Discover more stories about Mitacs — and the game-changing innovations driven by students and postdocs.
Entrepreneurs use technology to help kids create
Two University of Alberta computer science PhD students, Neesha Desai and Kit Chen, pondered her question carefully.
“I didn’t think of anything,” said Neesha, laughing. “But Kit did.”
Having gone to school in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of many tech start-ups, Kit immediately knew what she’d do if fear wasn’t a factor: she’d start a company.
She met with long-time teacher Chris McMahen and the two had a long talk about a big challenge in education: how to use technology to get children excited about writing. Inspired, Kit started researching free workshops that could help turn this very early-stage idea into an actual product for kids.
Pushing an idea forward
The next weekend, Kit and Neesha attended a hackathon run by Start-Up Edmonton and built the prototype of COW, short for Creating Outstanding Writers. The pair continued to develop COW and quickly brought on designer Joel Koop to make their product and website engaging for young people.
Over the next few months, Kit and Neesha attended every start-up, entrepreneurship, and business event they could find. In the fall of 2013, they attended the Mitacs Step workshop “Discovering the Entrepreneur Within.”
“The workshop was so useful, as we learned what we needed to know about being entrepreneurs and got to ask ourselves if we could do this and whether we should even consider it. In the end, the answer to both questions was yes,” explains Neesha . “We also did an assessment of our risk tolerance; we were surprised to learn that both of us can handle a pretty high level of uncertainty.”
The team went on to clean up at entrepreneur competitions, including the AV Catalyst Competition, the TEC Venture Student Track, the NanoNexus Pitch, and the Triffo Prize in Innovation, resulting in over $30,000 in funding.
In April of 2014, in partnership with Chris McMahen and Joel Koop, Kit and Neesha founded Alieo Games.
COW in the classroom
COW is an online writing game aimed at helping students improve their writing fluency, stretch their creativity, and use more complex vocabulary. At home, students can log in and write about anything they like. They can get a jump-start with a thought-provoking opening sentence and beef up their story with suggested bonus words. In the classroom, teachers can tailor writing sessions on COW to fit current lesson plans and add custom bonus words, while students can opt to share their writing with classmates. The program provides feedback on the use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and descriptive language, and students can earn points towards creating their own avatar.
The Alieo team is introducing COW to as many teachers as possible. Their goal is to have it classrooms across the country within the next few years. So far, the feedback from educators is very positive.
“One teacher told us about a student who refused to take part in creative writing. But when he was presented with COW, he wrote for 30 minutes,” said Neesha. “Hearing feedback like this keeps us motivated. I’m not sure we would hear things like this if we worked for a big company.”
Another surprise for the team was learning that after children used COW in the classroom, they were logging on at lunchtime and at home to continue their stories. “We found a way to make writing fun,” says Kit.
Both Kit and Neesha credit the city of Edmonton as key to Alieo Games’ success.
Edmonton is a very entrepreneurial city with a supportive culture,” says Neesha. “Plus, the University of Alberta constantly hosts events on entrepreneurship, start-ups, and more.”
Looking back, Neesha laughs when she recounts the comment they hear most often from people who know Kit and her: “You two are not the ones we thought would start a company!”
But they did. And it’s going strong.
Mitacs would like to thank Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Nova Scotia, and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of the Step program.