Founders’ Friday: Tom Robertson, IS3D
Hi, Brandon here again. Today’s featured Friday founder is Tom Robertson from IS3D. I got the chance to sit down and talk to him about his company and how he uses interactive virtual tools to educate kids in science classrooms. Enjoy.
Founder: Tom Robertson
BC: Tell me a little bit about your startup:
TR: The company makes science education software such as interactive virtual worlds, games, guides and iBooks. We started with a grant from the National Institute of Health in 2008 while working with the university (UGA). In 2010, we licensed the technology that we had created.
BC: Where did the idea come from?
TR: It came from teachers. Teachers said they have trouble engaging students in the science classroom but they told us that the students liked case studies, which were on paper. We were working with Casey O’Donnell, a game designer, and he suggested that we try using the Unity 3D game engine and present the case studies in a way that the students could really engage with.
BC: Why should your target audience use your company and not someone else’s?
TR: When we get our data analyzed, we will be able to show that we are simply better than everybody else in terms of helping people learn. We believe that intelligence should be measured not in terms of the facts you know, but by how you apply a fact towards solving a problem. Our software helps students practice the skills you need to be a good problem solver, which involves a higher order of thinking than the current system of: “if you remember this fact, I will give you an A on the test”. In the business world, walking Wikipedias are not needed; we need more Steve Jobs and innovators who are problem solvers.
BC: What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
TR: Getting the company off the ground. It took 18 months between applying for the grant and actually getting the money, so during that lag time it was tricky keeping people around. It was difficult keeping the talent around until we actually had the money to hire them.
BC: Where do you see your startup being in the next year?
TR: In a year’s time, I would hope to have between 10 and 12 employees, and be a year off from bringing the product to market, which will take another $3 million in grant money or private investment.
BC: What is the most significant thing you have learned in the process of creating your startup?
TR: Apart from QuickBooks? (Laughter) Apart from QuickBooks, the most significant thing I have learned is the value of building a good team; you have to surround yourself with the right people. If you don’t have the right people, you have no chance at succeeding. This is the most significant thing I have learned apart from bloody QuickBooks, which I hate because I never wanted to be an accountant, but I have to be in order to run a startup.
BC: Are you from Athens? If not, how did you end up here? Do you plan on staying here?
TR: No, I am originally from Manchester in the UK. I came to the states for a meeting in New Orleans. I met an Australian guy who was just about to move to Athens, and when he got here he offered me a job in 2001. I came as a postdoc and I have been here for 12 years now.
BC: What has been the high point in your journey of building your startup?
TR: Offering people jobs. Sitting someone down and saying I can offer you a job for two years and you will be making a decent salary, and you’re going to be doing some really cool stuff and making an impact on young peoples’ lives. Being able to do this, has been my high point.
BC: What has been the low point in your journey of building your startup?
TR: Every time we have a grant rejected. We have applied for 10 grants and we’ve had 3 or 4 funded, so 60/70 percent of the time you are being kicked in the nuts, and that hurts.
BC: Has there ever been a point where you considered giving up on your company?
BC: What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?
TR: Watch football, the real kind, and drink beer.
BC: What would you say to someone who is considering building their own startup? Any advice?
TR: Do it. Just do it, but make sure that you are all in. If you are half-hearted, you shouldn’t even bother. Be prepared to sleep maybe 5 or 6 hours a night, if that.
BC: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your startup?
TR: We want to stay in Athens. The company was born in Athens and we want it to grow up and mature in Athens. We want to be a part of the startup community in Athens. We feel that we are a part of what Four Athens embodies.