Nov 022011

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Imagine K12 is a new Palo Alto incubator birthing only education startups.

Can they change the way we teach our kids? Yes, there are ping-pong tables.

Yes, there are ping-pong tables. And sure, over by the door there’s an enormous bike rack where the eco-conscious can stack their energy-saving driving machines. And as they lock up their bikes, a glance over the shoulder at a mosaic wall of flat panel screens will offer a quick update of all building’s tenants, including an array of startups with names like ClassDojo, Goalbook, and Eduvant.

Forget about grimy garages that need space heaters and a broom to vanquish the spiders. Today’s startups work in “incubators,” smartly outfitted office buildings with open spaces and plenty of electrical outlets. Blame the price of real estate for making Silicon Valley’s garage space precious or just plain loneliness, but over the past decade, a growing number of entrepreneurs have flocked to join incubators to germinate fledgling companies. Y Combinator?, Dog Patch Lab, and Founder Institute are popular northern California haunts. Other cities are trying their own, including  the trendy General Assembly, tucked in the Flatiron building in Manhattan.

Now comes the new kid on the lab bench: an incubator devoted to edtech.

Lodged in a building ostensibly owned by AOL in Palo Alto, Imagine K12 is the brainchild of three long-time Silicon Valley denizens: Tim Brady, (Yahoo employee number three), Geoff Ralston, another Yahoo alumn, and Alan Louie, whose resume is a studded with techie homeruns: Sun Microsystems, Netscape Communications, and Google are the headliners. Imagine K12 opened its doors this past spring; it’s now “graduated” its first group of startups.  October 30 is the deadline for the second group of applicants.

Most incubators are industry agnostic. But education is a peculiar market, long marked by uncertain outcomes for startups. To Brady, Ralston, and Louie, that ambiguity called for a special focus on edtech–and a more concerted effort to attract technical talent into the fray.

Their formula is both simple and magical: Applicants should have a powerful and positive idea for solving a problem in education and, ideally, a technical background. If accepted, Imagine K12 will give them a modest allowance ($15 to $20K depending on the size of the team) in exchange for an equity stake of about 6%. The team has to relocate to Silicon Valley for the three months of incubation. Imagine K12 doesn’t want to make life too cushy: It doesn’t offer full “office space,” but founders can grab space for a couple of laptops and room on whiteboard in the large open room Imagine K12 has in the AOL building. (The ping-pong tables are nearby.)

More valuable than the funding or even an office chair is the boatload of advice (from the mechanics of starting a company and fundraising, through product conception and marketing ideas) that Imagine K12’s founders provide–and the dazzling network of connections. All 10 companies in the first cohort got their four minutes on stage at a recent industry conference, where VCs lurked in the audience.

Even better: Last week, Newark’s mayor-with-a-big-future-ahead, Cory Booker?, and entrepreneur-extraordinaire Reid Hoffman?, swung by the Imagine K12 space to spend several hours listening and questioning the entrepreneurs. It was an entrepreneur’s wet dream. The showmanship and glitz of bigger stage presentations was brushed aside for a genuine dialogue about the needs of schools and the market. The group dove deep into questions such as how a district like Newark fights to personalize learning, to better prepare teachers, to teach kids to set their own goals and, of course, to save money.

Hoffman turned a laser focus on questions such as how edtech entrepreneurs can reach customers and the true nature of the “viral” marketing, cautioning them to remember that “viral” edtech is different from “viral” video games.

In the backdrop was question that has far more than a financial impact: Is this truly an inflection point? Will technology make a genuine difference in education this time?

Read more . . .

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