SBIR Pulse: A “Healthy” Alternative to “Digital Candy”
Tammy Kwan, co-Founder and CEO of Cognitive ToyBox, said the abundance of “Digital Candy” on the market – downloadable apps for children that entertain but don’t educate – inspired her company to create evidence-based learning apps for children.
“Digital media is an increasingly important component of a child’s life,” Kwan said. “Between the ages of two and four-years, they spend an average of two hours engaged with a digital device. Our research has shown that most of this time, however, they’re just consuming digital candy.”
Kwan said she saw an opportunity to change the status quo.
“I watched some popular companies get hit with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaints for making false or deceptive claims about their products, so I decided to create apps that are backed by real academic research,” she said.
Kwan started her company in 2015 while finishing her Master in Business Administration (MBA) at New York University (NYU). Combining this with her Behavioral Psychology degree from Stanford University, she sought a business opportunity where she could apply her scientific thinking to solve a real world problem. She teamed up with Brendan Lake, PhD., a Psychology and Data Science professor at NYU, to participate in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. It was during this time that they demonstrated the commercial viability of bridging the gap between developmental research done in the lab and early learning games for the market.
Kwan said that the next step was to develop a proof of concept, which led the company to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, coordinated by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). SBA oversees the annual delivery of more than $2 billion through the SBIR program to small businesses throughout the country. Kwan and Lake applied for funding from the SBIR program to turn their business dream into reality.
Beth Goldberg, Director of the SBA New York District Office said, “SBIR helped fund companies such as Qualcomm, iRobot, Symantec, Evocative and HoneyBee Robotics. This innovative program was signed into law in 1982, and now mandates all federal agencies whose extramural research and development (R&D) budgets that exceed $100 million to allocate 3.2 percent to the SBIR program. Small businesses that have demonstrated a potential for commercialization through a thorough application process use these funds to bring cutting edge solutions to market.”
Currently, 11 federal agencies participate in the SBIR program, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Kwan and Lake used their $225,000 SBIR Phase I funding from the National Science Foundation to build a suite of research-backed early childhood apps to promote language and math development. One of the games, Fuzzy Numbers: Pre-K Number Foundation, is now available for both Apple and Android devices. Working with a research team from the University of Pennsylvania, the duo leveraged research on the Approximate Number System (ANS), an innate, cognitive ability people use to estimate and compare quantities, to develop the game. Kwan said that educators like it as much as children and their parents because it is both engaging and educational.
Cognitive ToyBox is based out of Blue Ridge Labs, a technology incubator that houses startup companies working on solutions for problems related to poverty in New York City. The team hopes to bring more evidence-based games to market, which combined with existing high-quality early childhood programs, could increase kindergarten readiness.
“Early experiences have life-long impact. This is why we are focused on providing a replacement to digital candy - to give children the learning games that they deserve,” Kwan said.
This article was produced by Bailey Wolff, Public Affairs Specialist in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s New York District Office.
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!