Jessica Ochoa Hendrix and Mandë Holford
From the lab to the classroom: Mandë Holford and Jessica Ochoa Hendrix, co-founders of Killer Snails, share their story of how research into the therapeutic properties of marine snail venom inspired tools to bring out the inner scientist in every child.
Q: What is the origin story behind Killer Snails? How did an MBA, an educational psychologist, and a chemical biologist come together to found a company with a mission to engage K-12 students in STEM learning?
Mandë: It’s a combination of serendipity, good luck, and hard work. Jess and I met at the Secret Science Club where I was giving a talk. I met our other founder, Lindsay Portnoy, at Hunter College at a luncheon for Teaching With Technology. And at the same time the National Science Foundation asked if I wanted to start a company around the research in my lab where I study the peptides of venomous snails. So, I had the name – Killer Snails. But I wasn’t interested in starting a biotech or drug discovery company. I was interested in how we could teach STEM more effectively by meeting students where they are – using games. While I knew the science, I didn’t have the business experience. That’s where Jessica came in.
Jessica: It was the topic of venomous snails that connected me to Mandë. I was working in the education space for a charter school network when I heard Mandë speak at the Secret Science Club. I thought the work she was doing was fascinating. I had no idea that studying these venomous creatures was something that could lead to therapeutic drugs. I asked her to come and talk to the students about collecting and studying snails. But rather than speak to one classroom at a time, Mandë wanted to think bigger. She wanted to bring this science to students everywhere, not just within our own New York City neighborhood.
Q: What is the science behind Killer Snails and how are you teaching it?
Mandë: There are really two parts to the science. The science we’re teaching came directly from what I was doing in my lab, investigating the evolution of venom and how venom arsenals – the small molecules, peptides, and proteins that make up venom – can be used for therapeutic development. My research also involves all the wacky ways venom disrupts cellular function in prey, whether it’s snails eating fish or squids that eat crabs. So, we started off by looking at these extreme creatures in nature and let the story tell itself.
The second part of the science comes in the way that we’ve developed the games. We started with board games, and now we have embraced wholeheartedly the use of immersive techniques to engage students. This enables us to teach not only the science, but the role of science and the scientist. We don’t dumb down the science – we keep it at a very high level. To do that we use augmented reality and virtual reality, and we also provide teachers with a unique dashboard where they can monitor the students’ work and give individualized feedback in real time as the students are going through the experience.
Jessica: When we started the company in 2016, the Next Generation Science Standards were being rolled out and teachers were actively looking for products that were aligned to these NGSS standards. So, from a business perspective, we knew that there was space in the market. We also knew that teachers are constantly looking for new ways to engage their students, and our virtual reality and augmented reality products do just that. In the experiences we create, students use a digital science journal where they construct models, develop hypotheses, and then use virtual reality to go on expeditions just like Mandë does. They go underwater and collect samples. They learn how to use scientific equipment. Then they go into virtual reality to use the equipment. When they come back from their expeditions, they go to the journal to analyze the data they’ve gathered, just like how a scientist would use her lab book. All the while, using the dashboard, the teacher can track progress and see the students’ interactions within virtual reality and their responses in their journals.
We got fantastic feedback from teachers on the 27-state pilot of our first immersive product, Bio Dive, which launched in 2020. We heard from teachers in suburban and rural communities that students felt like they were at and in the ocean. This is an incredibly powerful experience, especially for students who have never seen the ocean. We are now working on a new product – WaterWays – with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Hudson River Park, and Mount Sinai’s Transdisciplinary Center on Early Environmental Exposures that is about water stewardship and how water connects us, the ocean, and aquatic organisms.
Q: It’s common knowledge in the EdTech field that selling into school systems is difficult with very long sales cycles. What is your secret?
Jessica: Our products have low price points, which means that teachers or principals can purchase the products without the need for approval at a district level and without going through an RFP process. For Bio Dive, the cost per item is $4.99, so even for 500 students the cost falls well within a school’s own budget. In terms of marketing, while we use some online advertising, much of our marketing is word of mouth through our teacher ambassadors and through attending science education conferences.
Mandë: Our teacher ambassadors are essential. They help design the games. As a result, we know that they will use our games in their classrooms and promote them to their fellow educators.
Q: As a science-based education company, you have been able to fund most of your growth through government grants, including from the National Science Foundation. What advice do you have for other EdTech companies about scaling through government grants rather than by raising outside capital?
Mandë: Using grants to fund our growth is part of our secret sauce. The grants are risk-free and non-dilutive, so we still own all of the company. And, unlike venture capital, this is patient money. We can develop the technology behind our products at our own pace, which enables us to launch great, workable products that we know teachers and students will like. And the grants supported hiring our employees – we are up to nine now.
Our first grant was for $50,000 from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program. The most recent grant is $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health for our newest game, Venom Squad.
Jessica: Many founders don’t know about these grants. They are given out by every agency of the federal government that does research. Each agency is mandated by Congress to put 3% of its budget aside for innovation grants. That is an enormous amount of money when you think of the massive budgets of the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Defense.
However, applying for these grants is a process, and I always try to give some solid recommendations to founders looking into this. First, when you’re writing your proposal, you want to be sure that you’ve conducted customer discovery by talking to a significant number of potential customers. Before we submitted our first grant, we interviewed 49 teachers, and based on their feedback we were able to show the need for what we were building. Second, you want to be sure you have strong letters of support, ideally from a customer, a distributor, or a potential investor. And third, if you’re making your first grant request, it is very helpful to have a strong collaborator. For our first grant, we partnered with the American Museum of Natural History, a well-known, venerable institution. That partnership gave us more legitimacy and produced our first tabletop game, Assassins of the Sea.
Q: Jessica mentioned that Bio Dive lets children who have never been to the ocean experience what it is like. Tell us about your mission to make science accessible to everyone.
Jessica: It’s important to us that our products are available to all teachers and students, regardless of geography and economics. That’s why we price our products very affordably. Also, you don’t need a fancy headset to use our games. Our games work with Google cardboard headsets, and the virtual reality also works with any browser on a computer or tablet.
Mandë: We all benefit when STEM is an all-inclusive enterprise. The thing that drives science is our questions, and if the people asking the questions are all the same, we won’t get very far. What makes the engine of science work well is when you have diverse representation. Science can be for everyone. I like to say that science is one of the cheapest careers. Just like soccer is the cheapest sport – all you need is a ball. With science all you need is a brain, and fortunately we’re all born with one.
Q: Killer Snails was innovating in the metaverse before most of us had heard that term. What’s next for Killer Snails?
Jessica: We are going to continue in this space. However, the research regarding how children under 12 respond to VR is still early stage. So, we have switched to augmented reality for our products for younger students, and we are about to start working on our first collaborative augmented reality experience. This is where we want to continue to grow, to make sure that immersive learning is happening in classrooms and is engaging students in a way that feels accessible.
Mandë: During the pandemic when so many students had to rely on digital or virtual learning, educators realized that they didn’t have the tools they needed. There’s a big learning curve still to be met by tech creators and innovators. We accept the challenge to meet that need with fidelity to what teachers can do in the classroom and with excitement for what students can experience when they walk into a lab. We want to channel the wonder and curiosity of our teachers and students in a virtual space in immersive ways.
Learn more about Killer Snails here.
Learn about SBIR grants at SBIR.gov
Learn more about Mandë’s work in her lab: Mandë Holford: Could Snail Venom Someday Save Your Life? | New Hampshire Public Radio (nhpr.org)