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Voice-interactive (i.e., screenless) toy that helps young kids build character skills

Our plush companion interacts with young kids to strengthen social and emotional skills in a safe, natural, and effective way

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

We’ve iterated a lot since our early submission. I'll group learnings into three buckets: 1) product development, 2) user experience, and 3) other 1. Product Development - Our user testing led us to create and several new prototypes with variety of features. Our mentor helped us to better distinguish users from customers. For example, we found that kids care most about material (softness) and minor features (e.g., embroidered heart) than its overall appearance. On the other hand, parents care more about the toy’s appearance. We also found that if you ask kids about colors, they will often pick gender-specific colors (e.g., girls = pink, boys = blue). However, if you don’t ask them and just observe, colors don’t matter as much…as long as it “feels” nice. 2. User experience – Creating voice experiences is very natural but is hard. Creating them with kids is even harder. However, we discovered a number of tricks to make the interactive experience as engaging as it is educational way (use of sounds, simple prompts, robust error handling, etc.). We also realized that the learning possibilities are literally endless and can grow with the child. After we simplified the experiences and made them more engaging for young kids, we noticed improvements in language development - albeit unintentional and anecdotal. 3. Other - We've moved from prototyping to piloting as one of the largest early childhood organizations in the country has agreed to be a development partner. Finally, a community member raised a concern about data privacy. The summary is that we think honesty, transparency, and choice are best when comes to data: what we collect, how we process/store it, how it's used, etc. and ultimately, parents need to have choice. To this end, we plan to give parents options as well as requiring explicit parent approval. We have few thought leaders on educational data that are guiding us as the regulations continue to evolve (e.g., COPPA, FERPA, etc.).

Name or Organization

EduCharacter LLC


Minneapolis, MN

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • For-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

As the 1st voice-interactive learning platform, we’re able to build skills in ways that haven’t been possible. It’s a game-changer for 3 reasons: • We build social and emotional skills – Evidence shows that these skills are predictive of long-term outcomes and start to form at age ~2 • We reach young kids – Most kids under three aren’t reading and screened devices are not recommended. Our interface is safe, natural, and effective • We are accessible to all kids – Our device is very inexpensive, our platform is scalable, and our novel business model enables us to reach low-income kids

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

EduCharacter makes developing character skills fun for young kids and easy for parents / early educators. Using only a child’s voice, our screenless plush companion simulates and facilitates real-life social interactions designed to build skills like empathy, gratitude, etc. Kids practice modeling behavior at the very ages when these skills start to form (2-3). Our interactive toy is inexpensive and accessible to any child, anywhere.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

In the US, kids aren’t building character skills for early success in school or beyond. Although we often don't pay attention to these skills until they become problems (graduation, employment, teen violence rates, etc.)., these skills start to form very early in life (which is hard to measure) and are developed thru experiential learning – which is hard to scale. By using a plush toy with a voice interface, we’re able to simulate experiences in an effective, measurable, and scalable way.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

EduCharacter helps children build character skills in an effective, scalable way by developing the first voice-interactive learning platform. Using only a child’s voice, we combine the power of technology with the comfort of a plush companion to simulate and facilitate real-life interactions in a way that is engaging, safe, and natural for young kids. By capturing interactions in real-time, we’re not only able to provide an adaptive experience but also measure dimensions of skills that were previously very difficult. Compared to observations that are subjective, time-consuming, and prone to error, we’re able to objectively assess skills more effectively and efficiently. Our plan is to use these early indicators to provide parents with simple, actionable feedback to reinforce positive behaviors at home. In doing so, we hope to ensure all kids - regardless of parental income - have the opportunity to develop the building blocks necessary for success in school, and beyond. Our patent-pending platform is highly-scalable.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Direct beneficiaries include young children and the parents and teacher that support them. We help children whose parent(s) cannot afford private preschool (i.e., low-income) and those that can but are too busy to spend time (i.e., most of middle class). Character skills are like habits. Kids learn from the interactive experiences and practice modeling behavior to create good habits. We also enable time-pressed parents to foster social and emotional skills without having to feel guilty by giving their young kids a screened device. Parents receive personalized suggestions that empower them to be great first teachers. Finally, early childhood professionals have a tool to enable them to more effectively and efficiently measure early development. EduCharacter was conceived by two parents (each with three young kids) and a teacher. Along the way, we’ve tested with dozens of preschoolers and received feedback from parents and teachers along the way. We’ve recruited several early childhood organizations/districts representing nearly 80 schools nationally to be development partners.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Vision: EduCharacter’s vision is to build the most impactful early education company. We recognize this is a bold statement so we define impact below: Beyond standard business metrics, we measure social impact through three lenses: o People – In the US alone, there are 12MM kids between 2-5. o Duration – By targeting kids early in life (age 2-3), teaching lifelong skills, and empowering parents, we are positioning for impact far beyond when kids lose interest in toys o Degree – Helping kids develop character skills to reach their full potential impacts nearly every aspect of our society – especially as kids become adults, parents, and global citizens. Although we’re focused on helping kids build character skills at the time when these skills start to develop (ages 2-5), our voice-interactive platform has much broader potential. For example, we're able to assess new dimensions for social and emotional skills in real-time. As a result, we can provide a more scalable way to build and measure these skills. More specifically, we'll be able understand what works, for which kids, when, how, etc. - we think that this is type of the personalization that education has been looking for. Personalization starts with data.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

