Susan Adams, an editor at Forbes, took a close look at AltSchool, a billionaire-funded effort to reinvent American education by putting kids on computers. 

Max Ventillaleft Google tolaunch his startup. He’s raised plenty of dough from the billionaires, but success is thus far out of reach. Successmeans making money.

“We’re two intense hours into an interview in a stuffy, glass-paned meeting room in a former 24 Hour Fitness that is now home to one of AltSchool’s two small private schools in San Francisco for grades pre-K through 8. Ventilla, who left Google to launch AltSchool in 2013, has spent $30 million annually over the last several years while trying to find steady footing for his for-profit education startup, which runs four schools; the other two are in New York City.

“AltSchool’s 240 students, including two of Ventilla’s children—Leonardo, 5, and Sabine, 7—are guinea pigs for a software platform that AltSchool is attempting to sell to hundreds of schools both private and public. So far it has 28 customers. Revenue in 2018 was $7 million. “Our whole strategy is to spend more than we make,” he says. Since software is expensive to develop and cheap to distribute, the losses, he believes, will turn into steep profits once AltSchool refines its product and lands enough customers.

Max Ventilla, CEO and cofounder of AltSchool.

Max Ventilla, CEO and cofounder of AltSchool.TIMOTHY ARCHIBALD

“But as Ventilla admits when he lets his guard down, reaching profitability will be quite a stretch. The story of how AltSchool arrived at this point—burning cash in a failed attempt to create a profitable private-school network and fighting to sell an expensive edtech product in a crowded field—shows that the best intentions, an impressive career in tech and an excess of Silicon Valley money and enthusiasm don’t easily translate into success in a tradition-bound marketplace where budgets are tight.

“Ventilla, wearing jeans, scuffed black leather slip-ons, a faded polo shirt with AltSchool’s logo and a black fleece jacket, has been able to hemorrhage cash because, as he has it, “I’m good at telling AltSchool’s story and I’m good at raising money early.” So good that he has raised $174 million in venture capital at a $440 million valuation, according to PitchBook, more than almost any other startup working on K-12 education. That sum includes a personal investment of more than $15 million from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Zuckerberg initiated two hours-long one-on-one meetings with Ventilla in late 2014, when AltSchool was only 18 months old. “He’s very detail-oriented, and he likes to drill down,” Ventilla says of Zuckerberg.”

The article has little vignettes of a few of the billionaires reinventing education.