Meet Synthesis: The edtech startup scaling Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school

CEO Chrisman Frank tells us how Synthesis is creating a platform that teaches problem solving for children that "want to learn how to build the future."


April 12, 2021

***

Elon Musk is well known for many things. 

PayPal. Tesla. SpaceX…and even a monkey using brain implants to play ping pong. 

Less publicized: Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”), a private school started by the South African entrepreneur and educator Josh Dahn.  

Musk laid out his goals for a new school program…

…in a 2015 interview:

  • An alternative to the age segregation model: Musk says that separating kids by age doesn’t make sense for education, because students have different interests and abilities that are independent of how old they are.  
  • Problem solving focus: Instead of giving children “tools” in a vacuum, they should be taught how to problem solve. 
  • Gamification: Musk notes that he doesn’t have to “encourage his kids to play games.” Gamifying education is a natural match for kids. 

Only a few SpaceX families had access to the program, though 

Over the past few years, Dahn has been working with Chrisman Frank — a veteran engineer from edtech startup ClassDojo — to bring Ad Astra to the masses. 

Enter Synthesis, an online games-based academy (Frank is CEO while Musk is not involved in the startup). 

Officially launched in November 2020, Synthesis is currently an online once-a-week enrichment program that teaches Ad Astra-inspired problem solving. 

In a few short months, Synthesis has reached a 7-figure run rate (~1k subscribers paying $180 per month)…but the school has much larger plans. The Hustle recently spoke with Frank to find out more:

***

Could you tell us the philosophy behind Synthesis? 

Synthesis started with making education more about problem solving. We put kids in game simulations and let them figure out how it works. 

In adult life and work, you’re always having to make trade-offs and work with other people. This is something we try to simulate. 

There is a good audio clip on my Twitter that shows this type of skill development [see below].

Currently, everything in education is geared towards the middle or the bottom. My co-founder Josh [Dahn] and Elon made an unapologetically accelerated program. 

There are some kids that are already doing very well and we believe Synthesis can help accelerate them even more.

The overall mission is to increase the level of innovation in the world. Let’s say right now there are maybe 1 in 10,000 people innovating and contributing new knowledge to the world. 

What if we can get that number to 1 in 100? 

How is the program doing?

Synthesis launched in November [2020] and has already reached a ~$2m annual run rate. We could probably be growing faster but our application process is deliberate. 

We want to find people that are aligned with our philosophy. 

How many people currently work at Synthesis?

There is a core team of 10. But we also have 70 guides, which are the adults that facilitate our learning sessions. 

What is the longer-term vision for Synthesis?

Human ingenuity — our ability to solve complex problems collaboratively — is the world’s most valuable skill, and the root of all progress. 

And we do not know how to cultivate this skill at scale. In our view, nothing could be more important for humanity’s future. So our aim is to do exactly that: learn how to cultivate human ingenuity at scale. 

As far as how our product evolves, the existing subscription is the first part of a “barbell” strategy.

1) At one end of the barbell is the weekly enrichment program: 

This program is a supplement to regular school or home schooling. 

Right now we have 1k students but expect this will grow an order of magnitude by year end. For 99% of Synthesis students, this will be what Synthesis is.

2) At the other end of the barbell is a “full stack” online school:

This program will target the world’s most advanced science and technology students. 

You can think of the Synthesis games and simulations as a massive tournament to find the kids that have high potential for the STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) fields. We need to find the kids in Bangladesh or Nigeria who have the mind and desire to change the world, but need access to the right opportunities. 

It’s still early but we envision a situation where we can offer the top 1% of Synthesis students a chance to join a culture and community that will be the best path to changing the world through innovation. 

Ideally, we could make this entirely free for the students, and run it as an investment in our long-term brand.

Even without the program dedicated to top performers, Synthesis sounds like a great software business. 

I think that is true, because there is a growing wave of dissatisfaction with the existing education system. Savvy parents already recognize that the ability to solve complex problems is THE most valuable skill, and also something kids are rarely asked to do in school. 

Combine that with the fact that this is sort of the first generation of internet-native parents, and I think the opportunity is enormous.

A compilation of Synthesis classes in action

Will you be able to reduce prices in the future?

Yes. Like virtually every new technology, Synthesis is effectively subsidized by those who can afford to pay a premium price. We will use the revenues from this phase to invest in the product in order to reduce costs and make it available to as many kids as possible. 

This is especially important for us as the demand is global. Most of our students are currently in the US, but we also have significant presence in India, Russia, and Europe.

Socializing is such a large part of early schooling. How does Synthesis add that component for an internet-only school? 

I think of education as a bundle. You have the learning aspect and, also, a daycare aspect. 

We are currently 100% focused on learning, not daycare.

But unlike school, our learning experiences are inherently social, because the kids are solving problems together. There is a real shared experience, which helps kids form stronger bonds than just sitting next to each other in desks. So, we have to move past the idea that physical colocation is always more social than virtual experiences. 

I also think that Synthesis will serve as a Schelling point for advanced students.

Many kids already think and communicate at adult levels. At Synthesis, they will be around like-minded peers. They will have their local friends based on geographic convenience, and their internet friends based on shared interests and goals. 

For the hyper-advanced students, Synthesis can be an alternative to entering college at age 12 or 14, which is sort of a tough situation to be in socially, even if you can do the academic work.

What is a common criticism of Synthesis you’ve heard and how do you address it? 

We don’t give grades so people do ask “how do you measure the students and prove they are learning?”

But the big problem with the current system is the distortion caused by too much focus on measurement!

We don’t want to play the standardized test game. For us, it’s more important to focus on “Are the kids really thinking here? Does the problem solving they are doing in Synthesis resemble real life?”

Remember, Synthesis is voluntary. We are looking for members who see what we are doing and are excited about it. 

Some parents really like the structure they feel the industrial education system provides. We are probably just not a good match for them.

***

HOW DOES SYNTHESIS WORK?

Cost: $180 per month
Admission: An online application process
Program: Students join a cohort that meets once a week to play novel, complex games and simulations. Sessions are moderated by an adult facilitator, whose main role is to encourage collaboration and rigorous analytical thinking.

Join 1.5m+ professionals getting The Hustle daily news brief

Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less

100% free, no ads or spam, unsubscribe anytime

Psst

How'd Bezos build a billion dollar empire?

In 1994, Jeff Bezos discovered a shocking stat: Internet usage grew 2,300% per year.

Data shows where markets are headed.

And that’s why we built Trends — to show you up-and-coming market opportunities about to explode. Interested?

Join us, it's free.

Look, you came to this site because you saw something cool. But here’s the deal. This site is actually a daily email that covers the important news in business, tech, and culture.

So, if you like what you’re reading, give the email a try.

If you don’t like it, unsubscribe any time. Privacy policy.