In just 5 years, Canadian company ApplyBoard has disrupted the international student application pathway and enabled thousands of students worldwide to pursue their educational dreams. That work hasn't gone unnoticed: In 2020, ApplyBoard was valued at over C$2 billion, becoming one of Canada's few and newest "unicorn" companies - a term used in business to describe a start-up with a value of over $1 billion. The company has the added distinction of becoming the country's first-ever unicorn in the educational technology sector.
Headquartered in Kitchener, Ontario, ApplyBoard is the brainchild of co-founders and brothers Martin, Meti and Massi Basiri. Born and raised in Iran, Martin was the first to come to Canada in 2012 as an international student. The process was anything but easy: Martin had issues securing the necessary paperwork, transcripts and a student visa. It was a manual, time-consuming and inefficient process. When brothers Meti and Massi wanted to come to Canada to study abroad as well, Martin helped them through the application process and used all he had learned to drastically reduce their application time. Soon, friends from Iran began asking the Basiri brothers about their experiences and sought their expertise on applying to study abroad. Inspired by their own challenges applying to international schools—and by the difficulties they encountered trying to help others—they realized that technology could resolve many inefficiencies and barriers that prevented international students from pursuing their educational dreams.
To achieve their mission of "empowering people around the world to study abroad and access the best education", they decided to create an AI software-as-a service (SaaS) platform that could connect students and recruitment partners with schools that best suited each student. Rather than wading through pages of program and school details only to find out whether they were qualified, students could input their credentials and be presented only with opportunities for which they qualify. This automated process became ApplyBoard, which in 5 short years has skyrocketed from a small start-up venture into a global success story.
The National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) has proudly supported ApplyBoard's evolution from the very beginning.
Setting the stage for scale
When ApplyBoard first engaged with NRC IRAP in 2015, the company was having challenges attracting investors. But Hisham Al-Zanoon, an industrial technical advisor (ITA) with the program, saw great potential in the ApplyBoard platform.
"What sparked me to support the firm at an early stage was realizing that the founders had identified an uncontested and complex market space with high potential that no other firm had attempted to innovate into," recalls Hisham. "I was also encouraged by the unprecedented commitment and energy the ApplyBoard founders demonstrated since day one."
At the beginning of the relationship, NRC IRAP enabled ApplyBoard to hire their first employee, a "new grad hire" who remains with the company to this day. Subsequent investments supported ApplyBoard's evolution by helping the firm hire 4 new graduates to assist on 4 projects: 2 related to improving the platform via scientific modelling, algorithm matching and school segmentation; and 2 focussed on developing traditional and social media marketing strategies and materials, with the aim of motivating more international students to pursue post-secondary education in North America.
NRC IRAP has also funded 3 research and development projects to help ApplyBoard to continue scaling its platform through the last few years. The investments have allowed ApplyBoard to use advanced artificial intelligence and automation to reduce processing times for student applications from 7 hours to 4—including education credentials, language proficiency results, work experience forms, visa applications, study permit forms and much more.
Moreover, as increasing numbers of users from different countries started using the ApplyBoard platform, the company was also able to streamline the process for students to find the "right" program by recommending program matches based on a student's unique characteristics, taking their search time down from an hour to mere minutes.
Expert advice supports further growth
To facilitate ApplyBoard's ability to grow in Canada and globally, NRC IRAP has also provided strategic advisory services related to business processes, accessing other funding opportunities, privacy and security concerns, and international legislation.
Hisham assisted the company in seeking funding from the CanExport SMEs program. Delivered in partnership between the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, Global Affairs Canada and NRC IRAP, this program is designed to help Canadian companies prepare for and establish a presence in new international markets. This support offset the firm's costs as they explored overseas market opportunities in China.
As an experienced agile software professional, Hisham also worked hand in hand with ApplyBoard's development team to help adopt and scale their agile framework. He assisted ApplyBoard in establishing a data protection and privacy agile roadmap to comply with the EU GDPR data privacy regulation. As GDPR compliance is mandatory to do business in Europe, this enabled ApplyBoard to further its international growth.
The NRC IRAP difference
According to ApplyBoard's CEO, Martin Basiri, support from NRC IRAP has made a significant impact in ApplyBoard's evolution.
"NRC IRAP has made it a lot easier and faster to scale our company," he says. "We've certainly benefited from the expertise and resources they've invested to help us grow."
"Our ITA, Hisham, is very invested in the success of our company and proud of all the work that's been done. It's almost like having a caring big brother who is with you every step of the way. That's the difference with NRC IRAP versus other innovation support programs."
More team members, more R&D—and more lives changed
Since first engaging with NRC IRAP, ApplyBoard has grown by leaps and bounds. The company experienced impressive growth of over 12,000% from 2016 to 2019, and was ranked #1 in 2019 and #2 in 2020 on the Deloitte Technology Fast 50™ list for Canada's fastest-growing technology companies. To date, ApplyBoard has raised over C$242 million in funding which has sustained the rapid growth of the company. Today, ApplyBoard works with more than 5,000 recruitment partners, helping over 150,000 qualified student applicants from 110+ countries pursue their educational dreams at more than 1,500 schools across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
NRC IRAP is currently supporting a research and development project with ApplyBoard that is intended to leverage AI to help students achieve their educational goals. Through adding even more AI advancements to enrich the application process for students, this project will ensure ApplyBoard can continue scaling its platform to reach more students in more countries.
Ultimately for ApplyBoard, the goal remains the same as it was when the Basiri brothers and their team first set out in 2015: to make education accessible to anyone who qualifies, no matter where in the world they live.
"Imagine if a student in India coming from an impoverished family has the same ability to access education as the child of an investment banker in New York City; if they have the skills and qualifications, they should be able to do that," says Martin.
"As ApplyBoard scales, we can help many more people and tens of thousands of students worldwide get access to education that will change their lives," he adds. "It's not just about dollars and cents but about changing the world as well. And NRC IRAP is helping with that."