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SBIR Pulse: 2016 Tibbetts Awards Special Edition
Each year, the government’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs makes Tibbetts Awards to a select group of U.S. entrepreneurial companies who exemplify the best in the spirit and intent of the programs. The 2016 Tibbetts Award Ceremony was held on January 10, 2017, in the Indian Treaty Room of the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The ceremony featured remarks by the SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet and showcased 37 small businesses who have demonstrated strong commercial success with the development of their technologies in areas such as health, energy, defense, and education. To highlight a few of these companies and learn more about how “America’s Seed Fund” is driving innovation and societal impact, SBIR Pulse is publishing a special Tibbetts Award series this week.
SBIR Pulse Interview #13: A Q&A with Sokikom’s Founder and CEO, Snehal Patel.
Sokikom, an education technology company in San Jose, California, was founded by Snehal Patel in 2008. Its flagship math games were supported by a 2009 SBIR award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and additional development to enable wide-scale implementation of its games in classrooms was supported through a 2014 award. Sokikom has won several industry awards for innovation. To date, Sokikom has been used in over 50,000 classrooms spanning 50 states and 60 countries. Educators and parents have created over 1,000,000 student accounts and students have completed over 150,000,000 math questions.
SBIR Pulse: In a few sentences, can you describe how and why Sokikom got started?
SP: I developed Sokikom for 2 main reasons: (1) to make the world a better place and (2) to build a world-class company. Helping kids learn math has been a passion of mine since childhood. Previously, I was a math teacher and owned a math learning center. While teaching at an afterschool program in a high-poverty area I had a 4th grade girl that I found was ditching school but was coming to my afterschool math class. After speaking with her, I found she wasn't engaged or interested in math in class in school, although she was engaged with the team-based learning games in my afterschool program. That made me ask why is it that often times kids give up so easily when facing a difficult math problem, yet these same kids can fail repeatedly in a game but somehow persevere and eventually succeed? This curiosity led to the start of Sokikom.
SBIR Pulse: How did the awards from the SBIR program at the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences help support the growth of your technology and company?
SP: The amazing thing about ED/IES SBIR awards is that they offer much more than just the financial reward. ED/IES requires rigorous and relevant research so that schools can have some preliminary evidence when deciding to try out learning technologies. This brought an entirely new level of discipline and research into our development process. I believe strongly that this led to the successful student outcomes we are now seeing in schools and to a 3rd-party peer-reviewed publication demonstrating the promise of Sokikom for improving student math outcomes. Lastly, the credibility from ED/IES helped us raise over $2,000,000 in seed funding from angel investors and others.
SBIR Pulse: What have been the keys to your gaining adoption and commercial traction in the education marketplace?
SP: K12 is an incredibly challenging market to succeed in. Furthermore, math is without question the most competitive vertical market within K12 education. This has made it very difficult to create a rapidly growing, commercially viable company. I don't think there is any secret formula for K12. You have to be very patient, build an awesome product, have amazing service and support, and be focused on providing more value to students, teachers, administrators, and district leaders than any other product out there. We have a great team that has made incredible progress here. We closed out the last 2 quarters in 2016 doing more than triple and double what we did the prior year in sales. So we're excited about our growth and see it continuing in 2017.
SBIR Pulse: Looking ahead into the future, what do you think is the future for learning games in the classroom?
SP: I think learning games have made a lot of progress since we started. There are now some mainstream games that have been used in large scale. However, I think there's still a long way to go. For learning games to truly make a lasting impact they need to be able to fit into the standard scope and sequence of curriculum. Furthermore, learning games need to be easy and helpful for teachers so they can use them regularly for instruction. Without this part, learning games will only be used by a small portion of teachers and only as a temporary add-on.
SBIR Pulse: Congratulations on winning a 2016 SBIR Tibbetts Award! What does this mean for your company?
SP: It represents that we've accomplished a lot at Sokikom. It has been a challenging ride, but we've made an incredible impact in the lives of countless students, teachers, and parents. It feels great to be honored as the Best of the Best in SBIR! We have a real exciting 2017 in store for us, with a refreshing revamp of our entire product and services to provide even more value to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. This is a nice way to kick off the great year ahead.
This interview was produced by Edward Metz, Program Manager of the SBIR program at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.
About SBIR Pulse
SBIR Pulse provides interviews with individuals from the different corners of the high-tech, start-up ecosystem. The intent is to share various perspectives on how SBIR impacts small businesses, drives innovation, and leads to technological solutions. For more editions of SBIR Pulse, see here.
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are collectively the largest single source of early-stage capital for innovative small companies in the United States. Via these programs, the federal government invests over 2 billion dollars in early stage and high growth American entrepreneurial firms to develop and commercialize technologies that strengthen our nation's defense, improve the health of our citizens, and enhance education. For more information on the program across the 11 Federal agencies that operate programs, please visit www.SBIR.gov. For timely updates and resources follow us on Twitter @SBIRgov to stay connected!