From research to start-up

Imagine arriving on the fictional planet of Omosa and being asked to find out why the planet’s native animals are dying out.

This is the virtual world created by new cutting edge education software that is helping secondary students learn science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.

The Saving the Omosans Virtual Science Kit gets students to help Omosa’s residents understand why their animals are dying. Like real-world scientists, the students use computer modelling and visualisation software to investigate and solve problems – undertaking virtual field work, collecting and analysing data, running experiments, and then reporting their findings to classmates and teachers.

Computer generated landscape with antelopes

The Saving the Omosans Virtual Science Kit, invites students into a fantasy world where they learn to solve problems scientifically.

The Virtual Science Kits have been developed following three years of school-based research, led by Professor Michael Jacobson of The University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work, and involving both Sydney and Macquarie universities.

Professor Jacobson brought 20 years of international research experience with him when he started looking at how online ‘game-like’ experiences could deepen Australian secondary students’ scientific knowledge and skills and get them excited and confident about undertaking STEM subjects.

“Most of our fastest growing occupations require solid STEM skills but many students avoid STEM courses because they think they are too hard,” Professor Jacobson says. “The software we tested in schools allows students to practise and learn scientific skills in ways that are both fun and educational.”

Taking the software to markets

The technology Professor Jacobson developed through this research was so successful that The University of Sydney’s Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships unit asked him to establish a spin-off company to get it into the marketplace. He decided to take up that challenge.

“I felt strongly that what we were doing could really help schools, really help kids learn better, and I was at a point in my career where I could devote time to get this business going,” he says.

In 2014 with two co-founders, Professor Jacobson launched the Pallas Advanced Learning Systems Pty Ltd educational technology (EdTech) start-up company. In the same year, Pallas signed a licensing agreement with The University of Sydney to commercialise the IP for the technology developed from the research.

The start-up has now released three commercial products, including The Saving the Omosans kit; made sales to nine New South Wales’ public and private schools and one in Hong Kong; and in 2017 is seeking its initial seed investment round to grow the company in Australia and internationally.

As the company’s CEO, Professor Jacobson wants Pallas Advanced Learning Systems to be “a commercially successful EdTech company”. He believes that to be viable, the company needs to break into the US market.

“We have developed versions of the Pallas products for the US, which has 31,000 secondary schools compared to Australia’s 3100, and are starting to develop sales and marketing into the US,” he says.

But Pallas’ main mission is to bring affordable and effective research-based EdTech innovations to students and teachers to enhance learning.

“What makes this all worth it is when a year nine student tells you they think this is a very good way to learn science,” Professor Jacobson says.

The Australian Research Council funded Professor Jacobson’s multi-year school-based research through two grants. The University of Sydney and the start-up incubator, Cicada Innovations, helped him transition from academic researcher to running a start-up.

To drive innovation and business growth, the Australian Government is supporting better links between research institutions and industry. The government’s annual National Survey of Research Commercialisation collects data on how Australia’s publicly funded research system collaborates with industry to transfer knowledge and commercialise research.

Published January 2017

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