These parents are bringing kids' books to the iPad, and they got a $150K federal grant to do it - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 31, 2015 12:21 pm

These parents are bringing kids’ books to the iPad, and they got a $150K federal grant to do it

The founders say it's more educational than Angry Birds and more tech-forward than flash cards. Meet SmartyPAL.

Kartik Hosanagar, Prasanna Krishnan and Alex Miller in the SmartyPAL office in Society Hill.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Prasanna Krishnan and Kartik Hosanagar have spent most of their adult life in the tech world — working for startups, founding them, investing in them.

So maybe it makes sense that their four-year-old son, Aarav, already has a startup gig: Chief Testing Officer at SmartyPAL, Krishnan and Hosanagar’s platform for interactive storytelling iPad apps for three-to-six-year-olds.

The couple launched the startup in 2013, testing out the idea by developing their own story to offer on the app. The app saw 10,000 downloads, they said. Now, after more than a year of development and research, plus a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, they’ve launched the new SmartyPAL platform, on which they digitize and deliver digital children’s books.

The platform, which is free to download, features more than a dozen stories right now, each available as an in-app purchase for around $2.99. (The authors and SmartyPAL split sales revenue down the middle.) As the team adds more titles, they’ll offer a monthly subscription price.

Download SmartyPAL

As tech becomes more and more ubiquitous, parents are left wondering: How much “screen time” is too much? Is there a tech alternative to flash cards? Is there an educational alternative to Angry Birds? That’s what inspired SmartyPAL, the couple said during a recent interview at the couple’s home office, whose walls carry reminders of Aarav in the form of construction paper turkeys and colorful chalkboard scribbles, in Society Hill.

“There should be a way to use technology positively,” said Hosanagar, a Wharton professor and angel investor in startups like RJMetrics and Lawdingo.

The SmartyPAL team — four full-time, right now — worked with education researchers (like Temple’s Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and the University of Delaware’s Roberta Golinkoff) to figure out the best way to engage a child via app. They learned that it should be interactive and heavy on context. Then they took those qualities and worked to apply them to existing children’s books and videos.

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“We’re curating the best content and turbocharging it,” Krishnan said.

It’s also a way for children’s book authors to meet their audience where they are, they said.

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From “Keisha Cane and Her Very Sweet Tooth” on SmartyPAL. (Screenshot)

SmartyPAL works with authors to format stories for the platform, finding ways to make the story engaging by creating tasks for the user.

For example, in one of the first SmartyPAL stories, called Keisha Cane and Her Sweet Tooth, the child gets to help Keisha Cane when she gets in trouble. Tasks range from spatial (“Arrange these cookies from largest to smallest”) to math to social and emotional. With Keisha Cane and Her Sweet Tooth’s technicolor graphics and cheerful narration, it’s easy to see how a kid would be drawn in. (Before getting adapted for SmartyPAL, the book was an actual book and also an ebook.)

It takes about three to four days to adapt a book for SmartyPAL, the team said, but that process can be sped up. The team has built technology that allows them to digitize books for the platform quickly, in order to scale.

The SmartyPAL team plans to apply for the second phase ($850,000) of their National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Grant, once their current six-month grant is over this summer.

Aside from Krishnan and Hosanagar, the SmartyPAL team is Lakshmi Sudarsan (whose two daughters are also Chief Testing Officers) and developer Alex Miller.

Krishnan is also due next month with the couple’s second child. It’s the second time she’ll be working on a startup after having a child — she had her first son when she was general manager at Gilt Groupe’s Jetsetter, of which she said,“I was busy sending emails to a new hire when I was about to go into labor.” Will she take time off from SmartyPAL after her second is born?

“I guess I will have to,” she said, with a laugh.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes became Technical.ly's editorial product lead after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

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