Learning Games Startup, Motion Math Moves to a New Home: Curriculum...

Mergers and Acquisitions

Learning Games Startup, Motion Math Moves to a New Home: Curriculum Associates

By Tony Wan     Nov 8, 2017

Learning Games Startup, Motion Math Moves to a New Home: Curriculum Associates

In its 48-year history, Curriculum Associates has acquired only one company. That count will now double, thanks to the addition of a small team that has navigated the twists and turns in the educational gaming market over the past seven years.

The North Billerica, Mass.-based developer of instructional and assessment materials has acquired San Francisco startup Motion Math, which offers a suite of nine educational games focused on math and problem-solving.

“We’re not looking to enter new businesses, but for ways to inspire our existing customers,” Rob Waldron, Curriculum Associates’ CEO, tells EdSurge. His company’s flagship digital product, i-Ready, is a K-8 math and literacy tool used by nearly 15 percent of K-8 students across the country. “I was interested in finding engaging math content to increase kids’ time on task, and games were one of the things we looked at.”

The two companies have had on-and-off conversations about partnership opportunities since 2012. But this year, the possibility of an acquisition emerged. After a six-month discussion that began this spring, it became a reality.

Financial terms were not disclosed. Motion Math’s team of five will be joining Curriculum Associates and remain in its San Francisco offices. “We will have the beginnings of a new learning games division,” says Jacob Klein, co-founder and CEO of Motion Math. The plan is to roll up Motion Math’s suite of nine games into i-Ready’s subscription offerings.

Expect Curriculum Associates to eye other acquisition opportunities. In 2016, the company donated a majority of its shares to the Iowa State University Foundation. In September, private equity firm Berkshire Partners bought those shares and proceeds went to the university and to the Boston Foundation. “We now have access to capital and we’ll look at people who’ve made truly outstanding content,” says Waldron.

For Motion Math’s co-founders, the acquisition offers a welcome relief in a journey that sometimes felt like a slog. The educational games industry is a challenging, niche market where independent developers don’t last long. To survive, the company had to be “lean” in every sense of the word; it had, at most, eight full-time employees. Here’s what Klein says he’s learned along the way.

Lessons Learned

If Klein could travel back to 2010 and give himself one piece of advice, it’d be this: “get to a subscription model and web browsers faster.”

That summer, Klein and his co-founder, Gabriel Adauto, had finished Stanford University’s Learning, Design and Technology program. Their Master’s project was a fractions game that put their startup, Motion Math, on the map. As one of the first educational apps that incorporated the iPad’s accelerometer into the game mechanics, the game notched industry awards and features in outlets such as TIME, WIRED and USA Today.

All the attention may have bred false confidence, however. Klein acknowledges they were “intoxicated by the fact that our first few apps got good press and good promotion,” and as a result “didn’t think about how to build a business for the long term.”

As Motion Math tried to carry the momentum forward, it realized the limitations of its initial business model, which focused on building games for iOS devices and selling them through Apple’s app store. It made sense—at the time. In the early 2010s, iPads had just been released, but already there were high hopes for their utility in education. Schools from San Diego to Maine bought them in droves. Yet Apple’s dominance in this market would wane over time. By one estimate, Google Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of all device sales to U.S. K-12 schools last year.

The app store was also problematic. It was, in Klein’s words, a “black box” that didn’t give much data about the people who played the games. There was little information his team could use to drive customer and product development efforts. In other words, “we relied on one platform, and didn’t know who our customers were.”

“Being an app studio, we were dependent on app store economics and promotion,” says Klein. “It worked but made us vulnerable as a company.”

In 2015, the company switched to a subscription model that charged an annual fee for access to all of its games. This February, the company ported some games to the web browser. The idea was to expand the game’s footprint to students in classrooms that were using laptops and Chromebooks.

Today, Motion Math boasts over 4.5 million downloads of its apps, and “thousands of students” as subscribers, according to Klein. Those number may be indicative of the growing acceptance of digital games as a valuable learning tool. A 2014 study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that more than half of teachers surveyed used games in their classrooms at least once per week.

Yet enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to sales. “There are a lot of educators using games in the classroom,” Klein says, “but whether they will pay for them as a supplemental resource is a separate story.” Few schools could justify spending money on games. “It’s hard to sell any non-core curriculum into schools, especially if you are a small company,” he shares.

The company also partnered with university researchers to conduct and publish studies attesting to the efficacy of its games. Unfortunately, this also didn’t translate to sales. “Sometimes the research was very helpful, but sometimes it made people more skeptical,” Klein says. “It certainly wasn’t the market breakthrough we might have hoped for.”

To stay afloat throughout the years, Motion Math raised about $1 million in venture funding from Kapor Capital, Ulu Ventures and individual angel investors. It also received $2.1 million in grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Noyce Foundation, and NewSchools Venture Fund. This money allowed the company to develop and test features such as including “growth mindset” messages in games to help challenge and motivate students.

Despite all the challenges and setbacks, Klein believes there’s “tons” of room for developers to build quality learning games. “I still see a lot of gamification out in the market,” he says, referring to tools that rely on points and rewards as incentives to drive behavior. “There are still a lot of spreadsheets with bells and whistles.”

Now, with a new owner that topped $190 million in sales last year, Klein can worry less about funding and focus on fine-tuning “the nuts and bolts of our games.” Getting hands-on to build products, after all, is how many entrepreneurs got their start—and what they love doing most. Klein is also jazzed that he now has the financial resources to hire more game engineers.

“I think that the 2010 team would be really happy to know where the products have landed.”

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