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Many people think of snails as harmless, slow-moving creatures—but the marine cone snail doesn’t fit the stereotype. This predator dines on fish, worms and mollusks, using a deadly venom cocktail delivered through a very sharp tooth to attack its victims.
The marine cone snail is the star of Assassins of the Sea, a card and video game created by a New York City startup called Killer Snails. The company has raised more than $1 million in grants and Kickstarter funding since 2016 to create games to get children and teens interested in science.
In addition Assassins of the Sea, they founders have created Biome Builder, a card game where players learn about creatures from biomes such as the Amazon rainforest and the American Prairie. They have also dreamed up two virtual reality games: Scuba Adventures, where players take on the identity of a marine biologist who is tagging creatures before an oxygen tank runs out of air, and BioDive, where players act as marine biologists investigating the ecosystems of venomous killer snails. The latter is being piloted at middle schools in 26 states.
“We wanted to meet the kids where they were,” says co-founder Mandë Holford. “They were on screens and playing games. We wanted to give them content that could be engaging or scientifically accurate, to make them excited about the field of science.”
The women behind this ultra-lean business have tapped their backgrounds in K-12 education and science to create the fast-growing company.
CEO and co-founder Jessica Ochoa Hendrix has worked in K-12 education since 2003 and was previously director of organizational learning at Uncommon Schools, a network of nonprofit charter public schools. Holford is an associate professor of chemistry at Hunter College and CUNY-Graduate Center, with scientific appointments at the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medical College. (Mollusk research is one of her specialties.) Co-founder Lindsay Portnoy, the firm’s chief learning officer, is a cognitive psychologist and scientist who has spent nearly two decades studying human development and learning.
Holford and Portnoy joined forces after they both won fellowships for faculty who were using technology in innovative ways in the classroom. Holford later met Ochoa Hendrix, an MBA, after doing a Secret Science Club talk in Brooklyn on venomous snails that Ochoa Hendrix attended. The Secret Science Club is a nonprofit lecture, arts and performance series on science.
Here are some takeaways from their successful journey from the idea stage to getting their product to consumers via Amazon and the homeschool distributor Rainbow Resource and into schools.
Lean into what you love. Killer Snails’ three co-founders decided to tap into their passion for spreading their love of science when they came together as entrepreneurs.“Being a scientist is something that’s open to everyone,” says Holford.
For their initial effort, they were particularly interested in reaching middle school girls, whom they knew from their professional experience, often like marine biology. “We saw that kids were dropping out of science in middle school, especially girls,” says Portnoy.
After doing 130 interviews with parents, teacher, and museum educators, they realized something was missing in the available science games. The existing offerings were not engaging middle school girls. That led to their decision to create a game about killer snails.
“I said, ‘Why can’t we show them a snail that eats fish?’” recalls Holford. “You have this weird and extremely potent and exciting animal.” That started them on the path to developing Assassins of the Sea.
Create your own resources. Given that the world of game design was new to them, the co-founders knew they needed outside input on the concept they were creating. When Holford and Portnoy taught in the mornings at a camp at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, they worked in the afternoons with a game designer who was teaching there and got valuable feedback from the students.
“The kids took it to a whole other level,” says Holford. “This is complex material. They gave us insight into things they grasped right away and did not grasp. They gave us cool cards to put in the decks.”
After six months of testing the game anywhere they could, they created a prototype that could be boxed and started a Kickstarter campaign in March 2016. They raised about $25,000 for Assassins of the Sea. They sold the game through the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
When they were ready to create Biome Builder, they turned to Kickstarter again, raising $19,313, greatly exceeding their $6,000 goal.
To make sure their campaigns succeeded, they turned to the community managers on Kickstarter frequently for advice. “They played our games and gave us feedback on our videos,” says Ochoa Hendrix.
Explore the world of grants. In fields such as science, grant funding can be a great resource for entrepreneurs.For the team at Killer Snails, a $150,000 Small Business Innovation (SBIR) six-month, 2016 research grant that Holford won proved to be critical in developing their first product. “Many people don’t realize the SBIR grant is the largest source of seed funding in the country,” says Ochoa Hendrix.
The co-founders went on to successfully apply as a team for a second, phase 2 grant for $750,000, as well as a $150,000 Technology Enhancement for Commercial Partnerships (TISA) grant.
Show up where customers hang out. During the Kickstarter campaigns, the Killer Snails team made sure to appear at live events. “We would be at the New York Hall of Science one day, the New York Botanical Gardens the next, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum the next,” says Ochoa Hendrix. “We tried to make sure we were in very public places.” That gave them talking point for the Kickstarter campaign updates—and an opportunity to say, ‘You can pre-order it right here.’”
Source talent creatively. Although Killer Snails has been very successful in applying for funding, the co-founders stretched their budget by building the business as much as they could on their own.
When they needed interns, they turned to the New York City Tech Talent Pipeline, a program in which the city connects local businesses with interns and pays them $15 an hour. Their two interns last summer were seniors at Lehman College in the Bronx. They also turned to the Brooklyn Tech Triangle’s internship program, led by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and the New York City Department of Small Business Services.
After hitting the million-dollar mark in their funding on their own, the trio hired a developer and a UIUX designer this past summer. So far, their games have brought in $150,000 in revenue, according to Ochoa Hendrix. “We expect that number to increase with the release of BioDive,” she says.
In the meantime, they’re enjoying the chance to get interested in killer snails and their other scientific passions. “We have a vision of being a global company,” says Holford.
February 28, 2019 at 10:57PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs