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With programming games for kids, TutHopper tops Startup Weekend KC

The TutHopper team consisted of (front row, from left) Kyle Webster, Jon Kors, DJ Good, Coty Beasley and Troy Norris; and (back row, from left) Eze Redwood, Adam Arredondo, Carrie Royce, Justin Murray and Cindy Fisher.

Carrie Royce sees a world of potential when she watches her 8-year-old son, Walter, and his pack of tech-inclined pals eschew sports and other pursuits in favor of video games, computers and electronics. 

“They’re the next Apple, right?” Royce says of the youngsters. “If you prepare them for that.”

Royce and a pack of her tech-inclined pals spent the weekend working on a project designed to do precisely that. And for their efforts, Royce and crew emerged from the weekend as the winners of Startup Weekend Kansas City.

Royce led a 10-person team that worked on a project called TutHopper, a web-based academy that uses video games to teach kids the basics of programming and system architecture (below, an example of a game).

In all, 12 teams and 98 individuals participated in Kansas City’s fifth Startup Weekend, which kicked off Friday and concluded Sunday at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Board Room at Union Station. The dozen teams formed Friday night in support of the most popular ideas presented during an opening pitch session. Teams then spent all of Saturday and most of Sunday developing minimum viable products and polishing pitches, which 11 of the teams presented to a panel of judges Sunday evening.

Keyzio, a platform for connecting home buyers and sellers, finished second. Grüple, an application that helps people pool money for group bills, took third.

“I think the ideas had more legs this Startup Weekend than they have any other Startup Weekend in Kansas City we’ve had,” said Adam Coomes, a member of the event’s organizing team who was orchestrating Startup Weekend Kansas City for the third time. “So you can kind of continue to see each time we do these Startup Weekends, the ideas are getting better and the executions are getting better, and that’s super exciting.”

Royce, a co-founder and the chief marketing officer at Red Nova Labs, was participating in her first Startup Weekend after serving as a judge for a previous event. The idea for TutHopper was driven by two things: stories of how the developers at Red Nova Labs had learned to code, and observations of her son mastering other subjects.

“How come my kid can go onto Oregon Trail and learn all about American history or he can go into Farmville and learn about economics,” Royce wondered, “but there’s nothing out there that he can go on and play in the passive way kids play and absorb this knowledge that is going to be so crucial to him in the future?”

So she pitched TutHopper. Royce envisions the system as being more interesting to kids — its target users are 8-14 — than Codecademy and requiring less assistance than Scratch. But bringing that vision to fruition isn’t easy.*

“Trying to define a game that is actually educational in terms of programming and system architecture was very difficult,” she said. “It was prob our biggest challenge. We spent the first whole day trying to figure out, ‘How is this even possible?’ “

Adam Arrendondo (from left), Carrie Royce and DJ Good hashed out TutHopper details on Saturday afternoon.

Once the team got over that hump, it split up into four groups — two focused on the business side and two focused on developing the games — and got to work. The team received good feedback from teachers and parents it surveyed over the weekend. And, aside from critiques about automated portions of its final pitch, TutHopper earned high marks from the judges, too.

“Everybody really likes the idea behind providing software or any solution that gets our kids thinking in a more technical way,” said Joni Cobb, the CEO of Pipeline and one of the judges. “Great to go after educating our kids in this way. Loved it.”

Royce has been a big believer in the Startup Weekend format since she served as a judge for the event. In fact, after that experience, Royce helped bring about Operation Launchpad, an in-house competition at Red Nova Labs. “I was so inspired that we came away and we did our own internal one,” Royce said. “We shut our company down and copied this.”

After experiencing Startup Weekend as a participant, Royce walked away with similar motivation. And the rest of her team seemed to be in agreement. The challenge now, as it always is after a Startup Weekend, is maintaining momentum and carving out time to make sure the project has a pulse for more than 54 hours.

“The majority of (the TutHopper team) are entrepreneurs,” Royce said. “They’re entrepreneurs pursuing their own ideas … and yet at the end of the project a couple of them got really excited and said, ‘You know what? I would be willing to keep working on this if we were doing this on the side.’ “


Credits: Team photo courtesy of Coty Beasley. Additional photo by Michael Stacy. Image of TutHopper game from tuthopper.com.

*Update April 17, 9:35 a.m. – The post was updated to reflect the proper spelling of the organization Codecademy. In a previous version of the post, it was spelled Codeacademy.

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