Today, the future of humanity, especially in the face of inequality, distrust of government, democratic divide, climate change and dwindling natural resources, hangs in the balance. According to Imbellus CEO and Founder Rebecca Kantar’s introductory note at the Upfront Summit 2017, to save humanity we need a complete reboot of the world’s operating systems – with a specific focus on education that can help improve human potential. She believes that if we are able to develop enough minds, through reformed education systems, we can solve world problems and prevent a man-made armageddon.
To that end, Imbellus seeks to harness technology to reinvent the means of measuring human potential by evaluating cognitive processes. In October 2018, this Los Angeles-based developer of simulation-based assessment technology announced $14.5M in Series A funding led by Owl Ventures. This brings the firm total funding to $23M to fix the ailing education system.
Move Beyond Multiple Choice Questions
Its true, our education system is broke. All those years of obsession with grades and regurgitating information has drilled in the importance of rote (machine-line) learning over understanding. According to Kantar, this was sufficient in the pre-information era. And therefore this was what all our college and school tests try to assess. But now that machines can take care of all the data crunching and analysis, our kids need to be taught how to think beyond what the computers do.
“We are working to decouple content mastery from the assessment of underlying cognitive skills and abilities in order to learn not just what people know, but how they think,” says Kantar in a press note. “Our long term goal is to re-orient the education system to develop minds that ask the right questions, imagine the next problem to solve, and navigate complex systems. It’s about making good on the promise of public education for all students, not just for the wealthiest 10%.”
The core aim of the firm is to use video-game-like interface, featuring a virtual world filled with 3D assets, to evaluate skills such as problem-solving, inquiry, analysis and imagination that are critical in the changing world of work. Through a theoretically grounded and data-driven process and best practices of UX design, Imbellus measures individuals on various parameters to decipher what needs to be taught to the next generation of students.
Therefore, they use the principles of game design, to assess individual human potential within multi-step, rich natural world scenarios (plants, wildlife, terrain) to measure critical thinking, decision-making, and metacognition capabilities.
Since its launch in 2016, Imbellus has hired several learning scientists, game developers, AI/ML engineers, and psychometricians. It has also tied-up with the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA to help Imbellus create some of its psychometric testing frameworks and analyze the data. Its entire offering is based on recreating real-life problem solving situations.
Helping Organizations Hire Better
Firstly, Imbellus translates observed skills, from the real world, into the language of learning science and psychometrics. This is then used to bring problem-solving contexts to life via simulation-based assessments to assist organizations better understand how their employees (current and future) think.
There is “enormous demand from some of the most intellectual companies in the world for a product like this,” said Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures. “They all spend tens of millions of dollars on testing cognitive abilities.”
McKinsey & Company was one of the first firms to partner with Imbellus (since 2017) to pilot for scenario-based assessments that would better facilitate the recruitment and hiring process.
“In the unprecedented disruption that we find ourselves in, understanding and accurately measuring the myriad of ways in which individuals solve problems will become increasingly crucial in better matching people with jobs. At McKinsey, it has always been important to us to understand how people think, and not just what they know,” said Keith McNulty, Director of Digital & People Analytics at McKinsey & Company in a press note.
Instead of assessing working memory, processing speed, or fluidity of thinking that IQ tests or neuroscience games help with, Imbellus enables the quantification of skills (such as critical thinking, decision-making, and metacognition) that differentiate humans from machines.
And by using AI to generate multiple iterations of these scenarios (of comparable complexity), for test takers, Imbellus assessments can be undertaken without fear of cheating and hacking.
Apart from Imbellus, Scoutible is also looking to disrupt the employee hiring process, similar to Pymetrics, albeit with different tests. While assessing employability is an application of Imbellus, its origins lie in one woman’s passion to make a difference in the existing education system.
The Imbellus Story
At age 19, in her sophomore year, Kantar dropped out of the prestigious Harvard University because she realized that she simply did not believe in the incumbent education system anymore. Even at Harvard, she felt like she was ‘bubbling in letters on a sheet for a score’.
“What I was more interested in was could I apply concepts that stem from understanding a domain to real-world situations? And what I found during my time at school was that there were fewer environments to bring something to life in a project-based way,” she is to have told Business Insider.
Powered by her desire to bring a change in this system, Imbellus was born in 2015. Then in September 2016 (seed round) and July 2017 (venture round), it raised $4M each led by New York-based VC firm Thrive Capital.
Mark Suster, who was part of an early stage funding round for Imbellus, said in a blog post, “Truly, in many ways, my concern was the inverse of normal business pitches. My only concern was whether we could limit Rebecca’s scope of work enough to focus on shorter-term, more tangible problems that could lead to a business before the mission. Luckily Rebecca herself is highly adaptive and was able to rigorously prioritize which problems to solve first.”
The plan is that eventually, Imbellus will replace standardized tests such as SAT, ACT, and AP. But it is starting its reformations with the entry-level job market.
Instead of regular placement tests based on mugged up knowledge, Kantar hopes that eventually, candidates will taking Imbellus assessments. This will help employers discern whether their skills are the right match in terms of various parameters set by the company.
For this to work, Imbellus has to create profiles for each company and understand their unique requirements for each role. While some companies will consider imagination and creativity as desirable attributes, others will focus only on analytical thinking and so on. The tests will also need to take into account the fact that the company would want to hire people who have different ways of thinking and problem solving to add diversity.
Once this is successful, the hope is that such assessments also be implemented in schools in the near future.
“The SAT and most other assessments have made the mistake of comparing everyone to an average that is no one. The problem is that grading model doesn’t take context into account,” Kantar said to Business Insider. “You don’t necessarily need the same set of skills to apply for a job at Goldman Sachs as you need to be successful at the Rhode Island School of Design.”
Woman-power with a Mission
It’s always heartening to see such women-led businesses raise funding in a male-dominated playing field. What’s even better about the Imbellus case is that funds are slated to support a bigger cause – rehauling the education system which they believe is the bedrock to the sustenance of humanity.
Building any business is hard and many times it can also be frustrating – driving ‘opportunity driven’ company founders to quit before they really get started. But with a ‘mission driven’ company, the founders will stick to their beliefs and goals because they know it will make a real impact in the market they serve.
That is why Mark Suster, on why he invested in Imbellus, said, “I encourage entrepreneurs to try and tackle harder problems even if it makes fundraising more difficult and is less likely to succeed …”
But Kantar has a very realistic view about the time it will take to change a national education standard.
“We hope that in the next two years we can show the world that measuring someone’s process is possible and you can understand how people think. It’ll give us much better insights on how to place people in the right career and the right school over time,” Kantar told Business Insider.
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