Leveraging the power of digital games to build transformative educational technologies.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
co.lab is an accelerator that works with startups leveraging the power of digital games to build transformative educational technologies for PK-12 students and teachers. Founded by partners New Schools Venture Fund and Zynga.org, their model is built upon a belief in the need for innovation in education, and in games’ potential to enhance learning – by creating virtual ‘sandboxes’ that encourage experimentation and engagement, offering new opportunities for collaborative interactions, and unlocking new ways to assess cognitive and social growth. Their program is designed to add value to early stage edtech companies while generating knowledge that will help designers, educators, researchers and funders better understand challenges and opportunities related to developing high quality learning games and applications. Esteban Sosnik is executive director of co.lab. Prior to joining co.lab, Esteban (pictured) was co-founder and CEO of social game developer Atakama Labs (acquired by DeNA in 2011). After Atakama was acquired by DeNA, Esteban became VP with roles in studios, corporate development and alliances. Previously, he was co-founder and CEO of Wanako Games, developer of console games. Wanako earned Game of the Year for Xbox Live Arcade and was acquired by Vivendi Games in 2006. After Wanako’s acquisition Esteban became VP of Business Development at Sierra Online. Previously, Esteban has worked in venture capital, private equity and investment banking.
Victor: How would you define a ‘lean startup’? Why is ‘lean’ so vital? Does this increase creative tension and pressure or are there some drawbacks to ‘lean’?
Esteban: In my mind, a lean startup is one that has the following two characteristics: capital efficiency and fast iteration. Lean startups use as little capital as possible to test their hypothesis, which in many cases means launching a product to market, or maybe running a kickstarter campaign to assess interest for your product or service.
They are also fast in iterating product, based on reaction of early users. Some of the challenges are around knowing when is it too early to pivot, particularly for products that do not gain traction fast. There are arguably different rates of adoption for different products (also depends on whether you are going after costumers or enterprise customers), so depending on your company and target market, you might be killing your product or company too early if you go lean.
Victor: What’s the criteria checklist for those startups hoping to get involved with you?
Esteban: At co.lab, we work with startups working in the intersection of education and games. They could be in any of the following categories: content (game development); distribution (education platforms); gamification (any education company interested in applying game principles to their service); and measurement and evaluation tools. We work with companies that are just getting started (pre-seed), all the way to companies more developed and more financed like series B and beyond (like we are now working with Edmodo). They need to have a mission we feel connected to – around positively impacting education for millions of kids around the world – and have products that we think we can help scale.
They need to have a mission we feel connected to – around positively impacting education for millions of kids around the world – and have products that we think we can help scale.
Victor: As you may receive a glut of hopefuls, what criteria might you be using to narrow the field? What would be some key differentiators to indicate standouts
Esteban: We are going to be looking for outstanding mission driven entrepreneurs, developing promising products and that we think have an opportunity to create a large company impacting millions of students. We will also look at their funding visibility, whether we think their startup will be able to get new sources of funding to scale post co.lab.
Esteban: Indeed, we work with companies that develop games, interactive stories and apps, but also with those that do not develop games but want to learn from the world of games to improve their products, whether that is in improving engagement, retention or distribution.
Victor: Why do you believe there is so much potential in this area of gaming tech and learning?
Esteban: We believe that games have a place in education, both at home and possibly in the classroom too. Games have certain characteristics that make them so appealing for education. They provide students with a medium where they can learn by doing, with little risk in case of failure, and have fun while at it. They are also adaptive by nature, as a digital game is designed to become more difficult once milestones are accomplished, while they facilitate learning if the user encounters challenges and cannot move on.
They can also be collaborative, give rapid feedback on progress and require a lot of persistence to reach the desired outcomes. All these are skills that kids will need to master by the time they reach adulthood. We also think that with the advent of mobile screen time for kids, parents are looking for apps that entertain their children while they are learning. So it is a market that is ready for innovation.
Victor: Anything else to add or emphasize concerning gaming, education and technology or anything else for that matter?
Esteban: In the next 30 years, more people will be receiving formal education than in all of human history thus far. So anything we can do to improve, even just a little bit, educational outcomes will have a huge effect on the future of the world. This is tremendously motivating. That’s why we feel proud to be able to help the most promising startups working in the intersection of education and games with the mission to improve education for all.
By the way, co.lab’s applications for cohort 2 is now open, so all interested companies should apply at playcolab.com/apply
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]