What happens when two experienced entrepreneurs venture into the pre-K-12 ed-tech marketplace with a new startup? They find themselves navigating unfamiliar waters.
But the duo behind Square Panda—an iPad accessory and literacy platform that helps early grade children learn to spell—got a big boost at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Tennis legend Andre Agassi announced his investment, through his Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, in the adaptive learning product, and Square Panda founder and chairman Tom Boeckle said the company’s booth at the show was thronged by the interested.
Square Panda’s central product is a $99 plastic tray-like tablet add-on that includes letters (like those familiar fridge magnets parents know well) that interact with the company’s software. The personalized learning platform helps teach students to spell more than 3,000 words using gaming, animation, and tactile learning, said Andy Butler, the CEO of the Silicon Valley-based startup. The product currently works with iPads but will expand soon to Android devices as well, he said.
Parents can personalize the experience by loading in photos of family members or pets, for example, to be incorporated when those words are used. A diagnostic engine helps choose lessons for children based on how they’re progressing.
Las Vegas entrepreneur Boeckle initially developed the idea for an ed-tech product more than three years ago and then partnered with Butler. Boeckle, who has dyslexia and said he didn’t learn to read until 6th grade, has a number of successful businesses on his resume in areas that range from the travel market to construction and the restaurant industry. “I always promised myself that if I became wealthy one day I would work to change the way we teach kids, and that’s what I did,” he said.
Despite his decades starting and building businesses, Boeckle described his venture into the ed-tech market as a “painful journey.” He had to teach himself about education and technology along the way. “There are a lot more elements involved in the learning industry,” he said. “And the technology business is moving 100 miles per hour every day, all day.”
In fact, he had to shift gears from his initial ed-tech idea “because it was not sophisticated enough.”
“You’re constantly chasing technology which changes on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis,” he said. “What was good last year is not even talked about this year.”
Market Starting to Innovate
Butler, who also has a host of successful startups under his belt including RoboToolz, a company that developed electronic measuring technology for carpentry tools and which was purchased by power tool giant Bosch, and a company that developed music streaming technology that ultimately became the basis for the technology behind iTunes, said operating in the education market feels similar to ventures he’s worked on in the government space.
“There’s an enormously long lead time” on purchasing, for example, he said. Because of that, in part, Square Panda is marketing directly to parents. Soon the company plans to expand its efforts and target day care centers with an educational focus, and then private schools, though some Head Start facilities are using the product now.
“The decision-making process is much quicker in private education than public,” he said.
While funding and finding investment is often a barrier for startups, both Butler and Boeckle said that hasn’t been a problem due to their many years in the entrepreneurial space. Until recently, Butler said the company has raised money from private accredited investors, and will be seeking institutional investors later this year.
Butler said this startup is different for him, as it has the opportunity to have a social impact. To him, the current ed-tech marketplace compares to the early days of the medical device industry “when suddenly, the silos of the medical world and the engineering world started to share different ideas,” he said. “This fertile dialogue started.”
The medical device industry is now vast, and he predicts something similar will evolve in education.
“We’re just at the forefront of bringing engineering and educators and innovators under one roof,” he said. “It’s an extremely rich area for opportunity.”
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