Where in the World Is Planet3? An Educational Gaming CEO Seeks His...

Game-Based Learning

Where in the World Is Planet3? An Educational Gaming CEO Seeks His Second Act

By Wade Tyler Millward     Apr 17, 2019

Where in the World Is Planet3? An Educational Gaming CEO Seeks His Second Act
Promotional rendering used for the Planet3 platform's weather module. The company has tried to marry commercial video game design with science curriculum.

When Tim Kelly started Planet3 in 2013, he aimed for the stars. He envisioned a game-based educational platform used by teachers and students to learn about science and the environment.

He had the staff, as many as 35 employees with experience in game and curriculum development. He had the money, at least $13 million raised by July 2016. And he had interest from educators who wanted to try Planet3 in schools that included the Las Vegas area.

But at an all-hands meeting at the company’s Washington, D.C. headquarters in June 2017, Planet3 executives laid off the staff.

Some employees heard the news on a conference call. Others said they found out through email. Some employees hoped the company could turn around and stayed on without pay. “We had lost our way,” one former staff said. “It was pretty disheartening,” said another. The former employees asked not to be named out of concern for their careers.

In nearly two years since the layoffs, Kelly has not abandoned Planet3. He still has the platform, which he claims in an interview is complete. Now, he seeks distribution and strategic partners to help him get product into schools and homes, in the U.S. and internationally. He’s also in search of more capital for his product to realize its full potential.

“We want every student to be engaged as passionate stewards of Earth,” Kelly said. “We’re not giving up.”

Planet3’s Formative Years

Kelly founded Planet3 in 2013 to blend top-tier commercial game designers with instructional experts and create a digital platform to teach middle-school science. He based the content on the Next Generation Science Standards, a multi-state effort at K-12 science education content completed in 2013. Nineteen states and D.C. have adopted the standards while 21 states have standards based on the framework.

Planet3 found its biggest backer in Rob Roy, CEO of Las Vegas-area data center services company Switch, which invested $10 million in the company in 2015. Kelly met him through Planet3 co-founder Albert Yu-Min Lin when Lin received an award sponsored by Switch, Kelly told EdTech Digest at the time.

With vision and funds, Kelly assembled a star-studded cast of experts across the entertainment and education fields. Kelly himself had spent 30 years with the National Geographic Society. He became president in January 2011 and grew the science and education nonprofit beyond its print-based media roots and into TV and films.

His co-founders included Lin, a National Geographic explorer and research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, as well as Vijay Lakshman, publisher of more than 85 commercial games, among them popular titles that include “Crash Bandicoot,” “Spyro the Dragon” and “The Elder Scrolls: Arena.”

On the education side, the company enlisted Kelly McGrath, former head of K-12 science curriculum development at Pearson, who’d become Planet3’s chief operating officer. Esther Wojcicki, the esteemed journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, joined in 2016 as the company’s chief learning officer.

A Promising Pilot in Nevada

That summer, Planet3 announced a pilot program with six school districts in Nevada, including Clark County School District, home to Las Vegas and the fifth largest school district in the U.S.

In the agreement with Clark County School District, nine middle schools agreed to the Planet3 pilot program from August 2016 to May 2017. Planet3 agreed to earth and life science curriculum with supplemental lesson plans and free 24-hour access to the platform for students, teachers and parents. The district agreed to provide infrastructure, feedback, and pay $15,000 for professional development for up to 40 teachers. If all went well, the district would consider a long-term relationship and delivering Planet3 products to all of the district’s middle and high schools.

In a December 2016 letter by Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky to Kelly about the pilot program, Skorkowsky noted that students enjoyed lessons about data literacy from the product’s visualizations and about science from real-world case studies. Students also liked the avatar-based 3-D games.

“I am very pleased to see that the Planet3 product has developed into a comprehensive and innovative curriculum,” Skorkowsky wrote. He concluded, “I look forward to observing the increasing excitement for science throughout the testing and research process and beyond.”

