Zoo U Game

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In New York City last week, three new video or computer games were awarded for excellence at the 12th Annual Games for Change AwardsMelissa DeRosier was at the event representing Personalized Learning Games, a Cary startup she spun out of 3C Institute last year. The company’s first game to hit the market was a finalist for the “Most Significant Impact” award and chosen from a record number of companies—150. Called Zoo U and backed by her clinical research, the game helps elementary students better communicate, cooperate, empathize and interact with their peers.

Zoo U didn’t win, but the company’s new CEO Tim Huntley, a Triangle startup veteran, says his team was “pleased to be nominated.” 

For a product that just recently launched, and doesn’t have any real market penetration, Games for Change recognition is a huge honor in and of itself. It validates the years of research and testing that went into designing the game. It’s also a validation to DeRosier that a year-long realignment—which included executive changes, a new name and lots of counseling by Soar Network mentors—was worthwhile. The company is better positioned to sell Zoo U and other forthcoming games to schools, counselors and parents, making an impact in the lives of children. 

But the year wasn’t without its trials, and to better understand DeRosier’s journey, we caught up with DeRosier, Huntley and Soar mentor Lauren Whitehurst last week. 

A Recap

In case you missed ExitEvents coverage on DeRosier and her company last year as part of our series on the first four female entrepreneurs to be mentored by Soar, here’s a quick recap (you can read the original article here). 

Melissa DeRosier 3C Headshot
Melissa DeRosier is a clinical psychologist and founder of the 3C Institute and Personalized Learning games, both based in Cary.
DeRosier is a clinical psychologist, published author and founder of three organizations focused on promoting positive social, emotional and mental health. She founded 3C Institute in 2001 to “bridge the research-practice gap,” and its sister organization, 3C Family Services in 2003 to further fuse together the application of science and research in practice. Both the Institute and the Family Services Practice work to help children and adults overcome social, behavioral, emotional and learning difficulties through their services. At the practice, those services include individual and group therapy and at the Institute those include research and the development of interventions and technologies such as the games Personalized Learning Games will sell. 

DeRosier’s third venture, Personalized Learning Games (formerly Adaptive Health Systems), was born out of a need to get the games to market more efficiently and effectively than DeRosier and her Institute team were equipped to do as researchers primarily funded through government grants. And getting the games to market proved to be different than any other type of intervention the team had developed and distributed before. Rather than targeting schools and counselors, the new  company was created to get the games into as many hands as possible. 

The games are research-based and clinically tested to help children of various ages advance their social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Zoo U is designed for children aged 7-12 and ready for purchase. Four others—Stories in Motion (focused on upper elementary students with autism), Adventures aboard the S.S.GRIN (developing interpersonal skills in 3rd to 5th graders), Hall of Heroes (for transition to middle school), and See It Be It—are also fully developed and in various stages of beta testing. The games are available via browser and accessible on any device, but will never take form in an app as they are too complex and substantive to fit into an app format.

The Past Year

When ExitEvent first interviewed DeRosier last year, ExitEvent Editor Laura Baverman, wrote that DeRosier, “fits no stereotype” and would do “whatever it takes to accomplish a single mission—to change the lives of kids with mental, social and behavioral issues.” The characterization still holds true.

But the company she founded to help get 3C Institutes’ life-improving games into kids hands has evolved and realigned—with help from Soar—over the past year. 

Perhaps the biggest change—the name change—came from the realization that Adaptive Health Solutions wasn’t resonating with target customers because the company’s mission was lost in the jargon. So DeRosier and the team decided on Personalized Learning Games (PLG), incorporating and transferring the assets just three weeks ago. 

