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Math for Kids – There’s an App for that
July 1, 2016
Text by Zanet Zabarac
Learning math has never been more fun: Happy Numbers, founded by EPFL alum Evgeny Milyutin and Ivan Kolomoets, is a math teaching application that provides entertaining but challenging and interactive math exercises to kindergarten, first, and second grade students during their independent learning time in the classroom.
We sat down with Evgeny, CEO of Happy Numbers and CTI Market Entry Camper at swissnex San Francisco, to learn about his motivation to bring his startup to the United States and to see what sets Happy Numbers apart from existing online teaching tools.
Q: What is Happy Numbers?
We provide teachers with a mobile math-teaching app for kindergarten, first and second grade students. Our product is kind of a virtual teacher: While the teacher is teaching a small group and focusing on their individual needs, Happy Numbers serves as an independent math station for the rest of the class. Our app provides individualized instructions trying to build a natural and interactive conversation; making sure that the kids are actually learning something and not just playing around.
Q: How does that look in practice?
Students can use Happy Numbers either on an iPad or a laptop. On the screen the kid will see a set of different math lessons designed by Happy Numbers. Step by step and with each exercise kids build their knowledge of mathematics. While they are interacting with the screen we are simulating a conversation so that it feels as if they were interacting with a teacher.
Q: Can you give me an example?
Say a student sees five candies on an iPad screen. Happy Numbers will ask them to split the candies between two people. They will then be asked who has more candies now. If the student gets the answer wrong, Happy Numbers will adapt the instructions and tailor feedback to the particular mistake. So basically, our app will use audio instructions to explain to the student how to count the candies. I believe this is what sets us apart from other teaching tools: We’re not just another electronic work sheet or video tutorial but a real hands on exercise, that listens to the students and tries to build a real conversation.
Q: What motivated you to start this business?
I’ve liked mathematics ever since I was a kid. I used to explain it to my fellow students and then to my friends’ kids and so on. Since I was already doing lots of tutoring, my partner and I started our own little tutoring agency while studying applied physics and mathematics in Moscow. Later, we realized we needed to do something digital.
In the beginning we started selling CD-ROMs, which basically weren’t anything more than electronic learning books. We soon realized that we needed to come up with a product that is more interactive and provides tailored instructions. Finally, in 2010 we stopped producing those CD-ROMs and moved our idea into the direction we wanted to, which resulted in the foundation of our startup Happy Numbers.
Q: What have you been working on over the past two years?
After founding Happy Numbers we thought it would be very easy to develop our product and all we needed to do was to raise some funds. Boy, were we wrong! Our first prototype didn’t work at all. It took us quite a while to develop something that really worked in the way we imagined it to.
Almost two years ago in 2014, when we finally put our product online, we noticed that teachers in the US were starting to use it and were very interested in it. Shortly after that I came to the States and visited some of our first customers to see how they were actually using the product in their classrooms.
As our product was still evolving at that time, we wanted to learn first hand how to serve our customers better in the future. That’s basically what we’ve been focusing on during the past two years: How to make our customers happier and how to attract more customers. I now have a much better understanding of our customers’ needs, how school districts work, what challenges they are facing and how Happy Numbers can be helpful.
Q: What brought you to San Francisco and swissnex?
Actually, I first came to New York thinking it would be easy to acquire customers since New York is one of the biggest cities in the US with a lot of schools. It didn’t take long until I learned that from an educational perspective, the US is divided into two main segments: big cities like New York City and so called “bedroom communities”. Most of our customers live in those suburban areas with their schools organized very locally. This local structure of schools makes it much easier for us to approach potential customers.
Knowing that most of San Francisco’s school districts are organized very locally and San Francisco is the hotbed of everything tech, I decided to come here. I had the choice to either come here alone and figure everything out on my own or to go through a cool startup program like swissnex offers.
After talking to many people during the LIFT conference in Geneva, I learned about the CTI program and swissnex. Shortly after that I applied for the program and got in. Since I’ve been here I have made so many local contacts and I have learned how to do business, especially sales, in the US. Being at swissnex San Francisco surrounded by other startups under one roof has been a great advantage to my learning journey.
What’s next for Happy Numbers?
Well, summer break is just around the corner. Since our customers won’t be using Happy Numbers during that time, our next step will be to further improve the app with all the feedback we’ve been collecting. Within the next three months our goal is to publish a new version which will offer a much better interactive interface based on what we learned during the past year.
We are also looking into the possibility of integrating pedagogical knowledge into our development team by finding a person who is familiar with the local school districts and can help us to understand our customers’ needs even better to grow our business.