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The farmer's son who sold his ed-tech start-up to Byju's for $120 million

Pramod Sharma, co-founder of educational gaming start-up Osmo
He was born in Nagla Bartai, a non-descript village in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur tehsil. While his father was a farmer, his mother had never ever been to school. But as a child, Pramod Sharma, a former top engineer at technology giant Google, who recently sold his Silicon Valley-based educational gaming start-up Osmo to India’s Byju’s for a staggering $120 million, showed an uncanny interest in studies quite early in life.

Sharma studied in a local government school in his village and did his higher secondary in Bharatpur. As a student, he was quite passionate about mathematics and physics, and spent most of his time self-learning at home. Around this time, someone introduced him to the IIT entrance examination. He put his heart and soul into it in the absence of any private tutoring facility, and was fortunate enough to crack the exam easily, securing a seat at IIT-Delhi. “When I went there, I actually didn’t know how to speak English. I had never spoken the language in all my life,” says Sharma.

But a bachelor’s degree in computer science from IIT-Delhi opened a plethora of opportunities for the young Sharma, who subsequently got an internship opportunity at a start-up in Tokyo. Sharma liked working there so much that he spent almost a year and half at the firm instead of the stipulated three months, during which time he learnt a lot about Japanese culture. All these experiences helped him pursue the master’s degree at Stanford, one of the world’s most innovative universities whose alumni have founded some of the top technology companies across the world, including Google, Cisco and Netflix. 

In 2005, Sharma was hired as an engineer by Google, where he rose through the ranks and became part of Google Books, a project that was aimed at digitising every single book under the sun. Sharma, along with his colleague Jerome Scholler, designed the machines for the project, including the hardware and the computer vision technology. “We scanned around 20 million books; it was (done on) a massive scale,” says Sharma, who soon realised the impact that can be created on society by connecting offline learning to online. “The idea of using cameras to do offline-online is a passion for me,” he adds. 

Working at Google also helped him try out a lot of new things and do them on a large scale. But when he saw that the technology was missing at his daughter’s daycare centre at Google, Sharma mooted the plan to launch a company focused on game-based learning using technology. “I realised my daughter loves tech,” says Sharma, who after an eight-year stint at Google, founded Osmo, an educational gaming start-up in 2013 along with Scholler, a French national.

Osmo, which Sharma says is a derivative of ‘awesome’, has built a universe of hands-on play experiences to nourish the minds of children and unleash the power of imagination. The Palo Alto-headquartered company brings physical toys into the digital world through augmented reality and its proprietary reflective artificial intelligence technology. The fusion of digital gameplay and physical interaction creates fun and nurturing play experiences designed for all kids. 

It also fosters learning in key areas such as creative problem solving, art, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and common core. Sharma says Osmo is making offline learning more engaging, as one does not need a teacher who has to constantly praise or force the child to complete a particular task. When kids make mistakes, the app points them out and shows the right steps to follow. “Think of it as a teacher who guides you along the way as you practice, but does not judge you,” says Sharma. “This is not only a substitute for a teacher, but also much better because it provides feedback in real-time.” 

Osmo, which has a team of 60, has been adopted by about 30,000 schools and half a million families, mostly in the US market. The company, which attracted $32.5 million in funding from marquee investors such as Accel, and Upfront Ventures (which backed electric scooter company Bird, and coffee chain Starbucks) was in the process of raising the series C round when it was approached by for a possible acquisition. 

Sharma and his founding team took no time in agreeing to the offer, which was majorly a stock deal with just around 20 per cent cash component. With the acquisition of Osmo both Sharma and his co-founder have now ended up having stake in Byju's, the acquirer. Osmo's investors, including Accel and Upfront, have also decided to stay back with a small holding in the Bengaluru-based ed-tech company. 

“There is a clear brand alignment with focus on how to make kids love learning. While Byju’s is the DNA of learning, our technology complements it, and together we will position the company as the dominant player in the kids learning segment globally,” says Sharma.