Editor’s note: New in KC is an ongoing profile series that highlights newly relocated members of the Kansas City startup community, their reasons for a change of scenery, and what they’ve found so far in KC. This series is sponsored by C2FO, a Leawood-based, global financial services company. Click here to read more New in KC profiles.
Nikil Ragav’s journey to Kansas City was set in motion by a friend in his fantasy football league.
The founder of inventXYZ, Ragav’s east coast startup had earned the University of Pennsylvania’s 2020 President’s Innovation Prize, which included a $100,000 award plus $50,000 living stipend. After graduating from UPenn in August 2020, he focused on building inventXYZ and expanding its reach.
One day, Ragav’s fantasy football league friend sent him a tweet that piqued his interest: Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had announced his investment in the Ignition Lab at Operation Breakthrough through his Eighty-Seven & Running Foundation. Ignition Lab is a STEM learning space for high school students.
Click here to learn more about Kelce’s involvement with the Ignition Lab space.
“The vision is to give them a safe haven where they can continue to find role models, discover interests and develop skills once they age out of OB’s after-school program,” Kelce previously told Startland News. “Together with OB’s staff and supporters, we’ll create a co-working space where teens will have the support, resources and opportunity to explore careers in STEM, launch their own entrepreneurial ventures and gain real-world experience.”
After looking into the Ignition Lab plan and Operation Breakthrough, which provides educational and other services daily for more than 700 children from urban Kansas City, Ragav saw a strong fit with inventXYZ’s mission. He tweeted back at Kelce and Operation Breakthrough about working together.
“So that’s actually why I moved to Kansas City. That was the impetus,” Ragav said.
Click here to read more about Ragav and inventXYZ’s selection for funding from Digital Sandbox KC.
Growing in KC
With that tweet, Ragav started a conversation with Operation Breakthrough and its CEO, Mary Esselman. They discussed the Ignition Lab’s curriculum and how inventXYZ could contribute to the programming and design process. They formed a partnership that brought Ragav and his two colleagues to Kansas City.
Nikil Ragav is founder of a startup called inventXYZ. In a nutshell, the company’s goal is to work with schools and school districts to expose all students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts and projects.
inventXYZ has several paths to meet its objective:
- InventCurriculum builds lesson plans for seventh through 12th grades that can be implemented as a teaching unit in each core subject — English, math, science and history — so that students complete multiple STEM projects per year that also meet the objectives of the course. For example, in history classes, students recreate an ancient civilization in virtual reality and build a game. To make the environment realistic, they have to learn the history and use traditional research methods.
- InventorSpace consults with schools and districts that want to integrate innovation spaces. inventXYZ counsels schools in the planning stages to understand what kinds of projects and technology will ensure the space gets used by all students throughout the day.
- InventFuture is a one-day, professional development workshop for educators that showcases the need for adding future-proof skills such as coding into all subjects and how to do so.
Click here to learn more about inventXYZ.
Ragav, who grew up in the Houston area, moved to KC in August 2021. One team member, Joseph Wheeler, had already planned to relocate to Kansas City to be closer to his wife’s family. They were able to talk their third teammate, Annette Guo, into joining them to capitalize on the opportunity with Operation Breakthrough.
Now, Wheeler and Guo work onsite at the Midtown-based nonprofit, building programming for the Ignition Lab.
The possibility of opening students’ horizons to new ideas and careers through Ignition Lab excites Ragav. He said he was surprised at how many students he met at Operation Breakthrough who said they wanted to be hairstylists. Through STEM programming, they are exposed to a broad range of career paths, such as app developer, product designer, web designer and more, while they build the skills needed to do those jobs.
“If we can get the projects to be really engaging and empowering for those kids, you can make sure it works for every kid. And that’s actually really relatable and empowering,” he said.
That points to a core concept at the heart of inventXYZ’s mission — exposing all students to STEM concepts and careers, not just those who opt in to a coding elective or robotics team, Ragav said. He’s seen the model work through other local partnerships, including with Blue Springs and Piper school districts and Hogan Charter School.
At a Blue Springs high school, Ragav was helping to facilitate a lesson in a math class. When the bell rang, the class collectively groaned. The teacher told him that had never happened in her six years of teaching there — students were usually ready to leave well before the end of class.
“I think that’s really exciting and impactful. If we can make some kids who, like, give up on math because they think it’s too hard or too irrelevant and they just don’t want to — if you can make them love this kind of process and give real-world context, I mean, that can be life-changing,” he said.
Ragav is actively working to expand inventXYZ’s reach in the KC metro. He’s currently meeting with area school districts with the goal of building partnerships for the 2022-23 school year. To help the company grow, he said he’s looking to hire a CTO/data engineer and a salesperson with K-12 experience.
He’s also in the planning phase of a collaboration with Fishtech Group that aims to develop an artificial intelligence project for students using the company’s data. The goal is to develop a standardized project that can be repeated at high schools throughout the metro, giving students access to real-world data and use cases. The benefits go both ways: Fishtech can receive the students’ insights without having to manage an internship program, and far more students will be able to partake in the project.
Click here to learn more about Fishtech Group’s recent merger announcement.
So far, Ragav said, the people he’s met in Kansas City have been helpful in getting him plugged into the education and startup spheres. Esselman at Operation Breakthrough, Martha McCabe with the KC STEM Alliance, and Laura Evans and Donna McDaniel at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation all have been instrumental in helping him get connected, he said. However, as he pursues raising a seed round, he’s working to get better acquainted with the local venture capital scene, he said.
KC impressions and faves
Ragav so far is enjoying Kansas City, he said. Living downtown, he’s become a fan of Sequence climbing gym, Cupini’s Italian restaurant and the Riverfront Heritage Trail. One surprise after living in Philadelphia: how quiet Downtown KC is, he said.
He’s found community through meetups and other Venture for America fellows, though he said he’d like to connect with the Indian community — and the food.
“I definitely would love some suggestions for great Indian places,” he said.