In less than a year, Brock University helped the founders of a start-up gaming company get from designing a concept to selling the product. And now their path has led to the gates of TV’s Dragon’s Den.
In summer 2011, Alex Peters and Rohan Mahimker received a grant from the federal government’s Applied Research and Commercialization (ARC) program, which helps small and medium enterprises get from research and development to commercialization. Brock University is one of ARC’s administering bodies for south-central Ontario.
Peters and Mahimker conceived the idea for an interactive game called Prodigy, with a huge advantage over the competition. It would not only help kids learn math, but adjust its level of difficulty based on the emotions of the child playing it.
The $50,000 ARC grant helped the idea come to life. The Brock team involved with this project included Beatrice Ombuki-Berman, an associate professor of computer science, who signed on to the project as the Brock principal investigator. She also oversaw the hiring of four Brock computer science students as research assistants to refine the prototype. The Brock team worked on the project from July 1, 2011 to March 31, 2012.
Thanks to their involvement, Peters and Mahimker’s company SMARTeacher is now open for business and selling product, but they agree the ARC grant was a make-or-break moment that let them develop the game’s crucial technology.
Billed as “the most fun and effective way to learn math,” Prodigy looks and feels like a video game but is a powerful tool to help children improve their grades, retention and enjoyment of math.
“Being able to respond to the child’s emotions is everything,” Peters said. “By sensing when a child is frustrated, this allows Prodigy to automatically offer helpful content and easier questions. Or conversely, to switch to more difficult skills and questions when a child is growing bored.”
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Peters and Mahimker:
• The ARC funding took them through to March 2012.
• By April the pair had been selected to tape their pitch for Dragon’s Den (which could air in the 2012-13 season).
• Today their website lets people sample and order the game.
• And every month they’re developing new features to keep the game fresh for new and existing customers.
“The game creates an individual learning profile for each child, so that it learns what the most effective strategy is for each student over time,” Peters said.
SMARTeacher is one of more than a dozen companies that Brock has partnered with through the ARC program since March 2011.
“Many of these collaborations will lead to product launches over the next year,” said John Wilson, Brock’s director of Business Development and Commercialization. “This will be to the benefit of Brock, the companies involved and to the economy of southern Ontario.”