UkrISTEI together with the newspaper “Svit” have already talked about startups whose designers set ambitious goals for themselves: to create an ultralight orbital rocket or a “superhero mask” (a device that will make a telephone conversation inaudible to those present). Today we want to talk about another team whose goal is also very important: to teach mathematics and physics to children of primary and secondary school age. And do it in such a way that interest in science remains for life.
Startup Boffin is one of the candidates for participation in Pitch Day (a brief presentation of ideas and projects) of the Ukrainian Startup Fund. The fund finances startups in the early stages of development. At the pre-seed stage, when the team is just developing a future product, the UFS provides funding in the amount of $25,000; at the seed stage, when the product has already entered the consumer market – $50,000. This is exactly the kind of grant that the team of the Boffin Mathematical Research Space expects to receive.
Boffin is a supplementary group activity platform for elementary and middle school children. The team started in November 2018 and did not stop working even on the most difficult days of February and March 2022.
The founder and CEO of the startup is Veronika Svistula, a teacher with ten years of experience. She began teaching mathematics in Lugansk while studying at the university. In 2014, when Russian troops entered the Donbas, Veronika moved to Kyiv. She immediately got a job as a mathematics teacher in one of the capital’s schools, then taught at the Interval mathematical school. At some point, I realized that it was time to open my own “school”.
“I was fantastically lucky with the team,” says the interlocutor. – In Kyiv, I made friends with students of the Faculty of Physics of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, we discussed and thought about how to make children treat mathematics and physics as an exciting adventure, and not as a boring lessons “under pressure”. So the idea of interesting lessons on the online platform was born. Our goal is to make sure that there are more people interested in science both in Ukraine and around the world. And so that even six-year-olds understand that mathematics is interesting and driving. That is why we called our platform Boffin, which means a cheerful explorer in British slang, who explores the world with interest and works for the benefit of people.
A group format was chosen for the work. We decided that this model is financially more profitable than individual lessons, in addition, it is interesting for children to work in a group. And the skills of teamwork for young researchers will definitely come in handy.
At the start of work, “Boffin” had a team of like-minded people and $15,000 (Angel investments and personal funds of the founder). However, the startup very quickly went “in plus” – the turnover for the 2020/2021 academic year amounted to more than one and a half million hryvnias.
Both children and parents liked the non-standard approach to business. Still: teachers present the material in an interesting way, help the student to master it independently and move on. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of 2022, the school had 150 students and teachers were teaching about 250 classes per month.
The big test for the team was the full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine on February 24 this year. We ask the teacher: was it profitable to work in the first days and months of the war? And how did you manage to save the team?
“In the first days of the war, thousands of people left their homes and went to other regions of Ukraine or abroad,” says Veronika. “Of course, many of our students also left. Not all families had the Internet and learning conditions, so the number of students decreased. But we still worked! The teachers decided that they would teach even if there was only one student left. Many lessons our teachers conducted from basements and shelters. Parents were grateful, because the scheduled classes helped the children maintain a sense of the “normality of the world” and the usual daily routine.
A month later, the number of students increased, and today there are more of them than before the war, and new ones are constantly being added. The groups include children who remain in Ukraine, and those who went abroad with their parents. And although teachers and students are often located in different countries (sometimes on different continents), there is time and energy for each child.
Today, the Boffin team consists of the founder, four employees and fifteen teachers. Many of the team members are students who work long hours and for whom this work is a good professional school and an opportunity to earn a living during difficult times.
In addition to the usual mathematics, astronomy and physics, Ukrainian is now taught at the school (both for parents and for children).
“Many people living abroad want to abandon the Russian language in communication and switch to Ukrainian,” says Veronika. “It is important for people to feel belonging to a nation that defends its independence.
In the summer, the startup team founded the Smart Ukraine social project. Teachers conducted free classes in mathematics and logic, which were held weekly in the format of live online broadcasts on YouTube (for three ages). After each lesson, students were given tasks to consolidate the material.
We ask Ms. Veronica: what is needed to increase the number of Ukrainian startups?
“We need more “live” programs to support small and medium-sized businesses that would help start their own business, provide financial assistance,” she replied. “And we really need educational, start-up programs integrated into the university course. Students need to be taught how to raise funds, promote an idea, attract business partners. Some institutions of higher education already teach this, but it is desirable that such VVO be increased.
We are also interested in: why, according to the entrepreneur, her startup became successful? And what advice would she give to her fellow startups?
“The answer to the first question is very simple: we create a product that changes people’s lives for the better,” the interlocutor grins. “In addition, we are solving the problem, because children need more than what the school curriculum offers. Another component of success is that we started the project when there were few such schools on the market and there was little competition. Therefore, Boffin was able to find and occupy its niche.
Veronika advises Ukrainian startuppers to start with the most important thing: creating a team. It is a team of like-minded people who have a common goal, values who are not afraid of work and do not need a “magic pendel” and guidelines that is the key to success.
“Besides, I advise you to postpone the advice of cool businessmen like “How to create a startup” until later,” she added. – We need to create and launch an MVP (minimum viable product) on the market as soon as possible and observe the reaction of customers. When you feel that there is a market demand, listen carefully to customers, improve the product and work-work-work…
Also, according to the founder of a startup, you should not choose an idea by popularity, you need to do what works best. Then no work will seem difficult, and obstacles insurmountable. And in short, you need to believe in yourself, see the goal, not see the obstacles!
Prepared by Svitlana GALATA and Iryna BALANCHUK
svit.kpi.ua (p. 8)