Downtown Project brings $350 million to revitalize Las Vegas--and wants edtech startups to join

Downtown Project brings $350 million to revitalize Las Vegas--and wants edtech startups to join

FROM SHOES TO SCHOOLS: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh will soon be moving his HQ from Henderson, NV, to downtown Las Vegas--just a short drive up the I-515. What he's also bringing: a $350 million fund to transform downtown Las Vegas into the "most community-focused large city in the world" through The Downtown Project. And he wants edtech startups to play a role. He's allocated $50 million for education, along with an equal amount for early stage startups through the VegasTech Fund. (The other funds are dedicated to real estate, residential development, and small businesses.)

Downtown Las Vegas is obscured by the glitz and glamor of the Strip less than a mile away. Tourists typically skip Vegas' downtown, imagining it desolate or run down. But Hsieh and his team see energetic locals and the seeds of a thriving community. "Creat[ing] the coworking capital of the world" is one of many goals boldly proclaimed on the project website.

Meg Murray and Connie Yeh (Hsieh's cousin), co-heads of the education team, believe that one ideal coworking opportunity would be to embedded edtech startups within schools. The Downtown Project has plans underway to build five schools, beginning with an early childhood (preK to K) private school planned for August 2013, and expanding to include elementary, middle and high schools within the next five years. Hsieh himself has recently contributed $1.5 million to Teach For America to bring 1,000 core members and alumni to live and teach in downtown Vegas.

Murray and Yeh envision teams of edtech entrepreneurs sharing spaces and working side-by-side with teachers and students, creating a great environment for prototyping, early beta testing and feedback. Clark Country School District, the fifth largest in the U.S. with over 300,000 students, could serve as an ideal test bed for those looking to build the ed tools of the future, Yeh told EdSurge. Yeh and Andy White, head of the VegasTech Fund, were recently spotted scoping out the edtech scene at the NewSchools Summit and LAUNCH Education event in the Silicon Valley.

Details on how the program might work are still scarce. Additional funders may need to step up. But even long-time Vegas natives are impressed with the energy that Hsieh's team is bringing. Next time you find yourself in Vegas, head downtown for a trip you can tell the kids all about.

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