It’s funny how an idea, A Resource For Math-Minded Students, can evolve into an adventure to Silicon Valley to make a pitch of a lifetime that leads to start-up capital. About 18 months ago, small business owner and tech start-up extraordinaire, Sue Khim, did just that. flew to San Francisco from her home in Illinois to participate the ‘Launch Festival. ‘ Launch is more competition than festival. Over two days, tech entrepreneurs pitch to a panel of hotshot technologists who issue on-the-spot critique of products’ market viability and revenue models, and, potentially offer funding.

Khim’s success at Launch earned her $75,000 for her initial idea, but as her business grew, Khim’s vision shifted. Instead of her original idea of a “TurboTax for student loans,” Khim focused on a newer endeavor, fueled by her success at the Launch Festival.

Khim has gone from talking about a potential market of 21 million students to about 20 times that number. And she’s targeting children across the world as young as 11 who are the best among their peer groups at science and math.

It’s called — an online hub for the world’s most promising young minds to come together, connect, and see how they measure up against one another. Launch judge and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya helped spark the idea.

“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,” Palihapitiya told Brilliant founder Khim after her Alltuition presentation. There also seemed to be plenty of offerings for adults and remediation programs for struggling high school students in online education. But not a place to challenge A and B students.

‘Tantalizingly Tricky And Hard’

So Brilliant is designed for talented 11- to 18-year-olds who would probably be “Googling for hard math problems,” Khim said. Brilliant administers a diagnostic exam to new users, and then begins delivering “tantalizingly tricky and hard” questions written by math and physics teachers, she said.

Because Brilliant’s team assumes their users already have a strong foundation in (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the site focuses on measurement, Khim said. She said it considers 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 where children in India and China prepare for competitive national exams, or 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. Khim 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 smart kids.

Global Competition

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 their social networks. The data can be sifted by geography and age range. In a March , six months after launching the site, Khim pulled 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.” To date, 90 percent of Brilliant’s users are outside the U.S.

Yong Zhao, associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, said “globalization has changed a lot of people’s perspectives. 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 predefined context.”

Zhao said he worries about how American parents might react to international comparisons. But given this rising anxiety, he said, Brilliant’s comparison engine, which allows users to assess their stats against those of peers everywhere, could help to popularize the site.


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