Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island\u2019s Ooka Island is on a mission to eradicate illiteracy. Their early literacy software, aimed at children ages three to seven, is adaptive, analyzing students\u2019 data as they make their way through the game-like program, helping to identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to customize each student\u2019s 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\u2019s 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\u2019s Den, Ooka Island has achieved about as high a profile as could be hoped for, considering its PEI origins. For the company\u2019s IT Director Danielle White, fresh off an \u201cEmployee of the Year\u201d award from the Innovation and Technology Association of PEI (ITAP), coming back to PEI after studying in Montreal made sense \u201cmainly for those reasons of quality of life and just being able to drive to a beach 10 minutes away in summer.\u201d For Joelle MacPhee, who spent seven years living in Toronto before returning to PEI, the lure of entrepreneurship got under her skin. \u201cI 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.\u201d Cantech Letter\u2019s Terry Dawes sat down with Joelle MacPhee, Ooka Island\u2019s Corporate Director of Reading Partnerships, and IT Director Danielle White, to talk about the company\u2019s 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. 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\u2019s 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\u2019t accessible. So that\u2019s 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\u2019ve found is that each school is so different, when I first started, I thought, \u201cOkay, we can just implement in this district,\u201d 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\u2019 backgrounds and so on. And so you\u2019re really working one-on-one with the school. So that\u2019s 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\u2019s more them coming to us. We don\u2019t 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\u2019re doing right now is, we actually have a big research project to actually fully tailor it, and make it completely data driven. So we\u2019re 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\u2019s where we\u2019re 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\u2019re part of their tech portfolio, and we have office space there and they have 170 Ed Tech companies in that group. And it\u2019s interesting because we have never met a direct competitor to Ooka. We\u2019re very early literacy, adaptive learning, very, very heavy on the research. There\u2019s a lot of gaming firms, but they\u2019d be more interested in working with us. Or there\u2019s a math version, who again are like, \u201cHow did you get into this district?\u201d I find it a very friendly space, because I have heard horror stories on the other side. (Laughing.) There\u2019s a lot of government agencies here in Atlantic Canada that can get you up and running, but then it\u2019s, \u201cOkay, so I\u2019m at this point where I\u2019ve got a prototype or maybe even a product. I have some traction, but who\u2019s going to invest into that next piece?\u201d So you\u2019ve participated in MaRS. You\u2019ve 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, \u201cOh, I can\u2019t believe it\u2019s over.\u201d And they actually had a company from the next cohort fall through, that didn\u2019t end up measuring to their expectations or whatever happened, and they called me right before New Year\u2019s and asked, \u201cWould you come back? You seem to have the most traction and we really hated to see you go.\u201d 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\u2019s 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\u2019s difficult to fill those roles. Right now we have a part-time employee, who doesn\u2019t 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\u2019ve tried to lure people here, but it\u2019s 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\u2019re 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\u2019t 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\u2019re taking it up to the next version of the game, where it\u2019s fully adaptive, that\u2019s the piece that we\u2019re 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\u2019s Den? Joelle: Yeah, there was a big bump, and there continues to be bumps. It\u2019s funny. We didn\u2019t know what to expect. I hadn\u2019t seen the clips, so we didn\u2019t 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\u2019s been a re-run, it\u2019s been positive. It\u2019s now on Netflix, so it\u2019s been a really good sales tool. We always know exactly, \u201cOkay, Dragon\u2019s Den must be on.\u201d 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\u2019re 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\u2019re 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\u2019s area. Right now, we\u2019re in the middle of ramping things up, a lot of legal and accounting, but from a September 1st start date, it\u2019ll be, \u201cLet\u2019s go.\u201d Which is nice, because the timing couldn\u2019t be more serendipitous. It\u2019s been a really nice summer, so we\u2019re all, \u201cYeah, let the lawyers do their work.\u201d Just enjoy the summer and get ready. It seems like there\u2019s 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\u2019s a lot of government agencies here in Atlantic Canada that can get you up and running, but then it\u2019s, \u201cOkay, so I\u2019m at this point where I\u2019ve got a prototype or maybe even a product. I have some traction, but who\u2019s going to invest into that next piece?\u201d And there\u2019s a huge issue there, because you\u2019re either on the plane all the time, and that\u2019s what I did and it worked, but a lot of people, especially their first time around, need those kind of introductions. \u201cOkay, you\u2019re an Island company. Let\u2019s introduce you to some Toronto folk who are genuinely interested in your type of work.\u201d 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\u2019s 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\u2019s getting to be a more attractive proposition, partly because it\u2019s 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\u2019s the thing with these accelerators and stuff. When I started, it was fall 2012. I didn\u2019t even know what an accelerator was, really, at that point. And now they\u2019re a dime a dozen. You think of all the people they\u2019re churning through, you have to wonder. It must be a little overwhelming, from the investor\u2019s point of view, to say, \u201cI don\u2019t even know where to start.\u201d So it really needs to be presented in the right way, I think, and that\u2019s 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\u2019t 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\u2019s a lot of things that, if you\u2019re not paying attention, you\u2019re just like, \u201cWhen did that happen?\u201d And that\u2019s been really exciting because, I mean, you\u2019re from the Island, you\u2019re 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\u2019s a lot of Americans. There\u2019s a draw to come and live on the Island and bring your family here. So that\u2019s really interesting. If we can have the jobs available, and the interesting projects and companies, then we can bring the talent. For us, we\u2019re in the limbo stage, where we know we can get them here, it\u2019s just convincing them. \u201cWe promise you\u2019ll like it.\u201d Oh, they\u2019ll like it.