Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Youth

After moving out of Timonium warehouse, STAR Academy plans reemergence with new business model

Cofounder Ed Mullin talks about changes the STEM training center is looking to make in a new space, including a focus on robotics, game development and drones.

The Booz Allen Hamilton Innovation Center. (Courtesy photo)

Last month’s Beer and Bots drew hundreds of execs and technologists to STAR Academy. Along with being one of the biggest crowds for the event, it was also the last at the Timonium warehouse where the STEM training academy opened in 2017.

Now STAR Academy is seeking new space to bring the youth-oriented programming that made up the bulk of its schedule.

Cofounder Ed Mullin said the end of the run at the warehouse didn’t come as a surprise. The owners are planning to demolish the building, and were upfront about that eventual endpoint when STAR Academy first got access to the space. In fact, a sanguine Mullin said he initially thought the organization would only be in the building for a year; it ended up being two and a half.

In that time, Mullin said the STAR Academy team gathered lots of learnings. They also connected with the edtech community in the area to gain knowledge about the market for such a space. They tested things out to see what worked, and gathered plenty of feedback.

It’s a lot like how any startup would approach things: “We learned a tremendous amount, tried stuff out and now we’re pivoting,” Mullin said.

The org is emerging from that beta testing with a new, simplified business plan. Mullin said it focuses on the program that proved popular and make business sense, and is more in line with what a national franchise would look like.

Instead of a giant warehouse, it involves a smaller space — perhaps in a shopping center. And the new business model involves a pivot to subscription-like payment plans.

It also involves focusing in on the groups that populated the space. One key learning: The core market is a younger age group than initially envisioned. So STAR Academy honed in on programming for students ages 8 to 12.

The team learned a lot about the programming itself, too, Mullin said. So in the business plan, STAR Academy is focusing on three key areas: robotics, game development and drones.

Decisions were guided by data. The most popular program was the robotics league, Mullin said; 3D printing, meanwhile, proved costly to maintain and not as popular as expected.

And there are tweaks even in the areas where they’ve chosen to continue. While older kids who fly recreationally weren’t as willing to pay for time in a massive indoor drone cage as expected, the drones turned out to be one of the best teaching tools for other subjects closer to the ground.

“We teach different math concepts, geometric concepts and programming as part of goofing around with drones after school,” he said. “All of that happens in a room that has eight- to 10-foot ceilings.”

In a change that Mullin will particularly miss, it also means the August event was likely the last Beer and Bots.

“We’ll still do birthday parties and theme parties, but that big warehouse corporate event, we won’t have the space to do,” he said.

Along with space, Mullin said the group is seeking investment before setting up shop again. For one, funding would help with marketing to get the word out about the programming.

“We spent almost nothing and still doubled our number of summer camp weeks this past summer,” he said. “If we had a marketing budget, we would just crush it.”

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