A startup based in Shanghai, with United States headquarters in Woburn, Mass., 8D World, has attracted a series B investment of $5.25 million for their educational take on massively multiplayer online games, the company announced today. Their flagship product, Wiz World Online, uses sophisticated speech assessment features to teach mostly kids and teens English as a foreign language.
The founder and chief executive of 8D World, Alex Wang, learned English as a kid in China and was good enough to get a high score on standardized tests. He found, however, when he came to the United States for university that he couldn’t initially use his written English skills to do basic things like order food at a restaurant.
A couple of decades later, he conceived of a way to use the Web to solve that problem for students and schools, and enlisted Rick Goodman, the developer and co-founder of the popular Age of Empires game franchise, to make Wiz World Online.
Wang told TechCrunch in an email from China Wednesday night:
“In the near-term, we will use our capital to focus on two specific areas: extend[ing] our product leadership by incorporating more activities and educational content into the virtual world; and invest[ing] in sales and marketing to drive wider adoption and enhance [our] brand.
We have some core competencies in terms of virtual world design. [We know] how to integrate rigorous academic content with virtual world activities and speech technologies. We also have a deep understanding of and connections in local markets in China, South Korea, Japan, Latin America and the U.S.”
The CEO confirmed that 8D World is considering: adapting its systems to deliver other types of coursework, particularly social sciences and math for the U.S. market; and ways in which its virtual worlds can be linked to mobile devices. The company would not disclose specific plans or a timeline for either effort.
Today, Wiz World Online uses company-created, educational content to teach English as a foreign language. One of Wiz World Online’s selling points, however, is that it can incorporate others’ curriculum into its game levels within a couple of weeks.
Over 1,500 for-profit brick-and-mortar schools in China, and a number of public schools there, aiming to teach students communicative English rather than English for test-taking purposes, have signed up as 8D World customers so far. Schools tend to use Wiz World Online as homework, or as an interactive component to supplement what they do in the classroom.
Educational publishers and media companies— including China’s CCTV and ONLY Education — have also signed up with 8D World to sell or distribute their educational content in a new format to schools.
CCTV used Wiz World to run a major, Shanghai-wide oral English competition, in which over 1,000 brick-and-mortar language schools participated. The competition will be held annually for three years, a company spokesman said.
Currently, 8D World is adapting its games for, and expanding its sales to the South Korean market. It plans to do the same in other Asian and Latin American markets in 2011. The venture arm of one of Japan’s largest banks, Mizuho Capital of Japan, led the series B investment along with the company’s’ earlier investors Spark Capital in Boston, and Gobi Partners in China.
“We think the company is doing something really big.
First, the product is very unique. It is hard to build virtual world gaming, curriculum and speech assessment features like the ones included in Wiz World, and make them immersive and motivating for students. A lot of interactive educational products aren’t good at engaging or motivating students.
8D World has also been innovative with their business model. Instead of selling direct to consumers, they reach out and partner with publishers and schools. This is really smart, and new to the education market.”