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EBRD backs Azeri start-up with customers on three continents

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Applying for venture capital funding as a start-up founder can be challenging. Gunay Imanzade, based in Azerbaijan, describes her experience as like pushing a boulder up a mountain, despite having won Forbes' 30 Under 30 accolade. She has struggled to attract venture capitalists for her education tech start-up, Metatesk, which gamifies education through the metaverse.

Fortunately, Gunay has been able to build up her start-up herself for most of its existence. Metatesk is now gaining traction and word-of-mouth recognition in the rapidly evolving edtech space. Support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Venture programme is helping her develop new skills as a founder and improve her business's funding readiness.

A founder's uphill battle

Gunay's path has always intersected education and entrepreneurship. Even while studying the sciences at university, she participated in start-up programmes, bootcamps and courses, testing the waters of entrepreneurship at an early age. After graduating, she moved to China to teach science to children, nurturing her love for education.

After a long period away from family and friends, Gunay decided to visit Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, shortly before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. When China abruptly closed its borders, Gunay found herself stuck without a plan.

“It’s very difficult to convey classroom energy in a virtual setting,” says Gunay. “Kids quickly stop paying attention, and you lose their interest. I immediately started thinking how I could improve their experience and learning after the pandemic.”

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Gamifying science education

Noticing a lack of educational content for children on YouTube, Gunay reached out to her friend, a web developer, to help her gamify her teaching. After testing various engines, she modelled her first class in the metaverse.

“The first class was about planets. The kids loved it so much that they started to ask for these classes each time and refused to have them any other way," adds Gunay. “That's when I realised I could turn this into a business venture.”

Gunay built her first metaverse courses entirely on her own. She wrote all the content, built the 3D environment, and piloted the programme in just two weeks. Once the classes took off, Gunay adapted her new teaching method for mobile, desktop, and even virtual reality platforms.

Gunay's metaverse start-up has grown into a fully-fledged team of teachers who continue to educate with the help of this new technology. She emphasises that Metatesk's goal is not to replace teachers with technology, but to modernise education and make it adaptable to new ways of learning.

Metatesk offers an immersive learning experience in virtual classrooms for children aged six to 14 years old, striving to rectify discrepancies in access to quality education. Recently, Gunay has made inroads with partnerships across educational institutions in Africa, such as the University of Uganda, developing content for its department of medicine.

Despite the strong word-of-mouth recommendations that propelled her business forward, and recent accolades, Gunay's fundraising journey has been anything but straightforward. She recalls hundreds of unanswered emails, blatantly sexist remarks for being a solo woman entrepreneur, and the sinking feeling she experienced when funding rounds were rejected just as she hoped for a positive answer.

“I prefer to focus on developing the business and making an impact, rather than going down the rabbit hole of fundraising,” says Gunay. “Repeated rejections can weigh you down as an entrepreneur. I will continue to bootstrap my business as long as I can and focus on fundraising later.”

EBRD support and recognition

Alongside being a Google for Startups alumna and named in Forbes 30 Under 30, Gunay is also a member of the EBRD's Star Venture programme, which supports high-tech start-ups across the Bank's countries of operation. The programme, supported by Switzerland through the EBRD's Small Business Impact Fund, is helping her overcome the bottlenecks of limited brand awareness and visibility. Strategic business advice focused on developing a strong personal brand and public relations is enhancing Metatesk's reputation and helping it build trust with future clients.

To date, Metatesk has served over 2,100 customers, and its game-based learning is now used in classrooms across China, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

“If you look at the history of how we learn, it hasn't changed much,” says Gunay. “Desks, chalkboards, single files... we haven't changed any of that, but children nowadays grow up with technology and, as a result, process information in vastly different ways than we do,” she reflects. “Some subjects are inherently difficult to grasp, but if presented in a visually appealing way, children are much more receptive.”

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