Our tech start-up to watch this week is Footbridge Interactive, which is developing animated games to help kids learn how to read, especially children who need learning support.
The start-up was set up by Linda O’Sullivan back in 2010. It is now based at the Nexus Innovation Centre at University of Limerick.
In addition Footbridge Interactive (formrly known as Reading Bridges) has just emerged from the latest Enterprise Ireland internet growth acceleration programme (iGAP).
The start-up is targeting its games for kids aged between six and 11, with Jack and Grace being its main game at the moment.
So how did the idea for Footbridge Interactive come about? O’Sullivan says that she had worked in animation and had built up an interest in the possibilities for interactive stories.
“At that time we had also been taking our son who has dyslexia for learning support classes outside of school. The types of exercises he was working on to build reading fluency seemed perfect for an interactive game-based learning,” she explains.
Sensing a need for something that would provide a fun way for children to practice their reading skills in a multi-sensory environment, O’Sullivan says she consulted with experts in specialist learning, parents and resource teachers. And the venture was spawned from there.
“I first started working on Footbridge Interactive on a part-time basis, but then started working on it full time about a year and a half ago.”
So far the start-up has pioneered its Jack and Grace game, but O”Sullivan says that the plan is to develop a range of games for children with particular educational needs.
“We’ve had a great response so far, with kids really enjoying the games. Our next stage of development will be all about improving the game play and integrating the games more into the animated story, as well as adding more layers of rewards and content,” she says.
Being based at the Nexus Innovation Centre at UL is also an added bonus, says O’Sullivan, as the team can tap into the resources of the university.
But how many are involved in the start-up? “There are just two of us full time and we have two students fom UL on work experience with us at the moment. We have an ongoing relationship with and a team of contractors. As well as this, we have a team of educational advisors and a great non-executive director, Siun Ni Raghallaigh, who is very involved on a day-to-day basis,” says O’Sullivan.
Footbridge Interactive also participated in the LEAP enterprise platform programme at Limerick Institute of Technology back in 2011.
“The LEAP programme was a great support structure at the early stage, particularly as I had no previous experience of start-ups. The group dynamic between the various entrepreneurs there is invaluable,” says O’Sullivan.
As for funding, last year, Footbridge Interactive won a Competitive Start Fund from Enterprise Ireland and a couple of weeks later, the start-up also won the Leap Business Award at LIT.
“Winning the LEAP award involved a €50,000 convertible loan investment from AIB Seed Capital Fund through Enterprise Equity,” she says. “Both of those funds provided the start-up capital we needed to get to minimum viable product, which is where we are now.”
And with the company having just emerged from Enterprise Ireland’s iGAP programme, O’Sullivan says the experience has been great.
“As a non-tech, it gave me the tools I needed to move through a software development process that makes sense with limited resources, and to then set and measure performance for an online business.”
So what’s the plan for the coming year?
“We have identified that our main target market is parents, and we are focusing in 2012 on parents in the UK and Ireland. Ireland has been our testing ground to a large degree, and we have learned a lot from our very early customers here already,” affirms O’Sullivan.
She says that starting up a new venture has been a very steep learning curve.
“I think that, overall, Ireland is a great country for supporting new entrepreneurs, and I cannot speak highly enough about Enterprise Ireland as a support agency.
“The scarcity and cost of programmers has been our biggest challenge, and I think it’s one many start-ups share,” she adds.
And O’Sullivan’s advice for other self-starters out there right now?
“Put all your energies in the early days into getting product market fit right, not into business plans and chasing investors. The Competitive Start Fund is a great place to start, and I would highly recommend iGAP or any other programme that focuses on a lean start-up methodology, rather than on a business plan,” she adds.