Exactly this time last year, Shaw Academy, an online education platform founded by James Egan, was tentatively emerging from examinership. It was fundamentally a good business, but it had encountered financial difficulties. It had borrowed from a London-based venture debt fund and a crowd-funded equity raise failed to take-off.

Facing corporate insolvency, Egan restructured the company, raising €7 million from smart new investors including former Virgin Group chief executive Stephen Murphy and Setanta Sports co-founder Michael O’Rourke.

David Brown, the co-founder of Oxford International Education Group, and serial entrepreneur Sean Tai, who sold his online platform for syndicated loans to KKR for millions, also came on board. So too did Folens Publishing.

Mr Justice Denis McDonald congratulated examiner Grant Thornton for achieving an “excellent outcome”. Afterwards, founder James Egan said the investment not only protected jobs in the business but would allow it “continue to supply higher education at lower cost for all of those students globally”

A year has passed, and Shaw Academy is thriving. It was already doing well prior to Covid-19, but with hundreds of millions of people suddenly confined to their homes, the market for quality online education is booming. From being on the cusp of collapse a year ago, Shaw Academy is now going from strength to strength.


James Egan of the Shaw Academy

James Egan remembers when his business first felt the impact of Covid-19. “We started seeing it in Asia, in our markets in Hong Kong and Singapore initially, about two months ago,” he tells me. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly through its other markets before eventually reaching its home base in Ireland.

“The trend we are all seeing is massive amounts of people working from home,” Egan added. “People are in front of computers. Screen time has gone through the roof. People are concerned about job security and in some cases are either temporarily or permanently being laid off.

“More screen time and more uncertainty mean people are investing in online education more. We started seeing demand going up by 50 per cent in some markets initially but that is now intensifying by a factor of four.”

Like everyone Egan is, of course, worried about the health implications of the virus. And while he takes no pleasure from it, his business, which was already growing fast, is now rocketing. He said Shaw’s investment in technology – building a proprietary learning platform called Phoenix and an Artificial Intelligence tool called Morpheus – meant it could handle the enhanced workload.

“We knew that for real scale we needed to build a technology platform that could handle scale. If we hadn’t done that, we would not be able to do this. Next month we estimate we will educate 700,000 people,” he said.

“This is on top of the 6.5 million people so far (since the business was founded in 2012). 700,000 is probably double what we would have otherwise educated.”

Shaw Academy, he said, had offices in Dublin, India, South Africa and a small satellite base in New Hampshire in the United States.

“We have everyone working from home. That was our first priority, make sure our staff were taken care of, and then say what we can do in terms of responding to the wider crisis?”

Doubling down

Shaw Academy decided to double down. It gave out a full four-week course for free to allow people to understand the subject they wished to study and how Shaw Academy delivered it before committing further. Egan said Shaw had noticed that people were focusing on upskilling and learning new skills in order to secure employment.

“We thought, what can we do from a pricing perspective? Given the increased demand we reduced our 12-month pricing by 70 per cent in all markets affected that we are operating in,” he said.

All courses, he said, were validated to European Qualification Framework standards. In developing markets like India and Africa, he said Shaw was giving away 100,000 courses.

“Education is greatly out of reach to many people in these markets so we want to help them get an education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to gain.”

Shaw Academy offers courses that have obvious employment benefits such as finance, marketing, business, and technology. It also offers courses in areas like photography, beauty and health/wellness, which can be studied for enjoyment or work.

“The mission is higher education at a lower cost,” Egan explained. “What is unique is our focus on online classrooms instead of video libraries which are unengaging with dated content. For us the best part of what we do is the classroom – our content is not only up-to-date but you can ask questions and get feedback.”


After Shaw Academy came out of examinership it assembled an experienced board. Stephen Murphy, who ran the Virgin Group after Richard Branson from 2005 to 2011, is its chairman. 

John Caddell, former chief executive of Folens, is also on the board. Caddell is an experienced education investor as an advisor to Leaf Investments along with David Moffit, the chairman of Folens.

Tai also sits on the board as well as Egan and John White, chief strategy officer at Shaw. O’Rourke, Brown and a veteran Australian media executive called Neil Balnaves are all board observers.

“We have a great group of investors who are really entrepreneurial and understand what we want to do,” Egan said. “We have a very solid foundation that allows us set about building and growing the business.”

“Revenues were for example seven times greater in January this year than the same month last year,” he said. “We were already on track for a healthy year.

“From our viewpoint, we have entered a new world. We feel we have got a real insight into what is happening from our other markets. There is a huge amount of coverage about the health response to Covid-19 but what is also happening is the start of dark times from a recession perspective.

“I think working from home will become much more prominent long term. From a society perspective, this could be good for people as they spend more time with their families instead of commuting.”

From an education perspective, he said the crisis reinforced the need to learn new skills in areas like data analytics and artificial intelligence which are growth areas. 

“If people wish to secure their future it is fundamental that lifelong education becomes part of it,” he said. 

Egan said he believed Shaw Academy could play a role in helping people adjust to the changes happening.

“We want to make Shaw Academy an Irish and global success story,” he said.

“We have got the right team and right investors who want us to become another great Irish global educational success story.”