By Steven Zeng, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 19, 2013
A group of University students and an alum have developed a unique way to combat social problems. FriendsLearn, a startup company based in Silicon Valley aims to use a game to educate people on global issues.
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Friendslearn was founded by Bhargav Sri Prakash, an engineer who earned his master’s degree in automotive engineering from the University in 2000. Engineering juniors Andy Lee and Josh Kim joined the company after encountering Prakash at the University's 2011 Startup Weekend. Lee and Kim now serve as the director of technology and creative director of FriendsLearn, respectively.
“We went there with our own idea, but our pitch was declined … and Bhargav pitched his idea and said he was going to merge games with education, and we thought ‘Wow, what a great idea.’” Lee said.
After hearing Prakash’s pitch, Lee and Kim came up with the concept of Fooya that weekend. Fooya, a third-person shooter game in which the players use food as weapons, aims to educate players on obesity and the global-health crisis.
“At (MPowered) startup weekend, we had two topics in our head: education and gaming. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we combine something that we all like?’ For example, food and gaming, how can we possibly put them together and make it fun, and people can play it and get something out of it?” Kim said.
The pair found a way to connect the areas of interest, and their pitch for Fooya earned third place at Startup Weekend 2011.
“After the competition, Bhargav called us again a couple of months later and asked us if we wanted to finish what we had started,” Lee said. “From there, we decided to join FriendsLearn.”
Lee believes that gaming as education is a part of the growing trend of technology in the classroom and can be an effective solution to many global issues today.
“A lot of companies are moving towards ‘gamification’… and with this technology today, learning really becomes accessible and tangible at hand, even from remote places.” Lee said.
As of now, Fooya is in its prototype, single-player version. However, FriendsLearn has started a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of expanding Fooya to a multiplayer platform, called “Fooya with Friends.” If they can garner $50,000 by March 21, the project can move forward.
Though they have had success, Kim and Lee voiced concerns about the spirit of entrepreneurship at the University.
“We are indeed from Michigan, and we do appreciate the fact that entrepreneurship is becoming a big boom here,” Lee said. “At the same time, I feel like there aren’t enough resources available at hand for students to really get involved in. There is a really high entry bar to this entrepreneurship spirit here at Michigan.”
Kim noted that when he and Lee approached the Center for Entrepreneurship to spread their startup’s name, CFE didn't promote the group because FriendsLearn was not rooted in the state.
“They would only be strictly involved in student entrepreneurship or businesses sprang from Michigan, only if there was any stake for the University, because of the fact that it’s a public institution and it’s funded by tax dollars.” Kim said.
In the future, Lee and Kim hope to create more educational games that will make an impact.
“There’s a big gap between different backgrounds on understanding finance across the world,” Lee said. “We can leverage our financial knowledge and educate people about that.”
Lee said he believes that in order to effect meaningful change in the world, one has to take risks and harbor an enduring vision.
“At the end of the day, what really changes the world (are) your radical ideas —controversial ideas that people sometimes don’t have belief (in), but you just have to keep at it. I think persistence and tenacity is what really makes that.”