This Educational Gaming Company Has Testing Down to a Science

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Killer Snails makes educational games designed to spark interest in science among K-12 students. The startup was founded in 2015 by Mandë Holford, Jessica Ochoa Hendrix, and Lindsay Portnoy, who among them have decades of scientific research and teaching experience. From the outset, the partners knew the “play-break-fix” model would be key to building and expanding their business, says Chief Executive Officer Ochoa Hendrix. Killer Snails invests hundreds of hours in gathering feedback—over the past three years, roughly 10,000 students have tested its products. In January the company embarked on its first national pilot program for BioDive, a game that uses an online journal and virtual-reality immersions to simulate the experience of marine biologists on underwater missions.

“We’re trying to figure out how we build content that is both a compelling story and scientifically accurate,” says Holford, an associate chemistry professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. Piloting is key for “developing games that make students feel like scientists addressing real-world problems.”

Name A nod to the discovery that toxins in venomous marine snails could be used to make opiate alternatives for severe chronic pain
Employees Four full-time
Funding $1.1 million in National Science Foundation grants; roughly $45,000 from crowdfunding campaigns
Revenue About $150,000 since it started selling its games in 2016

Five Lessons

① Identify Intended Users

Determine which age group your product is for and where it will be used, such as at home or in the classroom, says Ochoa Hendrix. For Biome Builder, a tabletop game aimed at families, the team did prototyping at New York cultural institutions popular with parents, including the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Hall of Science.

② Start Local

In early trial runs, Killer Snails teamed up with schools and other entities near its Brooklyn location so the founders themselves could participate. They reach out directly to teachers as a first step. The team looks for educators with a range of experience, from 20-year veterans to newbies.

③ Do Your Homework

The Killer Snails team coordinates visits with teachers, making sure to ask ahead of time about the number of students who will participate, the length of the class, the classroom setup, and any special considerations. For the BioDive national piloting, the startup provides teachers with a 15-page booklet of instructions, learning objectives, and potential discussion questions.

④ Don’t Waste Time or Money

Affordability and usability are crucial, says Ochoa Hendrix. Killer Snails pays for and provides teachers with inexpensive cardboard kits for VR viewing on smartphones. “The cost is zero for the school to pilot,” says Ochoa Hendrix. “It’s just the time commitment.”

⑤ Use the Feedback

In addition to the team’s notes, students complete surveys after testing a game and answer questions meant to gauge their interest in science. “There’s never been a time where we’ve been like, ‘This is flawless, got it, nailed it,’ ” Ochoa Hendrix says. “Every time we pilot, we make changes.”

Next Steps

Killer Snails expects to start licensing BioDive to schools this summer. To build a sales team, it will seek more money, including from the National Science Foundation’s seed funding program.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dimitra Kessenides at

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