The Kansas City Star (Kansas)
By: Joe Robertson
October 3, 2010
By name, it's a laboratory.
It's the place where the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation intends to bring some of the nation's top education innovators to work with an elite slate of mentors, creating startup companies and concepts that will change the way children learn.
Bo Fishback calls it something simpler.
"It's a sandbox," said Fishback, Kauffman's vice president for entrepreneurship.
The sleek furniture and multimedia tools in this sunlit wing of the foundation's Kansas City offices don't matter as much as the imaginations of the people who come to play in it.
"We're building an institution the world has never seen before," Fishback said.
The concept -- creating a business incubator that seeks out new ideas for education and puts their owners through an entrepreneurial boot camp -- is attracting plenty of intriguing partners.
Like Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., whose decisions shaking up schools have landed her in the national spotlight.
She's signed on to be one of the advisers to the class of entrepreneurs.
So has Richard Barth, president of the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, schools.
Others will include Farb Nivi, who started the online social networking education site Grockit, and Jon Bischke, whose startups include the online learning site eduFire.
"It makes sense," Rhee said. "A lot of people in these roles now (as education entrepreneurs) sort of stumbled into it. If we can purposefully go out to find people and help them ... it will ensure that the next generation of reform leaders are much more prepared."
Right now, the foundation is screening 1,400 applicants who are vying for the chance to put their ideas through the Kauffman labs' wringer. Twenty finalists will be selected for a weeklong boot camp in November; 10 winners will be invited back in February.
Fishback expects to repeat the process again each year with new education ideas. As the lab grows, it will add strands in other fields such as energy, biosciences, and journalism and media.
In five years, Fishback said, he wants to see more than 50 companies emerge each year that are "the most-prepared, well-positioned companies you have ever seen."
Education needs the kind of shake-up that established institutions fear "will cannibalize the rest of the business," Nivi said. "Entrepreneurs (need to) spin out, take crazy ideas and make a totally disruptive model."
The lab represents an evolution in the Kauffman Foundation's longstanding work to inspire entrepreneurialism. For years the foundation has developed entrepreneurship programs. But the rise of so many programs has not had much effect on the overall number of companies created every year, Fishback said.
Among 600,000 startup companies each year, less than 1 percent generally drive most of the economic growth, Fishback said.
"What we really need to do is start up 500 companies," he said, "but of the right type that have a chance at explosive growth."
With the laboratory approach, the Kauffman Foundation aims to separate out those explosive ideas. By being specific to an industry -- in this case, education -- the innovators will hone their ideas through intense interaction with people who know the specific market and its changes.
"This is an idea whose time is come," Barth said on why he is joining Kauffman's effort. "There is more of a sense of optimism for what's possible in K-12 education than I've seen in my 20 years in the business. ... There's a feeling of we can do this. There are things that are actually working."
Applicants from across the country have a wide range of ideas, including new models for covering college costs, technological applications, innovations in career counseling, ideas for preparing students for environmentally green jobs and new ways for teaching foreign languages and music.
But the ideas themselves won't be the most important factor in choosing the final core, Fishback said. In fact, the November boot camp won't even entertain those ideas.
Instead, the participants will be dealing with unexpected assignments and scenarios to test their creative agility.
"We are investing not in their idea," Fishback said, "but in who they are."
They will have to be ready to change, Nivi said.
"It has to be built into the DNA of your company," he said. "We're rapidly learning from customers. If you ask me what we'll be working on three weeks from now, I have no idea."
In many ways, though, there may be no better time to get into education, said Bischke, the founder of eduFire.
People know American education needs help, and they are looking for ideas, he said.
"With so much access to information and networks," he said, "we're in a renaissance period."
But it's also controversial and embattled. Rhee, who drew both praise and heat for the way she closed District of Columbia schools and leveraged performance-pay evaluations of teachers, now finds her job in jeopardy since the mayor who appointed her to the post lost his bid for re-election.
Education needs people to try new ideas, even at risk, she said.
"I had seen a lot of incredibly talented superintendents who were smarter and wiser than I am try to undertake the challenges of urban districts," she said. "I was not so naïve to think I could do it better than them. But I could take a different course.
"And if I fail or succeed, we can learn something different."
To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.