Building perfect Artificial Intelligence for online tutoring in China

Interview with Derek Li, Founder of Squirrel AI

Squirrel AI provides online student tutoring in a market where the majority of students continue learning with a tutor after school. The founder, Derek Li, is a man pursuing perfection in everything he does. Now, he is working on crafting Squirrel AI into a perfect piece of work that sets the standard high for others using AI in online education. NGP Capital made an investment in Squirrel AI (formerly known as Classba) in November of 2017.

Derek wanted to be a mathematician when he was a student. He used to travel across China to take part in math competitions as a means to discover the country and challenge his intellect. However, he discovered that for mathematics to truly make an impact, you must bring it to the market. He realized that he needed to become an entrepreneur when he understood the value entrepreneurs create in the whole world, regardless of where they are from. 

Inspired by this and having experienced a successful IPO with a previous company, Derek became an entrepreneur with the ambition to use the latest technologies and apply them to education. This way, he hopes to help more students improve their performance in school providing better opportunities after graduation.

After Derek graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, he returned to his hometown Zhengzhou to start his own business, co-founding the ‘Dashan English Training School’. Later, he joined ‘Only Education’, a company that, over the ten years he was there, grew to over 2,000 learning centers, with a market value of 13 billion RMB. Drawing on these experiences, he founded Squirrel AI.

Students can study online at home or offline in learning centers, receiving a combined education from the AI teaching system and live teachers.

DL: “I have found that large-scale online courses are not meeting the needs of the individual student. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, our internal research show that students can’t concentrate on computer learning for more than 14 minutes in average, and most students can only concentrate for around five minutes. Secondly, the user experience is not good; while different students have different difficulties, the same teaching method is applied to all. Thirdly, there is usually a lack of meaningful communication and interaction between the student and the course material.

With these insights in mind I saw two great opportunities when I founded Squirrel AI. One is that AI technology is at a point where it can disrupt the education industry that has not changed for hundreds of years, by providing every single child with access to the best teacher for that individual child’s needs. This is the unrealized dream of every educator! The other is that, in addition to knowledge, AI education is able to teach the children methodologies and thought processes that use creativity and imagination as part of their learning, so that every child can improve their performance in school. This is of great value to the development of human society as a whole.”



"AI technology is at a point where it can disrupt the education industry that has not changed for hundreds of years, by providing every single child with access to the best teacher for that individual child’s needs."

Content, teaching and adaptive AI all in one offering

Squirrel AI offers a student-centric, intelligent, and personalized adaptive learning system. It applies adaptive AI technology to teaching, learning, evaluation, testing, training, and other education processes. By simulating top-grade teachers, it gives children tailor-made, one-on-one education programs and processes, which exponentially improves the worth of the education each child receives.

At the start, Squirrel AI used a mixed education mode consisting of 70% AI system teaching and 30% teacher assistance. Students could study online at home or offline in learning centers, receiving a combined education from the AI teaching system and live teachers. So far, the company has opened more than 1,800 offline learning centers in China, with footprints in over 300 cities in more than 20 provinces. Their cumulative student number has reached nearly 2 million, with a continuation rate of about 80%.



"Their cumulative student number has reached nearly 2 million, with a continuation rate of about 80%."

From 2017 to 2018, Squirrel AI carried out six man-machine battles to challenge top teachers and won all of them. This proved that the Squirrel AI technology was mature enough to replace human teachers in their offering making it a fully digital service. So, in 2018, they recruited Professor Tom Mitchell from Carnegie Mellon University as Chief AI Scientist, and he will be leading and strengthening the technological development of Squirrel AI. Squirrel AI currently ranks as one of the top two AI-based intelligent adaptive learning (IAL) systems globally.

So far, Squirrel AI has opened more than 1,800 offline learning centers in China, with footprints in over 300 cities.

DL: “The biggest difference between Squirrel AI and our global competitors is that they only provide the adaptive AI engine; they don’t provide content or teaching services. We execute a “three-in-one” strategy, meaning we provide content, teaching services, and an adaptive AI engine, all together in a single offering.

“The advantage of our three-in-one strategy is that all of the content is tailored to our adaptive AI system, significantly improving both the accuracy of the information and the teaching results, compared with companies that provide only an adaptive AI engine. Compared with companies that provide only teaching services, we not only save 70% of the cost of teachers, but also greatly improve the quality of teachers.”

The perfectionist’s advice to other entrepreneurs

Derek is known in the industry as a person who pursues perfection. His advice to other entrepreneurs is to think deeply about the details. Squirrel AI’s business model is the result of deep thinking, iteration and fine polishing over the past five or six years. It has experienced thousands of self-questioning events, scrutinized countless answers, and survived numerous tests by various experts.



"His advice to other entrepreneurs is to think deeply about the details." 

DL: “My next goal is to make Squirrel AI truly change the history of human education. My goal for Squirrel AI is to increase the learning efficiency of every child by ten times, and to achieve tailored, individualistic education, so that every child can become his or her best and most confident self. Our goal is to make sure that children flourish not only in their education, but also in their life.”