Tim Huntley PLG Headshot
Tim Huntley is CEO of Personalized Learning Games in Cary.
Another big change was the addition of Huntley as CEO. Most recently, Huntley was COO of Paired Health, but he has a long and successful history of running the business side of Triangle tech startups. His first, Ganymede Software, was acquired for $170 million by Mission Critical (which then merged with Net IQ). Once acquired, he worked as VP of advanced technology to integrate Ganymede’s team and software into NetIQ. In addition to serving in business roles in startups, he’s served on several boards or in advisory functions for several companies and startups including Adzerk, and even dabbled in organic vegetable farming when he owned and ran Pine Field Farm out of Chapel Hill.

Huntley was named CEO at Personalized Learning Games when the company was incorporated a few weeks ago, but he has been involved in the company as a consultant for the past few months. On why he made the jump from consultant to CEO, he says, “As I started showing up every day, it became more and more obvious that I wanted to do this full time.” 

It was both the talented and experienced team and his personal interest in mitigating SEL issues for his twin 12-year-old boys who are transitioning into middle school that drew him to the company. He also perceived PLG to be a good match for his experiences—the in-house expertise of DeRosier and Chief Impact Officer Jessica Berlinski meant he wouldn’t have to become an SEL expert but could “do the things I am good at,” like removing obstacles from the rest of the team’s path and getting investors. In other words, running the business side of the business. 

Whitehurst, who mentored DeRosier throughout her year in Soar, said that she’s seen the team “really tighten up their structure” and better determine how to relate to 3C Institute. 

Soar views PLG as “a really great success” because “they’ve made progress and are ready to go to market now,” Whitehurst says. 

She was initially impressed by DeRosier because her background was “solid,” she was “highly capable and experienced,” and open to being helped. The first impression must have only been enhanced throughout DeRosier’s time spent in the Soar program—Whitehurst now sits on the board of directors for PLG. In another vote of confidence for DeRosier and PLG, Whitehurst says Soar intends to remain involved in helping PLG as it begins to scale the business, raise funds and test the business model.

Future Plans

With Zoo U ready for market, and four other games on the way, the young company is readying itself to launch roughly a dozen pilots this coming school year—the details of which can’t be released yet—in school districts across the country. Since the games are fully developed and already tested in clinical trials, DeRosier says the pilots will “feed our business strategy for scaling,” by testing the company’s business model, making sure kids, parents and schools love the games, and help PLG learn how they’re actually used. 

Through the pilots, the company needs to, “take what is a well thought-through and hypothesized business model and prove that it will be accepted and welcomed into the marketplace," Whitehurst says.

PLG’s current model rests on the hypothesis that it has developed the only research-based games designed to improve SEL skills, and not for just those kids with SEL difficulties but all children. To get the games into the hands of as many students as possible, school districts are the target customer. Parents, individual school classrooms and schools can also purchase the games, but school districts can ensure the games’ universal adoption, thus creating a bigger impact. 

The model also rests on PLG’s status as the lone company working in the space. Its agreement with 3C Institute ensures primary rights to the games developed at the institute. If others were to enter the market, it could create challenges for the company. However, DeRosier says she’d be open to acquiring and selling games created by other companies as long as they have a strong research and evidence-based foundation. 

There are other concerns too—3C’s games are all HIPAA and FERPA compliant, and have a strong security and data management system. So acquiring other games without these security measures in place would prove challenging.

The company hasn’t raised any funding to date— when DeRosier and Huntley transferred the assets from Adaptive Health Solutions to PLG, they also transferred enough funds to sustain the company until they raise a seed round in July or August.

Once pilots are complete, funding is raised, and additional product offerings ready for market, the team hopes to have perfected its business model and be ready to widely distribute the games by the 2016-2017 school year, and add more products in the 2017-2018 school year.

PLG might not have taken home the “Most Significant Impact” trophy last week, but its potential to make a significant impact will only increase over the next few years if the team can get its games into the hands of children nationwide. Maybe then DeRosier will be giving acceptance speeches and stacking awards on her shelves. 

But until then, she and her team will be working towards her primary goal, improving the lives of kids with SEL issues.