Immersed in game-based learning: Tyto Online

Lindsey and Ryan Tropf, co-founders of Buffalo-based Immersed Games, an ed tech startup, were nerdy gamers with vast amounts of knowledge about the World of Warcraft universe—which, Lindsey realized one day, didn’t have much application in real life. Around 2008, while she was in college, the idea hit that she could create a game that taught things people could actually use, like…science.


By 2013, Lindsey was a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, studying school psychology with expertise in program evaluation and statistics. Her multiple interests—gaming, education, and data—combined to make her into a mission-driven entrepreneur, who, rather than responding to an urge to found, run, and sell companies, became passionate about providing a product for which she saw a need, and that no one else was addressing.


“After my initial revelation and, continuing to study and research game-based learning, I found that other educational companies weren’t taking advantage of it,” she says. “I saw a market opportunity and decided to recruit my husband and go build it.”


She recruited others at the University of Florida to help. She called it an internship program, and, with no funds to speak of, paid them—hungry college students—with food. “I’d cook for 20 to 30 people per week,” she says. Some of those interns became early employees (and one became their third co-founder), and are still with the company.


Back then, in response to the excitement they heard while developing and talking about their product, they raised $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and then found an angel investor who put up $400,000.


Tropf, who is now the CEO, leads Immersed Games/Tyto Online in educational design. (She never did finish the Ph.D. Her status, which she laughingly says may be permanent, is “ABD”—“all but dissertation”—a phase common enough among scholars to have its own acronym.)


She and her husband moved their company to Buffalo in 2019, after being invited here to participate in the 43North startup competition. They won $500,000, and, as a condition of receiving the money and other benefits, agreed to bring the startup north from Florida. Immersed Games moved with 10 employees; nine of those are still with them and living in the Western New York area. They now have 16 full-time employees, and high praise and gratitude for the efforts and effects of their involvement with 43North.


As the first educational tech company in the 43North portfolio to sell to schools (versus engaging with parents or offering another type of platform) Tropf says that 43North staff went “insanely above and beyond” in their helpfulness, providing personal tours, introductions, assistance finding housing, and connecting with potential customers.


From the start, she found Western New York a welcoming environment. “People were excited to be talking to someone with a cool product that was local and that was involved with 43North,” she says. “Most of our first customers were within 30 minutes’ drive of Buffalo; people want to support businesses in Buffalo too.”


She’s now seeing exciting response to and impressive growth with the company’s product; while 2020 sales are not greater than the previous year due to some larger clients’ budget cuts, they’ve sold over 4,800 student licenses, and, year over year, monthly unique users are up 729%.


The product couldn’t have come at a timelier moment: The pandemic brought about the sudden, urgent need for many more school districts, administrators, teachers, students, and parents to pay attention to remote learning, and virtual environments in which to do it.


As an analytics and statistics person, Tropf is loving the fact that she and her team can interact so closely with early adopters of Tyto, which supports the Next Generation Science Standards, developed collaboratively by states between 2011 and 2013. They did a pilot program with the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School to gather data early on.


Staying in the region past the 43North-required year will not be an issue for her, her family, or her team, with appreciation for local school districts and early customers. For the Lake Shore Central School District, about 25 minutes south of Buffalo, she provides on-site orientation with staff and teachers; her main connection there, Michael Drezek, the district technology integrator, is one of her biggest cheerleaders.


Drezek says that he’s always on the lookout for educational resources for his forward-thinking district. “When I found out that Immersed Games was right in Buffalo, I was especially interested,” he says. “The district has always been very supportive of trying new tech; when I find something that I think would be engaging, I check with teachers to see if they think it could work, or they let me know Tropf providing a demonstration at the Lake Shore Central School Districtif they have a need.”


Working with Tropf, and bringing Tyto to the district’s middle schools, says Drezek, a former math teacher who “has always been into game-based learning,” was both easy and rewarding.


“Lindsey was willing to come out and give us a demo,” he says. “So I gathered the science teachers in a room after school one day, and she fired it up and gave us a walk-through. The seventh grade teachers thought it would fit perfectly with their curriculum, so we decided to start a pilot.”


With funding from the National Science Foundation, Immersed will be hiring an implementation manager among other efforts to improve customer success. Tropf is now focused on building for the future, scaling up the product and the company.


With news coming in mid-November that she and the company have been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Overdeck Family Foundation, Tropf is excited to announce Immersed Games' new STEM gaming microgrant program, which will make 5,000 student licenses of Tyto Online available, and include training and support for teachers. These microgrants are expected to reach up to 200 classrooms across the United States.


“The microgrants will have a rolling application deadline starting at the end of this month; the kickoff is planned for January 2021,” says Tropf. “Participants will become part of a cohort of teachers receiving professional development. As part of the grant, partners will also help collect data to further measure the game’s impact on STEM mindsets, and science and engineering skills.”


To iterate: she saw a need, and she created the product.

Read more articles by Jana Eisenberg.

Jana Eisenberg is a Buffalo-based freelance writer/editor. In October, 2019, she was named managing editor of UpstartNY. She grew up in Los Angeles, called NYC home for 20 years, and now enjoys telling the stories of life in Western New York.
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