of the world's most famous schools. Paul and Kurt are exemplary founders, very humble, focused on learning about their customers and the craft of growing a business, strong values and very careful with their funds.
"We are delighted with their journey so far, and with the trajectory change as they have extended their product suite and widened their market."
Organ says the $3m seed round should be enough to take Orah through to profitability on annual revenue of $10m, after which it will likely gear up for a much larger Series A round.
A school of startups
Orah is one of a number of NZ edutech startups that have gained global success over the past couple of years.
Others include Dunedin-based Education Perfect, bought by US private equity giant KKR last year in a deal that valued the firm at $455m, and Auckland’s Kami - which made Time’s 100 Most Influential Companies of 2022 list