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A Mission to End Illiteracy: An Interview With Charlottetown’s Ooka Island

Submarine_Listening_EducationCharlottetown, Prince Edward Island’s Ooka Island is on a mission to eradicate illiteracy.

Their early literacy software, aimed at children ages three to seven, is adaptive, analyzing students’ data as they make their way through the game-like program, helping to identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to customize each student’s experience for maximum effect.

Based on a learning program developed by Dr. Kay MacPhee during the 1990s, Ooka Island began as a delivery system for Dr. MacPhee’s methods, which previously had been proven very successful in very small classrooms.

A clear link has frequently been drawn between literacy and the lowering of the rate of infant mortality, as well as an overall improvement in general health and life expectancy. So the economic case for the knock-on effects resulting from the elimination of illiteracy would appear to be already made.

Having partnered with the MaRS Discovery District, done two stints in the Canadian Technology Accelerator in Manhattan, and appeared on Dragon’s Den, Ooka Island has achieved about as high a profile as could be hoped for, considering its PEI origins.

For the company’s IT Director Danielle White, fresh off an “Employee of the Year” award from the Innovation and Technology Association of PEI (ITAP), coming back to PEI after studying in Montreal made sense “mainly for those reasons of quality of life and just being able to drive to a beach 10 minutes away in summer.”

For Joelle MacPhee, who spent seven years living in Toronto before returning to PEI, the lure of entrepreneurship got under her skin. “I was at business school, and then I worked there for an entrepreneurship professor and just got really sucked into that way of life. And I never looked back.”

Cantech Letter’s Terry Dawes sat down with Joelle MacPhee, Ooka Island’s Corporate Director of Reading Partnerships, and IT Director Danielle White, to talk about the company’s successes, the dynamics of running a tech company in the Maritimes, and what the future has in store for Ooka Island.

Ooka Island's Danielle White and Joelle MacPhee.
Ooka Island’s Danielle White and Joelle MacPhee.

Your grandmother, Kay, founded the company. Could you give us a bit of the background there?

Joelle: Sure. She is an educator by trade, a researcher. That’s really where her passion and her love is for reading. She participated in a lot of studies in the 1990s in the States, with the No Child Left Behind Act. She had a program then that was all print. So it came in a big, clunky, giant box. And it was schools only, and teacher training. There was a 1:5 student-teacher ratio, very, very expensive. But it worked. And it was rated Number 1 by the U.S. Department of Education, out of 153 other programs in review. So we knew she had something that was meaningful and it was working, but it just wasn’t accessible. So that’s how Ooka Island came to be.

So you folks stepped into the breach, almost, when you launched Ooka Island as a private company. Do you see it as complementary to the education system, or do you see it more as its own thing?

Joelle: It depends. We have some partnerships with schools that are very complementary. It works very well. But because what we’ve found is that each school is so different, when I first started, I thought, “Okay, we can just implement in this district,” and then we quickly found out that, no, these are all their own entities, and you have to figure out what the technical requirements are, and the teachers’ backgrounds and so on. And so you’re really working one-on-one with the school. So that’s not very scalable. But when we were in beta, it made a lot of sense because we wanted to be validated by educators first. So we were in 200 schools and we felt like those were really good, strong partnerships. But in order to kind of be pedal-to-the-metal, we have to go direct to consumer. So we did a big pivot. We still have a lot of schools that use it, but it’s more them coming to us. We don’t have a sales force.

So on the technical side, you are working in what people call Big Data. There are a lot of data points that have to be collected in order for the software to improve. Does the software work as a kind of self-learning platform? How does it tailor itself to the individual user?

Danielle: What we’re doing right now is, we actually have a big research project to actually fully tailor it, and make it completely data driven. So we’re undergoing right now a big research project to actually get that fully implemented. But there is some tailoring that does happen to the learner as they go along, so that if they are struggling in any area, then it will give them their own unique path as they move through the program. And then we want it to be fully tailored to each individual student. So that’s where we’re trying to make it fully adaptive.

The education field right now is a little crowded. There are a few big players. Are you finding it a friendly, open space, or is it hypercompetitive, like the rest of tech?

Joelle: I find Ed Tech really friendly. We have a partnership with MaRS, so we’re part of their tech portfolio, and we have office space there and they have 170 Ed Tech companies in that group. And it’s interesting because we have never met a direct competitor to Ooka. We’re very early literacy, adaptive learning, very, very heavy on the research. There’s a lot of gaming firms, but they’d be more interested in working with us. Or there’s a math version, who again are like, “How did you get into this district?” I find it a very friendly space, because I have heard horror stories on the other side. (Laughing.)

There’s a lot of government agencies here in Atlantic Canada that can get you up and running, but then it’s, “Okay, so I’m at this point where I’ve got a prototype or maybe even a product. I have some traction, but who’s going to invest into that next piece?”

So you’ve participated in MaRS. You’ve participated in the Canadian Technology Accelerator in New York for a bit. What was that like?

Joelle: That was amazing. I was part of a cohort of digital media companies. We were the only education company. And we were set up at General Assembly in Manhattan. So I moved there for three months. It was just enough, I felt like, to get momentum built and then we were coming to the end of the term. I came home at Christmas, and I said, “Oh, I can’t believe it’s over.” And they actually had a company from the next cohort fall through, that didn’t end up measuring to their expectations or whatever happened, and they called me right before New Year’s and asked, “Would you come back? You seem to have the most traction and we really hated to see you go.” So I was able to go back for another three months. And that was exactly what we needed because we were 10 steps away from all of the partners we wanted to get to know. Adaptive Learning, they were just across the street. And then there was the Pearsons and the Scholastics, and they were all in that area. And it just made getting a meeting so much easier. What would have taken probably three months to do here, alone, took three days in New York, because you could just go to an event, know who you wanted to talk to and have that meeting set up.

