Big Dreams for a New Kind of Education on a Campus in Chile

With all the big ideas in higher education from MOOCs to disruptive models, one place you might not expect to find new ideas is Santiago, Chile, but that's exactly where one new venture has taken flight. Exosphere, which officially opens on September 23, is one part university, one part boot camp, and one part incubator, and two parts experiment. The institution is designed to create a unique experience for each student, who is an entrepreneur-in-training, by giving them skills based knowledge, resources, mentorship, training, and a strong community.

Unlike traditional higher education institutions which have to focus on rankings and faculty publication rates or start-up incubators which have to focus on exits and financing, Exosphere's only mandate is to focus on the whole student. This fall's class of students will range in age from 19 to 57 and range in background from people who are undergraduates in their home country to a former Ph.D philosophy professor. For each one of these students, Exosphere will provide an opportunity for anyone to reinvent his or herself as an entrepreneur. While many students at Exosphere will be tech entrepreneurs, some are artists and musicians trying to bootstrap their work to commercial success, whatever prior experience their goal is to create an experience that can help each student decide whether or not entrepreneurship is for them, and if so, nurture them on that path and support them for the long haul.

The first class will arrive next month, and when they do logistical support from housing to cell phone procurement, will be provided by the Exosphere staff before they go through a weeklong community building period which also serves to orient them with Santiago. They are then immersed in a series of workshops in web development, income generation, design thinking, and hardware hacking among others. After completing these courses, students apply all that they have learned as they spend the rest of the term identifying a problem in the market and building a solution for it.

The school is the brainchild of Skinner Layne, 30, a serial entrepreneur who grew up in Arkansas and launched a series of tech companies before spending the last five years as an independent private equity advisor for international clients investing in energy mining in Chile. He was driven to launch Exosphere in part because of his own frustration to get the higher education he wanted. I caught up with him by phone this week, "I've seen every way that institutions support and nurture people who are going down this path in life, I felt that they just weren't working," he told me, "While recently the attitude has been to abandon institutions when they break as opposed to creating new ones." But in this case, Layne saw no other option but to build something new.

After some time of thinking about the concept for Exosphere, Layne took the advice he dispenses to his students, and dropped everything to work on this new venture in 2012. In just a few weeks they will welcome 30 students from nearly a dozen different countries including the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, Spain, India, among others.

Living in Chile for the past five years, Layne has seen its growth and emergence as a startup hub. Others are taking note as well. This summer, Exosphere hosted the Latin America Mobile development conference, which drew over 90 local hackers, making it one of the largest mobile conventions in the region. Layne is betting big on Chile "This is Latin America's century," he says, "And Chile could have the potential to be its California."

Layne works with a staff of just under 15 who have bootstrapped the entire venture. As they gear up for the first class to enter this fall they imagine an ever growing offering of potential experiences in the future. "We believe there are a lot of the problems in the hub-centric startup system today," Layne told me, "There are a lot of people who want to be entrepreneurs but who can't move to Silicon Valley. We want to provide a framework to get people started where they are both in location and in life."