As one of three co-founders of Startl, a nonprofit organization funded primarily by several U.S.-based philanthropies that helps educational technology businesses get off the ground, Laurie Racine has been the group’s source of expertise on entrepreneurial theory. Ms. Racine is a self-proclaimed addict to startup culture, according to the website of the New York City-based group, and she has wide-ranging experience as a founder and fundraiser for new businesses herself. But Ms. Racine concedes she is still learning the nuances of the education market, and still feels very little is known about what business ventures in educational technology will prove most successful. Education Week Staff Writer Ian Quillen interviewed Ms. Racine to ask her about the difficulty of describing what Startl is to people who know nothing about it, the upswing in attention to education innovation over the past two years, and the biggest challenges facing businesses in K-12 education. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation, all supporters of Startl, also provide grant support for Education Week.)
The idea behind Startl can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. If you meet someone who is unfamiliar with Startl, what is your elevator speech?
That’s been the problem of Startl since the very beginning. The intent of Startl originally was to spend two years exploring what would be the hot-button approaches, methodologies, to catalyzing innovation in the education space. What we didn’t count on is that we were quickly and only slightly ahead of the curve; that the market and the interest in innovation in education and entrepreneurism in education were going to happen so fast as we were doing this; that the three proposed models we were thinking about actually were going to be tough to launch in conjunction with each other. What education needs is a destination, an incubator-like approach that takes kids in their garages or kids coming out of their design schools or people who are more advanced in their career and want to make a switch and really want to focus on driving the next kind of technological innovation in education. That was the premise.
So you’re saying the way Startl functions now isn’t the way you envisioned?
What we wanted to do was run a vertical [a related organization] through another business incubator, but one that was just ed. tech. And then we also said, let’s do atraining kind of program. Let’s do a short kind of version of a boot camp, a boost, that will just look at various aspects of trends in education that we think are going to be hot. And then we started aligning ourselves with a couple of the big summits that were going on in education, and we started showcasing companies there.
What we came upon after all this time was what we think is a real interesting formula, that is very, very low-cost, which is this digital learning series we’ve been running out of New York. Every six weeks, we invite five companies; we present them for 10 or 15 minutes; 100 to 150 people show up; we hold it at General Assembly [a blended-model campus for technology, design, and entrepreneurship based in New York City], and it’s been very, very successful. We’re about to expand it. These companies that are in the very, very early stages, they need to get out there and they need to be networked.
How can you tell if the companies you try to help are going to succeed?
The truth is, if the companies are only a year or two old, nobody knows. What we’ve used as a yardstick is whether or not they’ve taken on follow-up funding. I don’t know if that’s correct or not.
And what criteria has Startl used to select those companies it has assisted?
Largely, it is: Is the idea interesting? Does it have solid technology or technological expertise in the team, and is the team somewhat cohesive? It’s kind of classic entrepreneurism. It’s also about, “What is the real problem we are trying to solve?” It’s not, “What’s cool and sexy?” It’s, “Are we getting to anything that is solving a problem?” And it’s, “How do we measure whether that’s solving a problem?”
Between [co-founders] Phoenix Wang, Diana Rhoten [who has since left Startl], and yourself, how do the three of you mesh?
Each of us has a very different expertise. Diana is a brilliant programmer. She is the heart of the pedagogical expertise of Startl. My background is really about entrepreneurism. I’m very interested in the team. That’s what I’m interested in—what does a great entrepreneur look like? I’m kind of agnostic about the [education] space. I think this is the next cool space, but it’s also one of the most difficult spaces. And Phoenix’s expertise is she’s a brilliant tactician and strategist. She works with the foundations and at the policy level. She’s a big thinker. So we have a very different, complementary set of skills. But based on the fact that Startl was never sure about what it was going to be, it was hard to deploy those skills to everybody’s best effect.
So you’re saying there are changes afoot in how Startl operates. What will that shift look like?
It will be about what makes the most sense given where the field has come in the last 24 months. I think for whatever reason, whether it is the generation of people that are interested in creating new ventures that have a larger social meaning, or whatever brings people now to education where they might not have been in education 10 years ago, I have no answer to that. But what’s really interesting to me is its very, very early days, as you suggest, and I don’t think we know what is going to be successful and what is not going to be successful, even from a strictly entrepreneurial periscope. So, it’s a bit like throwing darts up against a dart board.
What is the most difficult challenge facing the people throwing those darts?
My instinct about K-12 education is that until we put something into place where every kid can have a really good [individualized education program], we can’t actually fix it. We actually can’t get to the core of the problem. No matter what you throw at the model, you’re just not going to fix the problem because you can’t get to it.
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Q&A