Student Investors Endorse Their First Startup: A Gaming Company that Teaches Kids Social/Emotional Skills

Young girl playing video games

The recently created, student-run Hillside Venture Capital investment team has selected its first company to support–an educational-technology startup that strives to enhance social and emotional learning in children through a video-game app.

“We felt that this team had the experience and skills to manifest an innovative product,” said senior Melvin Andre, a Hillside managing director. “The product has been described as an interaction of Mario Party and the adventure-like story of Zelda, combined with content similar to Sesame Street. We felt that it was an opportune time to involve ourselves in the educational-tech space and collaborate with a team we truly believe in.”

The startup, called Evolved Play, includes leadership with strong experience in the gaming industry. CEO Kevin Caldwell is a former game developer at EA, Blizzard and Riot. Evolved Play’s first product launch is anticipated in about a year.

UConn’s Hillside VC invested $25,000 in the company.

New Program Expands Breadth of Financial Education

Hillside VC is a student run, early-stage venture fund supporting companies founded by UConn alumni or involved in sustainability, insurance technology, or educational technology. The students explored some 75 businesses before selecting their first startup investment.

Alumnus Noah Sobel-Pressman ’21, founding managing director, pursued and created the program, which began a year ago. Two dozen prominent alumni, who work in the venture capital business, created a $1 million fund for the student investors.

Hillside VC compliments the School’s Student Managed Fund, which allows students to manage portfolios and trade stock. Through Hillside VC, students evaluate a startup’s strength and its team’s knowledge, the appeal of the company’s ideas, the market competition and more. They receive mentorship and guidance from industry experts.

Senior Karolina Tarnacki, a managing director, said it was exciting to select Hillside’s first company to endorse, but also to find a team of students with shared interests and curiosity.

The student investors take a class together twice a week, and then meet a third time for updates, discussions and analysis. They’ve also had venture capital guest speakers visit to share their journeys and offer advice about how they evaluate prospective companies. UConn students also participated in a regional Venture Capital Investment Competition in February and took second-place.

“Initially, I didn’t know anything about ventures and decided it was interesting,” Tarnacki said. “I wanted to see how companies can grow and be successful and it has been an amazing experience to understand the many factors, in addition to financial success, that create early-stage business success. It is such an experiential learning opportunity, and I really enjoy that.”

Professor Greg Reilly, head of the management department, has worked extensively with the Hillside VC team.

“The students continue to exceed expectations. They really don’t seem like undergrads,” he said. “Their work ethic and the amount of research and analysis they’ve done is incredible. They’re organized and motivated, they take initiative and follow through. They ask the right questions and are thoughtful about taking guidance when they are uncertain. It is a remarkable group.”

The venture capital program is having a tremendous impact, not only on the student experience but by creating a network of donors and advisers.

“The network is complimenting the whole entrepreneurship ecosystem but focuses on the aspects we hadn’t explored before,” Reilly said. “It is an interesting industry because venture capitalists typically don’t compete with each other but have a very cooperative network. As an industry it is very open to new talent.”

Evolved Play Wants to Help Develop Smarter, Healthier, More Successful Kids

Evolved Play’s mission is to help families with their children’s social and emotional learning through the creation of a multiplayer, social adventure, role-playing game.

“We are looking at the holistic problem of childhood social and emotional development,” Caldwell said. “Our goal is to help parents raise smarter, healthier, and more successful children with enhanced self-perception, increased capability for relationship building, and improved problem-solving skills. During the early years of our product, we emphasize children’s development of an emotional vocabulary, their ability to identify and express emotions, and their ability to regulate their behavior.”

“Play is a key factor in children learning how to self-regulate, establish healthy relationships, and develop resiliency,” Caldwell said. “Unfortunately, more than 70% of U.S. children are not getting enough of it. We believe play, like social-emotional learning, starts and ends in the home within parent-child relationships.”

The Hillside investors weren’t afraid to ask tough questions, he said.

“Hillside gave our business, and our team, a thorough once-over, which made it incredibly validating when we received their endorsement,” Caldwell said. “We really appreciated their thoughtfulness, the extent of their inquiries, and could tell they were deeply engaged in understanding our business. It was also great to see Hillside bringing in potential academic collaborators from UConn to explore the additional value that they could bring to the table. That level of attention created a great space for our team to fully share our vision and relate our experience with the project so far.”

‘We Were Making Good Decisions’

“We were really impressed with their vision and confident that they could build a product that kids wanted to play and not feel like they were doing a chore,” said Ben Grosse, Hillside general partner. Although these social-emotional issues existed before the pandemic, the lockdown accelerated them, he said.

One of the things that impressed the team was Evolved Play’s dedication to provide the service for kids across the economic spectrum.

The quest to find a business to support was exciting, Grosse said. “It was really not at all stressful,” Grosse said. “We knew we were ready and that we were making good decisions. We spent lots of hours researching the team and the educational-gaming space and we were very confident. We had the evidence to back up our persuasions. It was our first time around the block, so we took our time in making a decision.”

Andre added that the analysts, faculty directors, and a supportive Investment Committee contributed to their success.

Grosse said he enjoyed talking with other investors and company founders, who were equally happy to help the students.

“We’re not just completing this investment, but weren’t looking to build this venture capital infrastructure down the road,” Grosse said. “We’re very proud of our team of investors and excited to see how the industry welcomed us with open arms. We’re really enthusiastic about the upcoming year and the strong pipeline we’ve built.”