I guess that’s the challenge of developing a company outside of the tech centres of Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto and Vancouver, where you have access to great pools of talent, and networking is so important. What has the dynamic been like in the Maritimes for developing your company?

Danielle: Definitely, finding talent is one of the biggest challenges. Because I know what ends up happening, especially on the gaming side, you just end up with such niche skills that it’s difficult to fill those roles. Right now we have a part-time employee, who doesn’t live on PEI. We have other contractors that unfortunately, again, are outside PEI that do a lot of our work. For some of the more common things, we have a reporting system that we were really luckily able to find really great talent for that, and that was actually on PEI. So if you can find the skill set, what I find is that you hold on to those people. You treat them really well. But yeah, finding the people, or even enticing them to come to PEI.

Joelle: Yeah, we’ve tried to lure people here, but it’s also the fact that I think we were really spoiled when we were building the game, because we built it here. And we had really, really good talent doing that, and they had worked with Kay and her research team so closely. You’re talking about these researchers who are in the 60-plus crowd. I know everyone says you can work remotely, but when we were building an 80-hour, serious game with thousands and thousands of discrete learning objectives that all had to be tied in together, Kay is the type of educator that doesn’t let that be compromised. So to work with, on the flip side, gaming programmers, it was really important to be around the table. So we were spoiled in that regard, that we were able to have that all happen here. But now, as we’re taking it up to the next version of the game, where it’s fully adaptive, that’s the piece that we’re trying to figure out. Okay, how are we going to make that relationship work? And can we do it remotely?

What would have taken probably three months to do here, alone, took three days in New York, because you could just go to an event, know who you wanted to talk to and have that meeting set up.

Was there a significant bump from appearing on Dragon’s Den?

Joelle: Yeah, there was a big bump, and there continues to be bumps. It’s funny. We didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t seen the clips, so we didn’t even know if it was going to be positive or negative. And it was, across the country, just an extremely warm response. We had a big gathering here, and in every time zone, we were able to see just the same huge spike. And still, on our Google Analytics, you can see this giant, out-of-nowhere spike, and every time there’s been a re-run, it’s been positive. It’s now on Netflix, so it’s been a really good sales tool. We always know exactly, “Okay, Dragon’s Den must be on.” Which is just funny.

What do you see as your most significant challenges in the next year or two? Are you where you want to be, in terms of scale?

Joelle: The next 12 months, we have a really aggressive growth plan. We’re bringing in a lot of new members to the team. We have a round of new financing coming in, with a new group that can bring a whole new set of skills to the team. So, yeah, in the next 12 months we’re going to be focused on ramping up our user base and also doing a lot of R&D on the adaptive learning piece, which is Danielle and Kay’s area. Right now, we’re in the middle of ramping things up, a lot of legal and accounting, but from a September 1st start date, it’ll be, “Let’s go.” Which is nice, because the timing couldn’t be more serendipitous. It’s been a really nice summer, so we’re all, “Yeah, let the lawyers do their work.”

Just enjoy the summer and get ready. It seems like there’s been a shift in Island business culture that you guys have been part of.

Joelle: I lived in Toronto for seven years and I moved back here, and Danielle was in Montreal. And I think the shift in start-ups and technology and big dreams and support has been really awesome to watch kind of snowball. Last night, we were at an event about access to capital for Island companies. So the challenge has been about bridging that gap, because there’s a lot of government agencies here in Atlantic Canada that can get you up and running, but then it’s, “Okay, so I’m at this point where I’ve got a prototype or maybe even a product. I have some traction, but who’s going to invest into that next piece?” And there’s a huge issue there, because you’re either on the plane all the time, and that’s what I did and it worked, but a lot of people, especially their first time around, need those kind of introductions. “Okay, you’re an Island company. Let’s introduce you to some Toronto folk who are genuinely interested in your type of work.” So this event last night was really kind of an info session around preparing those companies to go on these missions to Toronto, which is something very new. We never had that.

Yeah, believe it or not, it’s actually a pretty steep learning curve on the part of venture capitalists based out of Bay Street. The regions are still a challenge for them. But it’s getting to be a more attractive proposition, partly because it’s just getting so hyper-picked over in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, and hypercompetitive for them to find that next company that they can bring up. It was difficult enough to get them to go up the road to Kitchener-Waterloo from Toronto, never mind PEI.

Joelle: Right. And that’s the thing with these accelerators and stuff. When I started, it was fall 2012. I didn’t even know what an accelerator was, really, at that point. And now they’re a dime a dozen. You think of all the people they’re churning through, you have to wonder. It must be a little overwhelming, from the investor’s point of view, to say, “I don’t even know where to start.” So it really needs to be presented in the right way, I think, and that’s what Island companies, and Maritime companies, are getting better and better at, how we need to present ourselves to get that ideal investor who is the best fit for their company elsewhere. Because we don’t have those really deep pockets.

And things are changing. With new technology entrepreneurship hubs going up in places like Kelowna, the regions are starting to get into it.

Joelle: I know. Biotech here is completely exploding. It’s a lot of things that, if you’re not paying attention, you’re just like, “When did that happen?” And that’s been really exciting because, I mean, you’re from the Island, you’re coming back. We love it here. We love to see it grow. We hate to see us not being able to keep up. Because there is a big developer group here on the Island, and you go to that meet-up and it’s a lot of Americans. There’s a draw to come and live on the Island and bring your family here. So that’s really interesting. If we can have the jobs available, and the interesting projects and companies, then we can bring the talent. For us, we’re in the limbo stage, where we know we can get them here, it’s just convincing them. “We promise you’ll like it.”

Oh, they’ll like it.

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