Math can be fun, but try telling that to a small child stuck behind a desk doing endless drills and worksheets. Founded by a former game developer, startup LocoMotive Labs’ mission is to make learning mathematic basics entertaining for all children, no matter their learning styles.
Its flagship app, Todo Math, has already been downloaded 1.1 million times, and now the Berkeley, California company has picked up a series A of $4 million to expand into Asia.
The round was led by Softbank Ventures Korea and TAL Education Group and brings LocoMotive Labs’ total raised so far to $5.15 million. Returning investors K9 Ventures, Kapor Capital, NewSchools Venture Fund, Joe Gleberman, D3Jubilee, and Jerry Colonna also participated.
LocoMotive Labs will first focus on China because the country currently accounts for half of its new users. Its apps have already been downloaded 350,000 times there.
Founder Sooinn Lee was inspired to launch LocoMotive Labs by her son, who has special needs. After he was born, Lee and her husband, also a game developer, began to brainstorm ways to keep kids like him motivated once they start school. Todo Math and other LocoMotive Labs apps, however, are made for all kids between the ages of three and eight, not just those with learning disabilities.
“We come from Korea, where academic environment is particularly competitive and intense,” Lee says. “We thought, how could our son have a good experience in his early academic career? That was our motivation to start this company.”
LocoMotive Labs’ goal is to instill confidence in kids who might struggle with traditional exercises and worksheets.
“If they feel like failures at an early age, it gives them a negative self-concept. If they keep failing, they think ‘I’m done. I don’t like math,'” Lee says.
A Friendlier Alternative To Cram Schools
While there are many other math-learning apps available, Lee thinks of programs like Kumon as LocoMotive Labs’ main competition. Founded in 1958 in Japan, Kumon is designed to reinforce math and reading concepts with a series of worksheets and teaching sessions. After school programs like Kumon (often referred to as “cram schools”) are extremely popular in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other Asian countries (and also operate in the U.S.). But Lee says that paper worksheets aren’t the best way for very young children to learn math basics.
“As a game designer, I believe we can solve it in a much better way in the mobile era. Three year olds can touch and swipe before they even hold a pen,” she says, adding “games are designed for users. If they don’t want to play it anymore, it’s done. They give it a F and it’s done.”
To keep children engaged, Todo Math uses an exploration game with treasure boxes and other rewards that kids can unlock as they solve different levels of problems. LocoMotive Labs’ follows Universal Design for Learning concepts, which encourages educators to take different learning styles into account when designing teaching materials.
For example, children in the age group targeted by Todo Math are at widely different stages of motor development, so kids can either write or drag-and-drop numbers. The app also lets kids decide how math problems are presented. They can pick a word problem, play with tally sticks, or move around blocks. As they use the app, it will begin to tailor lessons to their learning preferences.
Bringing American Education To Asia
Todo Math is aligned with U.S. Common Core standards, but Lee says that early math curriculums followed by different countries aren’t too different (for example, Common Core has similarities with math education in Singapore and Japan). The process of localizing LocoMotive Labs’ apps for new markets will focus mainly on changing cultural references in word problems.
The bigger challenge of expanding into Asia, Lee says, is convincing educators and parents that mobile apps are a suitable alternative to paper worksheets and flashcards. Todo Math is already accepted by teachers in the U.S.—in fact, it is currently used in about 1,000 classrooms. Lee hopes that the program’s adaptability—and the fact that it keeps children engaged—will convince parents to use it instead of sending their kids to cram school.
One of LocoMotive Labs’ goals for its international expansion is to bring U.S. attitudes toward learning to Asia, where pedagogy often centers on rote memorization. While Lee acknowledges that the effectiveness of Common Core and other U.S. educational programs are widely debated, she says that Asian students can benefit from their focus on developing critical thinking skills.
“I know Asian parents and governments are still skeptical, but kids are learning in a new era. Schools still focus on memorization, but children can use tools like Google Search and access a larger way of learning beyond just memorizing answers,” she says.