Digital textbook company Kno raises $46M

Andreessen Horowitz lead round in tablet maker for college students

Financial trends and news by Faith Merino
September 8, 2010
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What makes the textbook market so hot right now?  College students are desperate to pay for a product that will whisk them away from the reality of the hundreds of dollars they will have to pay for books they will never read again, and possibly, grow to despise. Textbook-rental companies like Chegg and BookRenter have cropped up to meet this need, but as book sales are tipping more and more in the digital direction, some companies are trying to stay ahead of the curve by developing digital textbook platforms. 

Kno is one such company, and its digital textbook tablet is drawing in some big numbers in financing.  The company announced Wednesday that it has raised $46 million in equity and debt financing, led by Andreessen Horowitz, with help from Silicon Valley Bank and TriplePoint Capital. 

Kno’s learning platform consists of a two-panel touchscreen tablet that students can use to read digital textbooks just as they would a traditional textbook, with the added highlight of being able to take notes on the pages, stick digital post-it notes to mark important spots, highlight text, and multitask by switching between text and video. 

"All of our studies have shown that students do multiple things simultaneously," said David Straus, vice president of product at Kno, in an interview. "For example: they are reading their textbook and taking notes.  The Kno is the only dual-screen device to support these very natural student behaviors.  Just go to any coffee shop and campus and watch students.  They have books, notes, et cetera, all laid out.   We've brought this experience to the digital world."

Some other fun features include internet access to complement the text by enabling students to look up fuzzy terms and definitions, as well as a unique digital note-taking feature that allows the user to write with a stylus, type on a keyboard, and drag and drop text and images directly from the book into the user’s notes. Looking for more? "We look forward to a future Kno developer developing a flashcard application which allows flashcards to be created right from key terms or concepts students are reading in their textbooks," said Straus.

But how realistically affordable will this product be for notoriously cheap college students, who often find themselves in a quandary of having to choose between dinner and shampoo?  For many undergraduates, the idea of owning an iPhone is a laughable dream. 

The company has not disclosed how much the tablet would cost, only to say that it would be under $1000.  So let’s say the Kno costs $999.  That might be two semesters’ worth of college textbooks right there—on top of the digital textbook prices students will be paying.  

Other companies like Inkling have developed similar digital textbook platforms to cater to increasing demand for e-books.  Inkling’s platform, developed for the iPad, emphasizes the social learning approach by allowing users—both students and professors—to collaborate and share notes in real time, from any location.  But with Inkling, users get textbooks plus all the features of the iPad for $500.  If Kno plans to compete at all, the company’s product will need to have roughly the same price-tag.

Kno’s press release cited a report from Simba Information that estimates that digital textbook sales will grow at a rate of 49% annually through 2013.  The online rental market, on the other hand, is currently exploding at a rate of some 300%.  Last week, BookRenter, an online book rental service, announced a 725% leap in its annual revenue.

That being said, the founders of Kno may already be geared up for this very textbook market competition.  Co-founder Osman Rashid was the founding CEO of Chegg, the book rental service, so he already knows a thing or two about marketing to impoverished college students.  The real test of Kno’s grit will come with its head-to-head battle with the digital textbook platforms that are already on the market for Apple’s iPad.

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