A Kansas City media company’s commitment to play-based research and development recently helped score Makefully Studios a $1 million government grant for a children’s problem-solving game.
“There’s no other word but proud and grateful,” said Anna Jordan-Douglass, founder and chief creative officer of Makefully Studios, which recently was awarded the funds from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (NSF SBIR) program.
The agency awards $200 million annually to startups and small businesses to encourage innovative products that can ultimately be sold commercially.
Editor’s note: Because the government grant is considered by Startland News as institutional funding, Makefully joins the list of companies detailed in the 2021 Kansas City VC-Backed Companies Report.
Through Makefully Studios, kids collaborate with media companies and join in the production process. Participants work with clients like PBS and the Jim Henson Company to build digital educational games and websites that are extensions of a TV show.
Click here to learn more about the process behind Makefully Studios.
Within the play-based research and development, children help to determine if products are engaging, fun and kid-friendly.
Makefully Studios won the grant for a multiplayer game that involves a series of puzzles kids have to work together to solve. The game teaches problem-solving and computational thinking — skills that are increasingly important in today’s digital environment, Jordan-Douglass said.
The game’s initial target audience is third to fifth grades.
“Kids don’t have a lot of opportunity to engage in multiplayer gameplay like they do in their free time in school settings,” Jordan-Douglass said. “So we were able to structure play in a way that was not only fun and engaging because it required collaboration, but we structured things to require kids to use each other and think and discuss things out loud and negotiate ideas.”
The $1 million announcement is the second phase of the grant. For the first phase, Makefully studios won $225,000 in 2019, with which they had to present an idea and prototype for the product. Since then, the company has been testing and researching the initial product.
Now in the second phase, they will be working to build the game into a commercial item. Jordan-Douglass said the ultimate goal is to sell the game to schools, but selling directly to the home isn’t off the table for them either.
“I think what we’ve seen as evidence for phase one is the amount of engagement and the delight kids experienced, and even comments like when they were play-testing of kids saying things like, ‘Oh, I want to play this with my friends at my slumber parties,’” Jordan-Douglass said.
Sally Williams — technical development and commercialization consultant at the Missouri Small Business Development Center (Missouri SBDC) at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) — has worked with several small businesses in Kansas City that have been awarded an SBIR grant. She was a key resource for Makefully Studios when it was going through the first phase of the grant.
Click here to learn more about Williams’ work with the Missouri SBDC.
To win the funds, a small business has to present an idea that is entirely new and will make a difference, Williams said. However, it’s not enough to present a good idea; there has to be a business plan in place to sell the product commercially.
“It’s highly competitive and it’s a very rigorous selection process,” Williams said.
Despite the odds, Makefully Studios was a perfect candidate for the grant because they presented an idea that was brand new, creative and targeted a needed audience, she said.
“Third to fifth grade is when you start losing kids,” Williams said. “It’s when they start checking out mentally. And this is where you want to engage them.”
Williams hopes to see more Kansas City-based small businesses receive this grant and that the SBDC can help them achieve that, she said.
“It’s the single largest grant source in the world and we aren’t getting our fair share in Kansas City,” she said.
As for Jordan-Douglass, she’s expecting some challenges in this next phase, but isn’t deterred.
“Achieving all the goals that we hope to achieve at the level that we want to achieve them will be challenging,” she said. “But we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.