Signs looked good at this point. The company planned to incorporate the feedback to build a more complete product, slated to formally launch in all of the district’s middle and high schools in time for the fall 2017 school year.

Fundraisers Sidelined

There was just one problem—the company needed more money. At first, this didn’t seem like an issue. That year, the company received a $150,000 grant Small Business Innovation Research grant from the federal government to prototype its product in two classrooms. The same year, Switch gave Planet3 another $3 million in the form of a convertible note. Kelly had hoped the note would be part of a Series B round that totaled as much as $15 million.

“They wholeheartedly believed they were going to raise the money,” one former employee said. “There was never a doubt.”

But they were wrong. The rest of the funds never came, in part due to personal tragedies. In October 2016, Lin lost his right leg below the knee in an off-road vehicle accident. A few months later, Kelly sustained a brain aneurysm. Both Kelly and Lin had been public faces for the company and two primary fundraisers, now sidelined.

Lin has talked publicly about his accident, about how he stays positive and has adapted to his prosthetic. Kelly said he’s since made a full recovery.

The company’s primary backer also had a change of heart. In December 2016, Switch ended further financial support for Planet3, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. With Planet3’s operating losses and “the release of a beta product that did not generate the projected sales activity,” Switch calculated a total write-down of $7.7 million for its Planet3 investment.

Switch did not respond to requests for comment. In June 2017, Planet3 laid off its staff.

A Most Difficult Game

The struggles of Planet3 are not unique to the educational game industry. Plenty of promising efforts have sputtered. Among those who tried include Osman Rashid, the co-founder of Chegg and Kno, who launched Galxyz in 2014 to build a science video games for grades three to 12.

Magnates from the gaming industry have attempted as well. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell started BrainRush in 2012. Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins raised $9.3 million by February 2014 for a game to teach kids social-emotional learning. Both efforts have largely gone dark.

The difficulty involved to build educational video games stems first from development costs, which many aspiring developers tend to underestimate, according to Dan White, CEO of Filament Games, which has created more than 160 learning games in its 14-year history. From White’s experience, it can cost well over six figures to build an educational game with the design and polish of mainstream commercial titles.

A further challenge awaits those who try to sell into schools. White says developers often wrestle with building a product that’s fun and engaging or a product that’s more direct in addressing a district’s academic standards. The struggle for developers is the right balance.

“Are we building a comprehensive curriculum, or are we building games?” he said. “Those two things by their nature can be mutually exclusive.”

Lessons Learned

Former employees said the company lacked a shared vision on the product it wanted to make. At times, employees thought they were building a comprehensive experience with a single narrative and storyline. At others, they were building a platform with multiple mini-games. To some of the former employees, the ideas resembled digital textbook with different chapters.

Kelly acknowledged back-and-forth about what the platform should look like but said the goal stayed the same. “When you design a product that breaks new ground, that involves some passionate debate,” he said. “Everyone had the absolute best intentions, and we ended up with a product that was well received by students and teachers."

What the product looked like, whether it was finished and how many teachers and students piloted it depends on who you ask. Former employees say what they had built resembled piecemeal appetizers of a grander product: seven modules, each that covered a lesson for science topics like plants and volcanoes. Kelly frames it differently, saying that a beta version of the platform had been completed by spring 2017.

The employees no longer with Planet3 said they learned a lot from the experience—especially the importance of having a tested product before raising capital.

For now, Tim Kelly is the last man on Planet3. After letting go of its staff, he has sought out partnerships and investors for the company. As Planet3, he has done some work overseas, including an augmented reality exhibits in Singapore. The rolodex of education and gaming experts that were once executives now act more as advisers. When there is product development work, that is handled through contractors.

Some former employees believe Kelly keeps the company alive as a matter of pride or financial obligation. Others believe he’s still driven by that original vision. If you ask Kelly, he’ll tell you he still believes in Planet3’s potential. “This could change the way students engage with science,” he said. “That’s a pretty important thing.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up