Andre Agassi receives a volley of pitches from entrepreneurs everyday. He passes on the majority of them. But earlier this year, the tennis legend returned a cold call from Square Panda, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based developer of phonics and literacy apps for young children.
That an education product caught his eye should not be surprising. Before Agassi hung up the racket professionally in 2006, he established a K-12 charter school bearing his namesake in his hometown, Las Vegas. He currently runs a for-profit “facilities fund” that purchases real estate, constructs school buildings, and leases them to charter school operators. (The fund has supported more than 60 such schools across the country.)
Investing in Square Panda “is about double bottom-line returns,” Agassi told EdSurge in an interview this summer. “Of course you’re only going to invest if there’s business and success to be had. But there is also the social impact, and that’s what this opportunity is about.”
While Agassi owns a double-digit stake in the company, reaping millions from this deal isn’t the priority. “I dedicate a part of my portfolio to taking a chance on things that can have impact. I’m not thinking ‘I’ve got to be financially shrewd with this deal.’ But if I can help them reach more children tomorrow than today, that’s heading in the right direction.”
The idea behind Square Panda came from Tom Boeckle, an entrepreneur who struggled with dyslexia as a child. Agassi, who dropped out of school after eighth grade, can empathize with the frustration. “Literacy is meaningful to me because I’ve seen the ramification of not having it,” he said.
This summer, Square Panda shipped its phonics playset, which retail for $119. The set comes with two free apps: Lagoon and Bowling. On a recent (and rare) slow day in the office, we took the kit for a spin.
The Square Panda kit consists of a plastic stand designed to hold an iPad (or iPad mini) and has eight slots. The set comes with 45 letters that can be placed in the slots. We did a rough count of vowels to get a sense of what words can be spelled, and found some limitations. Kids won’t be able to spell “banana” or “bonobo,” for instance.
The Apple device connects to the stand via bluetooth, which allows the apps to recognize which letters are placed into the slots.
The first of the two Square Panda apps, Lagoon, is a free-play game where children can place whatever letters they want into the slots. At any time, they can tap on an animated chameleon, which attempts to sound out the word. If the letters spell out an actual English word, the app will display a corresponding picture.
Parents can log into a Square Panda account and upload their own picture for any word. (The feature comes in handy if the family has a pet, for instance.)
To push the limits of the app, we tried spelling advanced words that young children are probably not expected to know. But if they constructed such words by accident, would the app help them understand the meaning? As one example, we tried “hajib,” which was unrecognized.
This app asks children to roll a ball with the flick of their finger to knock down pins that each reveal a letter. The app will that prompt the kid to find the letter block and place it in the appropriate slot. Repeat this process several times, and the letters will form a word. As in Lagoon, the app will pronounce the word and show a corresponding photo.
There’s a settings menu where parents can adjust the frequency of different types of words that kids will find, such as compound words (like hotdog) and long vowels (seed).
Square Panda has been playtested with preschoolers in Head Start programs near the company’s headquarters in Las Vegas, according to company chief executive Andy Butler. Down the line, Square Panda will make the playset compatible with Android devices, and additional apps will be available for a cost.
Expect these apps to pack more multimedia features beyond what Lagoon and Bowling provides. Every word in the Square Panda database is associated with video, audio, music, rhyme, grammar assets, claims Butler, who says there are “over 50 fields of data for every word we have,” Butler claims.
Square Panda is not the only company attempting to combine tangible and digital learning experiences for young children. Competing with the company for kids’ mindshare—and their parents’ wallets—are learning toy-and-app combos developed by other startups such as Osmo and Tiggly (which also offer math, shapes and arts activities).
When it comes to jostling for market share, Square Panda does enjoy having a high-profile spokesperson—and one of sport’s fiercest competitors—on its team. “I don’t do anything halfway. I’m not just going to be passively involved,” states Agassi. He’s committed to making himself “available at every intersection by going to events, talking to parents, and using my platform to get the word out.”