Actor LeVar Burton goes digital with RRKidz reading app

LeVar Burton earned fame as an actor in TV series such as Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Reading Rainbow. Now he hopes to leverage that fame as an entrepreneur behind the new RRKidz reading app for kids on the iPad and Android devices.

Burton’s aim is to use his stardom to revive education the way that entrepreneurs would do, by creating an entertaining educational application, rather than the way that government institutiions have tried and failed to do. He’s the latest example of Hollywood meets high-tech, raising $3 million in funding for his start-up, but Burton says he hopes to avoid the fate of many other failures in education startups.

“I am aware of the difficulties in the educational funding environment,” Burton said in an interview with VentureBeat. “I would be stupid to ignore history. But if I had listend to all the people when I was 19 years old who said it would be too tough to be an actor, I would not be where I am today.

Burton’s interest in education runs deep. He served as the executive producer of the Reading Rainbow television show for kids from 1983 to 2006, introducing millions of kids to the joy of reading. With RRKidz, Burton is introducing a reading, discovery and exploration platform (enhanced eBooks) that could have more than 300 interactive books by the time it launches. Burton himself is planning on reading at least 15 percent of the titles in the library.

The company has the advantage of having Burton and the worldwide license for Reading Rainbow on digital devices, in partnership with WNED-TV, a PBS station. But one of the challenges is that Burton will have to reach a generation of youngsters who don’t know anything about his fame. (We were all quite amused to hear that Matthew Lynley, one of VentureBeat’s own youngsters, didn’t know who Burton was). And he said he was quite aware that the way to reach them was through their own digital devices such as iPads.

The RRKidz app will be available as a free app on the iPad and select Android devices, offering hundreds of books via a subscription service that will be curated by Burton. The idea is to give parents something that they can share with their children without having to worry about trusting the content and inspecting every single book.

The interactive nature of tablet computers will allow Burton’s team to fashion rich applications that can be as appealing to kids as the video games that compete with the educational apps for their attention.

Burton got started about 15 months ago, after he appeared at a Macworld keynote with New York Times tech columnist David Pogue. On stage, Burton said he was raising money for a startup. Becoming an entrepreneur turned out to be quite an education for Burton, as he had to overcome a lot of skepticism about the education market, often referred to as edutainment. But he raised a round from Raymonds Capital, headed by a longtime friend John Raymonds, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which is devoted to education and entrepreneurship.

“Teachers and parents grew up with LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow, and the thought of the brand coming back in a big new way is thrilling,” said Raymonds.

Harold Bradley, chief investment officer at the Kauffman Foundation, said that what PBS once did with books and imagination, RRKidz can do with apps for the kids of today.

Burton said he turned the startup and investor world because he felt like government and schools weren’t getting the job done.

“We are slipping on the world’s stage in education, very precipitously,” he said. “To remain a world leader, we have to do a better job educating our children. Our approach is a partnership of public and private efforts. I’ve never stopped thinking about how to prepare our children to occupy their place in the world. Reading Rainbow was a powerful reading experience for me.”

He added, “What it takes to educate kids is to get them focused on having fun while learning. The next evolution focused my attention on new media. Just like 25 years ago, our TV show made it really clear, the digital devices we carry around in our hands have enormous power. They’re incredibly attractive to all of us, including kids.”

Burton said that his focus is on engagement, or keeping kids interesting in learning through storytelling. “I am learning a lot about the mechanics of storytelling in the digital realm,” he said. “But as a storyteller and an actor, engagement is what I know about.”

Burton said he was aware of the discovery problem for app makers on platforms such as Apple’s Appstore, which has hundreds of thousands of apps.

“I want to bring elements of discovery and curation to this that I don’t see now,” he said. “We’ve go the LeVar Burton brand and Reading Rainbow to put in the service of kids and their parents. We can help parents who are having a hard time identifying what is right for their parents.”

Burton’s Los Angeles-based team includes co-founder and chief strategy officer Mark Wolfe, who produced films such as Terminator 3 and Kinsey. The company’s chief executive is Asra Rasheed, an experienced digital media entrepreneur and previous co-founder of game rental service Gottaplay. The chief technology officer is Duc Haba, who previously worked at mobile analytics firm Motally. Sangita Patel is president of digital publishing and previous led business development initiatives at the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones Ventures.

“It was a long hard slog to get here,” Burton said. “I got a lot of great advice from Silicon Valley. It was important to find the right money, and I believe we did. I come from a family of social workers and ministers and other trades. I am the first entrepreneur in my family. And now I’ve got the bug.”

 

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