Internet start-up an early winner for SFU student and colleagues

Jul 12, 2012

The following article was published by The Vancouver Sun on July 11, 2012.

Penyo Pal

The Penyo Pal team, including student members and developers, are working on an app that teaches people to speak Mandarin. Jessica Fan, second from left in the front row, is an SFU student, The team is part of the Next36 business accelerator program that’s working with top students from across Canada to develop a new generation of Canadian entrepreneurs.

VANCOUVER — Last month it was Silicon Valley, next week it’s New York and after that – the world?

Penyo Pal, a mobile app project by a group of Canadian university students including Jessica Fan of Simon Fraser University, is one of the leading entries in a national program called The Next 36 that’s helping to develop the business skills of 36 ambitious young student-entrepreneurs.

In June the Penyo Pal quartet was one of eight start-ups from across North America, and the only one selected from The Next 36, invited to present its app — a mobile game teaching users to speak Mandarin — at a Microsoft event in the San Francisco Bay area technology hub. They were named best Phase 1 start-up at the event.

Next week Penyo Pal is one of four Next 36 teams invited to participate in an event sponsored by the Canadian Consulate in New York where early stage businesses from this country will connect with American investors and venture capitalists.

The Next 36 has a high-profile list of patrons including Canadian business giants Galen Weston, Jim Pattison and Paul Desmarais, and a board of directors that includes Rogers Communications president and CEO Nadir Mohamed. It was established in September 2010 as a mechanism for identifying top entrepreneurial talent among students at universities across the country and presenting them with opportunities and experiences intended to maximize their abilities — and raise their own expectations for themselves.

Thirty-six graduating university students and undergrads were selected for the program, and sorted into four-person teams whose members have individual skills in areas such as business studies or computer engineering.

It’s a novel twist on business accelerator programs such as Vancouver’s GrowLab which take a select group of high-tech start-up up companies, provide them with workspace and hands-on mentoring to speed their development. The Next 36 cohort trends younger and brings less real-world experience to the enterprise.

Fan is the only student from British Columbia although The Next 36 executive director and co-founder Claudia Hepburn said the program is hoping for more exposure in Western Canada, and more applications from B.C. students for positions in the 2012-2103 cohort.

The program this week began accepting applications for its fall 2013 program.

Fan’s group’s first project idea was a mobile phone for specifically designed for seniors, but they determined through market research that older consumers had no interest.

“Right now we’re creating a mobile game to teach kids, and kids at heart, languages,” Fan told The Vancouver Sun. “We’re using games to make it more of a fun and engaging experience to interest kids in learning languages, starting with Mandarin and eventually we want to expand into French and Spanish and other languages that are also popular.

“Our end goal is to have a full virtual world where a kid can customize their own little virtual pet. This pet is kind of their guide in this world. They can play games with it, take care of it, and at the same time they are picking up language skills through little mini-games.

“Right now we are testing out little games first to see what sticks, which ones have more traction, and eventually we want to integrate everything into a more robust environment.”

The project is “very personal” to Fan, who graduated from SFU in April with a joint major in business and ‘interaction designs’ — a relatively new field of study that explores ways of bridging the gap between people and technology.

In her quartet — which has been augmented by a cluster of developers as the project gains momentum -— she’s the chief creative officer. Fan has interviewed parents teachers and kids about the game to see which aspects of it are the most popular.

“My parents immigrated from China many years ago and it was very important to them that I maintained a cultural connection, and knew how to speak the language. So I was sent to Chinese [language] school for 12 years, for two hours every single Saturday.

“The methods they used were old school methods where I would memorize vocabulary, do very repetitive exercises. A lot of people would drop out and just never learn the language.

“Many people even now can’t speak to their grandparents. There is a big loss in that. We want to create a way for kids to be interested and be motivated, to continue learning Chinese or whatever other language their parents speak.”

As it turns out, all four members of the group graduated this spring and they worked so well together that they’ve decided to continue to work to build the company.

“I’ve been very, very lucky with the people who have come together in my group. We have a network [in Toronto] in terms of getting developers and designers on board full time once the program is over. There has been interest from investors, and down in Silicon Valley as well.”

The program’s final event takes place in mid-August.

“Our goal is to take top undergraduates — the most promising, driven, high achieving, innovative undergraduates at a really pivotal point in their lives — and give them an really extraordinary set of experiences and relationships that will change the trajectory of their careers,” executive director Claudia Hepburn said.

Last year’s cohort, the first-ever, raved about the program, Hepburn said.

“To an individual they said that this was the most transformative experience of their lives. A hundred per cent of them said that nine months in The Next 36 was as impactful or in most cases much more impactful than their four years of university and that they are all applying the lessons they’ve learned through The Next 36 – the networks, the connections, the life skills, and the raised aspirations they have for themselves to everything they are attacking.”

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