This Founder Did a PhD So He Could Build a Better Startup

January 9, 2014

12:49 pm

Derek LomasSix or seven years ago, Qualcomm researcher Derek Lomas happened upon a $12 computer in India. It plugged into your TV and offered some meager games, karaoke, and typing programs. “We can do better than this,” he thought.

So in 2009, Lomas started a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University to learn how to build better games – games that would excite and inspire those young Indian children instead of just being a form of entertainment.

At the university, he’s done experiments with hundreds of thousands of students, figuring out the science of learning through gaming. He’s put quick tests before and after a game, so he can monitor and tweak the game to have the highest effect on learning. He’s studied how difficulty affects student engagement: “When things get hard, a lot of students drop out,” he concludes. And he’s funneled all this learning into a startup called Mathify, which is creating math games for textbooks and teachers.

“What’s special and promising about Mathify is that they’re a team of learning scientists who also create fun, engaging games,” says Phil Schwarz, who helped manage last year’s Kaplan EdTech Accelerator when Mathify went through it. “That’s the secret sauce.”

Through the years – building up a startup alongside his PhD in Pittsburgh – Lomas realized that students in America could use educational games, too. He learned that 50 percent of 8th graders in the US can’t put fractions in the right order (a 5th grade skill), and schools don’t have much funding for math materials. So he and his team created a suite of math and literacy games focused on the Common Core in the US, grades K-8.

Mathify’s service for publishers makes their textbooks digital and gamified: number lines turn into submarines blowing up enemy ships; fractions become chocolate bars to be divided among friends. But teachers don’t have to wait to get new books: they can log onto MathPlanet now and assign games to their students.

Initiatives like Mathify could have one very huge effect that many people would appreciate: the fall of standardized testing. If tests and data collection are built into our learning apps, then we’d already know how every child is doing.

And Lomas would just be happy to have his children using technology in a productive way. “Seeing how my own kids engage with tablets is totally crazy,” he says. “Every parent today has this experience where it’s just amazing how engaging the technology is for them, but it’s also concerning. You want them to be doing something that’s worthwhile, and so I know that that drives me.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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