To move the needle in education, you have to reach low-income children. One of our core design principles is Accessibility – both financially and geographically. We’ve designed our device to be very inexpensive and capable of going anywhere. Recognizing the fact that kids with the greatest needs often have the fewest resources, we plan to reach all kids – regardless of parental income. We'll do this by enabling high-income stakeholders (consumers, schools, communities, etc.) to fund low-income children by giving or cross-subsidizing them. For context, the US spends more on education than any country. In addition, consumers spend $10B on consumer toys and $16B on supplemental education/testing while schools spend $8B on EdTech. The money is there; we need to find ways to reallocate resources just like insurance (health, auto, etc.).

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Any innovation in ECD is good because we lack so much of it today so thank you for the challenge! EduCharacter doesn't just want to innovate for innovations sake...we want to rethink education and give a child's first teachers (parents) and early childhood educators a practical way to evolve. See our blueprint below: 1) It's no secret that character skills life self-control, empathy, etc. are highly predictive of outcomes and start to form in early childhood. However, the US has among the lowest rates of early childhood / preschool enrollment (of OECD countries). Moreover, parents often lack knowledge, tools, and time. I don't see our early education policy changing in the near-term so the question is how can we help these kids build these skills early in life? By making experiential learning measurable and scalable and in a form factor to safely and effectively reach young kids, we solve this problem. 2) Reaching low-income kids is not sustainable because early education funding comes from local taxes. Many low-income kids need additional support but their schools lack funding. To reach low-income kids in a sustainable way, we have to find a way to re-allocate resources. By enabling high-income stakeholders (consumers, business, schools, etc.) to fund low-income kids, we can reach the kids that need the most help in a sustainable way. It also helps that our platform is highly-scalable and we've manged to drive down the manufacturing costs of our device to a fraction of other comparable toys/devices. 3) If we're serious about evolving education, we have to not only change how we define success but also give educators practical tools to measure it. Although most schools talk about character skills, these skills are extremely complex, highly personalized, and very difficult to measure effectively or efficiently. As a result, there are no standards. By facilitating interactive experiences and capturing responses in real-time, we're able to assess new dimensions of learning that were previously not possible. We think our data will lead to new standards. In the words of a guy that wrote the best-selling book on disruptive innovation in education (Disrupting Class), "I recognize potential for serious disruption when I see it...DeLonn’s business experience is impressive enough, but what mattered most to me was his vision of how to reach students that do not do well with the system -- at either end of the achievement spectrum. He understands how learning is changing and how technology can catalyze fundamental change in the motivation of learners. And how the so-called soft skills can come alive and be measured as a vital part of what we expect young people to develop and provide data that have so far seemed elusive. EduCharacter is looking to harness the power of next-generation technology to do just that."

