R.I. entrepreneur followed 'big ideas' out on a limb. Now they're bearing fruit

By Patrick Anderson
Journal Staff Writer

In the depths of the Great Recession, Michael Croft quit his job as a software engineer at Amica Insurance Co. and put everything on the line in his own business. There, he found the junction of technology and education, and it’s there that he wants to transform digital learning.

The year was 2009. The United States was deep in recession, and Rhode Island was in even deeper.

But after a dozen years working as a software engineer at insurance company Amica, Michael Croft decided the time was right to quit his job, liquidate his savings and start a new web-design business with his wife, Melanie.

“I told her, ‘I have to leave. Tomorrow morning I have got to resign,’” Croft said of the moment he decided to strike out on his own. “We cashed out everything we owned — all savings — rented our house out to strangers and started knocking on doors.”

The gamble paid off.

In four years, the couple’s new business had grown large enough for him to begin pursuing an even bigger challenge, creating a new online education platform he hopes will transform interactive digital learning, starting with executive training, at institutions around the world.

Using capital from the sale of his web-development business and an investment by another prominent Rhode Island technology company founder, Croft founded Providence-based Volute Education in 2015. Today the company, where he is CEO and Melanie is a business analyst, has 25 employees and partnerships with 12 institutions of higher education, including Columbia Business School.

Volute’s approach to online learning is a standardized system that schools can use to create their own interactive course modules and then license and trade them among themselves.

It’s a kind of Airbnb for the online education world, as Croft describes it.

“We are really developing a whole new market entry for education, a brand-new business model,” Croft told the Journal in a recent phone interview. “These tools are like building blocks or Lego bricks. They build tools with us and can use them themselves and let anyone in the member community use them. Columbia can build a tool and Wharton can use it.”

Unlike some online sharing platforms, Volute works with the schools to build each teaching module, and the company maintains quality control over what appears on the site.

Croft jumped into the education-technology market while doing web-development work for Columbia Business School.

The Ivy League institution was working with a number of high-end online-learning products, he said, but wanted its own custom application for its executive education offerings. (Those offerings can include courses on topics such as cybersecurity, network analysis and social-media management.)

“There was obviously a gap in the market if they wanted me to build their own system,” Croft said.

As his decision to leave the safety of Amica shows, Croft has a penchant for thinking big.

Why leave Amica during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?

“It is a good company, but there was not a lot of room to expand creatively,” Croft said. “I had a lot of big ideas.”

In addition to the capital from his former business, Croft launched Volute with an investment by Charles Nault, co-founder of Atrion Inc., a Warwick-based computer-network firm, soon after Atrion was purchased by Carousel Industries last year.

“I saw the conceptual framework for what he was creating and recognized he was on to something,” Nault said in a phone interview from his new base in Tennessee. “This platform, I believe, has the potential to become the de facto standard for corporate learning.”

And if Volute can conquer corporate online learning, Nault said, there is no reason it can’t move into other areas of education.

“There is a lot of disruption coming in higher ed,” Nault said. “It is just too expensive, with a trillion dollars in debt out there.”

Volute recently moved into renovated offices in Providence’s Rising Sun Mills complex and has smaller offices in New York, Spain and Brazil.

As for all the competition in the education technology market, Croft said Volute is unique.

“They are creating the content,” he said of competitors. “We create the tools.”

— panderson@providencejournal.com

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