Five years is a lifetime—maybe two—for startups that can’t navigate the boom-and-bust cycles of business. But such was the length of time for finalists of the Global Learning XPRIZE competition before learning the winner of $10 million.
First announced in 2014, the challenge invited organizations to submit open-source software that showed potential to help children in developing countries improve basic reading, writing and math skills. Across the world, 198 teams applied. In September 2017, five finalists were chosen to field test their tools with thousands of children across villages in Tanzania. Each of them received $1 million.
Kitkit offers a game-based learning program on tablets to help children learn independently. The app offers a library of books and videos and 2,400 learning activities across 22 sessions covering math and reading. It is developed by Enuma, which also develops Todo Math, an app for children in pre-K to second grade with over 700 math activities.
Onebillion makes a solar-powered tablet, along with the Onecourse app that houses activities for reading, writing and math, plus a library of over 300 stories. It claims to have reached over 100,000 children worldwide through partnerships with organizations like the University of Oxford and the Cambodian Children’s Fund.
The XPRIZE Foundation behind this challenge has awarded more than $140 million across competitions in subjects including spaceflight, health and energy. Its board of trustees includes director James Cameron, media mogul Arianna Huffington and Google founder Larry Page.
Before the finalists’ field test in Tanzania, 74 percent of the participating kids never went to school, 80 percent never received reading instruction at home, over 90 percent could not read Swahili. The competing companies halved those numbers, claims Emily Musil Church, Global Learning XPRIZE executive director of prize operations. “This is a point in education where we can do things differently,” she says.
XPRIZE plans to share the data collected during its field tests and help the companies add more support for other languages and mobile devices. For the field tests, XPRIZE provided tablets, solar charging stations, field and technical support, and trained facilitators across 170 villages.
The other $1 million finalists are CCI of New York , RoboTutor of Pittsburgh and Chimple of Bangalore, India.
Companies can change dramatically over the course of five years, and such was the case for Enuma, the parent company of Kitkit School. Since the company first applied to the competition, Enuma has grown to 40 full-time employees—10 in Berkeley and the others in Seoul and Beijing, says Enuma COO Eugine Chung.
Enuma’s participation helped attract brand recognition for the company, Chung says. Even if Kitkit didn’t win the contest, she adds, the field test from XPRIZE will provide independent research on how the product helps children, which will help with recruiting investors, partners and users. To date, Enuma raised $9.5 million in investment capital, most recently from a $4 million round in April 2018.
“It’s difficult to persuade stakeholders there is a demand for this software,” Chung says. “We talk about our co-founders’ game development background, our child-centered user design approach, how we help struggling learners and minimize barriers.”
Enuma has conducted its own efficacy studies as well, she says. In 2018 the company reported literacy gains of up to 45 percent and numeracy gains of up to 37 percent among 240 tested students in Turkana County in Kenya.
Enuma has big plans moving forward, inlucing partnering with organizations to continue translating its program into other languages and porting its programs for basic cell phones to reach more people in developing countries.
“Children can’t access quality schools,” Chung says. “There is a market out there, and the people who invest in us see that.”