Nishat Kurwa on Tuesday, Jul. 23rd
A version of this story also appears at NPR’s All Tech Considered blog.
About 18 months ago, novice entrepreneur Sue Khim flew to San Francisco from her home in Illinois to take part in an uncommonly public version of a Silicon Valley rite of passage — the pitch. With thousands of other young techies in the audience, she was scheduled to be onstage at the Launch Festival, a showcase for “stealth” startups that have managed to keep their products out of the voracious tech press, or have as-yet-unreleased products to announce.
Its name and startup-feting culture notwithstanding, Launch is more competition than festival. Over two days, tech entrepreneurs pitch to a panel of hotshot technologists who issue bracing, on-the-spot critique of products’ market viability and revenue models, and, if delivering on the contest’s highest promise, offer funding.
Khim’s presentation knocked it out of the park, bagging $75k for Alltuition, a “Turbo Tax for student loans.” But within six months, Alltuition’s Twitter account had gone silent, and the founders had turned their attention to a new endeavor, entirely fueled by their success at Launch. This time around, though, Khim has gone from talking about a potential market of 21 million students to about 20 times that number, and to targeting precocity: children across the world as young as 11 who are the best among their peer groups at science and math computation.
The company’s reinvention was triggered by a call from someone who wanted to talk about potential. Launch judge and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya was enthusiastic about Khim’s presentation, but qualified his feedback, saying that though he thought loans were “interesting,” there was a more lucrative transaction to consider.
“The big thing that you touched on,” he said at the end of his 30 second distillation, “is there’s a ton of people outside the U.S. that are trying to get into U.S. schools that have no path to figure that out…I would encourage you to think about (a) broader vision of what this thing could grow into.”
As he prodded the founders during several subsequent meetings, Khim recalled, they surveyed the online education market and saw that many offerings for adults, and others that emphasized remediation for struggling high school students. She said they wondered, “Why is it not problematic that A and B students are not being challenged?” And then they built Brilliant.org.
The site’s offerings are streamlined. Designed for talented 11-18 year olds who, in lieu of the site, would probably be Googling for “hard math problems.” Brilliant administers a diagnostic exam to new users, and then begins delivering what Khim described as “tantalizingly tricky and hard” questions written by math and physics teachers.
Because Brilliant’s founders assume their users already have a strong foundation in STEM topics, the pedagogical focus here is on measurement, Khim said, and considering questions like, “how can we structure practice in such a way that they will understand (a concept) by the end of the practice? And then how do we measure throughout whether they’re on track to understand it or not?”
In many ways, Brilliant mirrors real-world practice settings that high-aptitude kids have flocked to for years: the cram schools where children in India and China prepare for competitive national exams, or Math Circles in the U.S. The idea also emerged from Khim’s own background attending under-resourced schools on Chicago’s South Side.
“My family did not have a lot of money. I grew up in a housing project, and we were on food stamps,” she told me. In third grade, she said, she realized she was smarter than her teachers. She figures she wasn’t being stretched intellectually until her family moved and she entered a school with a gifted and talented program, allowing her to learn from, and compete with, other bright kids.
On Brilliant, students can participate in this sort of academic socializing on a global scale. The site also brings transparency to global competition. Students can share their answers, and how they devised them, with the Brilliant community, and also onto their social networks. The data can be sifted by geography and age range. In a March demo, six months after launching the site, Khim pulls up a picture of a Filipino student who she says is doing college level math at age 12, and a 16-year-old in Brazil who she says “probably doesn’t know that he’s in the 50th percentile globally…and that he actually has a lot of work to do.”
“Globalization has changed a lot of people’s perspectives,” said Yong Zhao, Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon. “Everybody wants to out-educate everyone else. Since we lack good definition of what that means, we think you have to out-score others in some pre-defined context.” Zhao said he worries about how international comparisons might affect an American parent’s psyche. But given this rising anxiety, he said, Brilliant’s broad data sets could help to popularize the site.
Brilliant is predicated on the failure of schools to properly stimulate talented students, but its revenue model also could be seen as a response to the STEM skills gap, allowing recruiters to tap into a global pool of talent, for a price. A year after Alltuition won funding, Khim was back at the Launch Festival, this time presenting Brilliant. It didn’t take the panel very long to make a leap beyond college recruitment. Launch Founder Jason Calcanis asked judge David Cohen, of the Tech Stars accelerator, to comment on the site’s potential to broker individual sponsorship, like that a PhD student might enjoy.
“Imagine the idea of sort of investing in people,” said Cohen, teasing out the idea of crowdfunding an entire employment trajectory, starting with junior high. “Are the biggest companies interested in doing that? Are there investors interested in doing that?” He mused about having privileged access to the “smartest, most interesting people in the world.”
There are other education sites and initiatives that allow students to publish their results online. The juggernaut online learning site Khan Academy marks achievement with badges for a range of accomplishments, from simply watching videos consecutively, to correctly answering problems, and it has a built-in infrastructure for teachers and coaches to view progress. And the Mozilla Foundation (a partner of Turnstyle’s sister site Youth Radio) has developed an Open Badge initiative that allows organizations to design badges for various competencies that badge earners can add to their social media profiles. But neither has Brilliant’s focus on top students, key to its appeal for recruiters.
Khim says she’s already hearing that students are listing Brilliant on their college applications. But at some schools, like UC Berkeley, recruiters say they’re already too busy to consider adding new tools that would increase the flow of talented students. And at specialty schools like Indiana’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Vice President of Enrollment Management James Goecker said the tools he sees are often mismatched with the school’s needs. Goecker said he’s constantly being approached by companies with a bright idea to help colleges increase their student yield, but “five percent of U.S. high school grads meet (Rose-Hulman’s) admission standards.” He said that when he asks these companies, “how can I justify spending the same amount as schools like Purdue, or Cal…there’s usually a quiet response.”
This may be less relevant to Brilliant, since to date, 90 percent of users are outside the U.S. And if not for Chinese and Indian student enrollments, said Eddie West, Director of International Initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, many American graduate programs in STEM fields would wither. But “there is also a thriving industry of educational consultants and so-called study abroad ‘agents’ that offer international students in-country assistance in applying to schools in the U.S,” he said.
To be sure, Brilliant is facing a crowded marketplace amid recruitment-augmenting services. But Khim says colleges, scholarship programs, and corporations have already signaled interest in the access to top-tier talent that her site provides.
And in the supplementary education space, where Brilliant’s distinction is its focus on kids who are hungry for a challenge, its user base is still modest: 120,000, but doubling every eight weeks or so.
“These are the people that tomorrow will be creating the next big tech company, the next great medical breakthrough…that will be sending man to Mars,” Khim said to a crowd assembled at a recent TedX conference in her hometown of Chicago. Her pitch has evolved, even since March. Now it references a grand theory of massively impacting the economy, and being motivated by the idea of harnessing human capital to notch up an entire country’s GDP. Khim herself is on leave from the University of Chicago to devote more time to building the site.
Meanwhile, the 12-year-old user from the Philippines whom she mentioned back in March won a math competition on Brilliant, beating a 17-year-old who got a perfect score at the International Math Olympiad. She says he’s now being privately coached by a math professor who’s taken him on as a mentee.