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Recognizing that parents and educators play critical roles in the development of character skills, we are targeting both markets. Although character skills start to develop before kids formally enter school, these skills must be nurtured over time. Therefore, we designed our product to be safe (screenless) and attractive (plush) for young kids but also connected to the Cloud for endless educational experiences that can grow with the child. Therefore, our addressable market of end users is both younger and wider (2-9) than many products designed for kids. Our addressable market (TAM) consists of: 32.5 million kids / students across 17.4 million households and 1.3 million teachers / classes. Our financials are available upon request.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

Our team is comprised of experts in early childhood development, behavioral science, product development, and software engineering. We’ve demonstrated technical and operational feasibility through prototyping and by gathering user feedback. More specifically, we've demonstrated that we can produce a voice-interactive plush toy that simulates experiences rooted in evidenced-based research on social and emotional learning in way that is fun and safe for kids love while parents don't feel guilty about using it (there is no screen). We've also demonstrated that we can manufacture it very inexpensively. However, we're still early. In addition to recruiting early childhood development partners to prove it's efficacy as a learning platform, we have applied for grants to address top priorities at the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, and the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Health. We expect to launch for consumers in 2018 and will evolve our business model, as necessary.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

We believe a viable business model is necessary for long-term success. Unfortunately, early childhood education is the least-funded part of education and reaching low-income kids is not sustainable by itself. Our business model enables high-income stakeholders (consumers, etc.) to fund low-income schools. Our business model is very viable and we've just been named a Regional Finalist in Harvard Business School's global New Venture Competition.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

We've used human-centered design to guide our all that we've done from product development to user experience to even business model development. In terms of product development, we used rapid prototyping to quickly gather feedback and rule in (or out) general themes. We then made new prototypes using these themes and honed in on specific features and functionality. HCD played a huge role in our user experience not only because we want to understand how user feel but more-directly, our voice interface is designed to assess and build empathy so create experiences and mapped responses based on what kids say, do, think, etc. By putting children at center, our experience became more engaging and fun than what we originally designed. As we surveyed parents, we what they cared about and how we can design our model to both support their needs and achieve outcomes.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1. Three years ago. I attended an event with several local/national educational leaders. One of the speakers introduced the term “non-cognitive skills” by sharing an experiment of how a local teacher dramatically improved student engagement thru by adapting feedback. As he shared the experiment, my emotions got the best of me because he was describing an experience I had 15 years earlier – and it changed my life. At the time, I was a below-average student at a community college. This teacher’s feedback helped me to have a “growth mindset” and five years later, I was attending Harvard and working for Google. Since that moment, I’ve woken up every day exploring how to help children build “non-cognitive” or character skills in a scalable way. Very tough challenge but I think we’ve cracked the nut. 2. On a personal level, I was a low-income kid raised by a single mother so I appreciate the importance of early childhood development. Now that I’m a parent, early childhood development has become even more important. I view early childhood character development as the biggest gap in education – if not our country - and I'm committed to addressing it. 3. Professionally, I’ve spent 15 years growing businesses ranging from start-ups to Business Units of multi-billion-dollar organizations – largely focused on using disruptive innovation to drive social and business impact. When I began exploring education 3+ years ago, I had recently joined Target’s Community Relations team that had invested $1 billion in education with little to show for it – except [very] valuable lessons. The learnings led me to focus on character, which led me to join a behavioral science technology firm, which led me to realize that it is indeed possible to change habits (like character skills) in a scalable way. Most recently, I spoke at the National Forum on Character Education in Washington, D.C.In late 2017, I developed a prototype and presented it at National Forum on Character Education in Washington, D.C. and the positive feedback has continued exceed my expectations. Earlier in my career, I held led Product Development for a data analytics company, designed a supply chain replenishment system for Google, and advised Fortune 500 corporations as a management consultant with Deloitte. I have an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BS from the University of Minnesota, an AA from Normandale Community, and have completed multiple trainings on character development and measurement.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Our core team consists of experts in early childhood education, behavioral science, product development, and technology development. In addition to our core team, we have a team of advisors supporting us that include experts on educational data / privacy, education policy, selling to schools, consumer marketing, etc.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We’ve been laser-focused on solving the problem – helping kids build character skills in an effective (i.e. starting early) and scalable way. We have spent almost zero time marketing so we could use help in consumer marketing to accelerate our plan.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We would love support in consumer marketing and/or folks with experience scaling early education ventures that actually drive outcomes.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

Lots of iterations! You can see how our we honed our designs.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

My mentor was very knowledgeable about consumer trends and was a helpful thought partner to inform many dimensions of our product design. We used her feedback to explicitly explore nuanced aspects of our product that we hadn't considered or overlooked. In addition, she encouraged me to share my personal story of how I became focused on early childhood development. Interestingly, we overlapped professionally at Target and have several mutual acquaintances. Small world! We've had several exchanges since our intro call. Thanks for making the connection!


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