NSF iCorps Success Story STEMKids: The Cobbler Gets New Shoes

Most start up stories aren’t like fairy tales—even seasoned and talented entrepreneurs can run into walls.

The founders of STEMKids used the iCorps program to leap over that proverbial wall and find the right product-customer fit. “We started the company to solve problems for teachers, administrators, and parents by providing a 360 degree view of home and school, says co-founder and CEO Dr. Mary Jean Koontz.   “We fully embraced the iCorps curriculum and devoted 10 weeks to see where we should be going.”

During their customer interview process, Koontz and CTO Duane Boman discovered that although all parties wanted to collaborate, no one knew how. “It finally clicked around our 50th interview,” said Boman.

That interview involved Eugene Stampley, a teacher working on a physics project involving roller coasters. “If I could just talk to a roller coaster expert,”said Stampley as he drew out on paper an informal, collaborative process, “I could better engage and educate our students.” The issue resonated with Koontz and Boman, so they probed further on “what else would be helpful”, “what else would you want to know”, etc. The team then took Stampley’s needs and turned them into a collaboration platform to match teachers and experts.

Koontz credits the customer research during the iCorps program for, “Leading us to an entirely new product, developed from learning the “pains in the marketplace”.  She adds, “While I had taught about customer discovery in my graduate classes, I came to realize our company was the cobbler’s kids with no shoes’. We absolutely had to go out and do the hard work, namely customer discovery.

At the end of iCorps, STEMKids received the Trailblazer Award “in recognition of your ability to test hypotheses, pivot, and blaze ahead regardless of the obstacles”

What’s happened since iCorps? The team has continued product development, broadened its search for partners and applied for grants, including a Phase 1 SBIR grant. Although they were turned down the first time, “The most useful piece of feedback was a call with the program officer for a debrief that helped us focus our application for the next round.”

As a result, STEMKids has just been awarded a Phase 1 $150k grant–look for them to continue bounding over walls!