Creating innovators

Creating innovators

Learn by rote, score well in exams and get the best course with great job prospects – the life of a student is mapped even before he or she even understands the purpose of education. As a result, schools become machines that churn out high scorers, and the focus all along remains on coaching students to get higher scores.

From Aamir Khan to Azim Premji, everyone has busted the myth that high scorers are good at their jobs and this has led to some efforts being taken to correct the learning methodologies. Apart from the government announcing measures to change the method of assessment, especially in the central board, there are also a few who believe that they can contribute by facilitating hands-on learning so that students understand the underlying concepts. One such is Hyderabad-based Butterfly Fields, started by K. Sharat Chandra, an alumnus of IIT- Bombay and IIM-Ahmedabad.

Convinced that the need of the hour was to move away from traditional teaching methods, K. Sharat Chandra started working on developing low cost experiments that can be used for project work in schools.

Butterfly Fields provides low-cost models for application-oriented learning to children from eight to 16 years of age. Started in 2005, it works with government and private schools, and has developed models that integrate with the school curriculum, regardless of the board the school is affiliated to. It also supports schools and trains the trainers.

The genesis

Sharat Chandra was on an exchange program to Germany while doing his entrepreneurship course at IIM-A and worked with the SME (small & medium enterprises) sector there. What impressed him most was the amount of innovation that was evident even at these businesses, which he realised was because of the education system followed in Germany that encourages students to think out of the box. And this was a complete contrast to the Indian system, where the application of what is learnt is completely ignored, with a greater focus on learning for exams. “Of course, there are growth stories amongst the Indian industry but mostly in the services segment, not much in product development,” he points out. He realised that right from childhood, if children are encouraged to innovate and develop their own products, this would create a confidence to experiment as adults.

Sharat Chandra examined the systems used in the West and realised that the class sizes are smaller and the government invests heavily in education. This is unlike the Indian system where class sizes are large, with an average of 70 children per class in government schools. The investment is also lower from the government. The onus on the teacher is high and the dependence on paper-pencil-chalk-board teaching is inevitable. “Any innovation means a hike in the school fee, which many in India cannot afford,” he adds.

Snap Shot

Butterfly Fields
Founder: K. Sharat Chandra
City: Hyderabad
Investor: Aavishkaar
Investment: Rs. 5 crore

Convinced that the need of the hour was to move away from traditional teaching methods, Sharat Chandra started working on developing low cost models that can be used for project work in schools. These projects are based on the concepts from the curriculum. Though each board has its own schedule to teach a particular topic to a child, the concepts taught are the same. “So, one topic maybe introduced in class six by one board and in class eight by another,” he explains. Therefore, the models can be common, only used for different age groups by different schools depending on the board they follow.

Since this is a social venture, the primary focus is on government schools. However, Butterfly Fields also has private schools as partners, who source the models from the company. The revenue it generates from here is used to cross finance its social venture of working with government schools.

The reach

Butterfly Fields is currently present in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It works with 3000 government schools in Andhra Pradesh and an additional 1000 schools spread across the private sector in the three states. Sharat Chandra states that government school requirements are more intense so, he intends to create a foundation before expanding aggressively. In the government segment, budget becomes a big constraint and the focus is to deliver products in a box so that, there is less of a programme/service component.

The company also works with corporate entities that focus on education as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. In the CSR segment, it works with several private companies such as GMR group, Chennai-based Ramky, Microsoft and Sarah Dell Foundation, which are active in supporting education for the underprivileged. Butterfly Fields works with around 70 schools in this category.

In the private segment, Butterfly Fields focuses on mid-range schools with a school fee in the range of Rs 12,000 a year. In all the three states, the company focuses on the top two cities. In the next 15 months, the company plans to reach out to 10 states. Offices will be setup in five states by November 2012 and discussions with schools are already on in Kerala and Maharashtra. “Here, the sales cycle is longer as there are multiple stakeholders and so, the decision making time is that much longer,” he says.

Butterfly Fields is also active in providing hands-on training programmes after school hours and is targeting an expansion in this segment. Many private schools too opt to encourage this since then the regular fee is not affected and the decision to send the child for these classes lies with parents. It’s also working with partners for this and Hyderabad-based Eenadu Group is already a partner and does workshops in 20 districts in Andhra Pradesh. By the summer of 2012, the company had 70 summer camps under this model, with 30 through the Eenadu tie-up. The plan is to expand the reach across the geography.

Interestingly, the schools business is a seasonal one and the after-schools classes make up during the lean months. The company is also looking to take the retail route by the next year and create off-the-shelf boxes that parents can buy for their children, so they can try the concepts at home.

The growth story

The company was self-funded and worked on a bootstrap budget till in September 2010, until Aavishkaar, a social venture capital fund, invested in Butterfly Fields to the tune of Rs. 5 crore. This enabled the company to scale up. As Butterfly Fields plans to enter the retail segment, it expects the finance requirement to go up and plans to seek a second round of funding by September this year.

One of the major challenges the company faced in the initial years was that of acceptance. But with the introduction of continuous and comprehensive evaluation in central board schools, there has been a perceived need to introduce alternative teaching methodologies. Referrals are another factor that has enabled the company to expand its customer base.

In the initial three to four years, the company doubled its revenues. This year, the company is targeting a four-fold growth to touch revenues of Rs. 7.5 crore to Rs. 8 crore by 2013. The backend is being made scalable to match the growth. Butterfly Fields clearly has an eye on profits, but also has a social purpose, which it fulfils through its work with government schools and companies active in CSR. Most importantly, it aims to bring the children up to speed and fulfil the Indian dream of enabling the youth of tomorrow to innovate.

Concept in brief

While education is given importance in India, rote learning has become the default method as this enables students to crack question papers more effectively. But with the introduction of the CCE method, schools are now feeling the need to introduce systems where children apply the concepts they learn. Aiding them in this are the low-cost projects (or models) developed by Butterfly Fields, which enable students to develop and innovate and thereby understand the underlying concept behind the topics taught in schools. Partnerships with 3000 government schools in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and an additional 1000 schools spread across the private sector in AP, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka has enabled the company to reach out to thousands of students and lay the foundation to build a scalable venture in the education space.

The exciting aspect of the company’s strategy is its focus on making sure these “project-based learning modules” are low-cost so it reaches the nook and corner of the country.