Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Melissa Pickering, founder of I Create to Educate

Melissa Pickering, founder of

It’s a feel-good startup story. Melissa Pickering quit her Imagineering job at Disney to tackle math and science education. She took a university job, then left to start her company selling educational software. On April 9, British webcam company and long-time distribution partner Hue acquired iCreate to Educate – proof that great learning tools are also good business. The acquisition was made public last week.

Back in 2005, Disney hired Pickering into its show-ride design department right after she graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Tufts University. While working there was “an amazing experience,” Pickering noted few other women worked in the department and most were serving in administrative positions. Back at Tufts, she’d participated in a work-study program in Boston public schools helping kids build LEGO robots. That experience gave her an enduring interest in education initiatives that could lead more students, especially female ones, into STEM fields.

After two years in Los Angeles, Pickering returned to her alma mater. She relinquished her coveted “Imagineer” title to work at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, an institute dedicated to bettering engineering education for students in kindergarten through high school.

Leaving Disney was difficult, but the move wasn’t unprecedented. Pickering saw other engineers leave the Magic Kingdom, one to go to law school, another to become a teacher.

“There’s a feeling in our generation where if we’re not challenged we’re going to jump and do something else,” the 30-year-old Pickering said.

At the Tufts Center, Pickering saw a lot of grant-funded work on educational software development, but the grants would end and the graduate students would graduate, and so many good ideas were left unimplemented. After two and a half years at the Center, Pickering left in 2010 and founded iCreate to Educate to bring one of the Center’s projects, the SAM Animation software, to market.

SAM Animation is a simple stop-motion animation program that allows students to make videos with a webcam. Its features are limited to image capturing and basic editing. It is easy for both teachers and students as young as 5 to use, and students can concentrate on the content of their videos, instead of learning the bells and whistles of a complicated program.

“It’s not just popping bubbles or playing Angry Birds, they’re using technology but it also takes creative thought,” Pickering said.

kids4The software is supported by constructivist education theory. The idea is that students learn by doing: they’re better able to learn concepts when education incorporates interaction with the world around them. Creating something related to a topic helps cement knowledge. For example, the software is popular among science teachers who have students create videos that illustrate photosynthesis and the water cycle.

High School science teacher Kevin Murray of Fort Collins, Colorado uses SAM Animation with his ninth-grade biology students to explore botany topics. He observed that not only did making videos help students learn the subject, it also imbued them with a sense of pride about the cool videos they were making. “They want their work to be seen, which isn’t always true,” he said. “They wouldn’t want me to put their papers under a document camera.”

Deb Ramm, who teaches fourth grade in Johnston, Rhode Island, uses it for science and math lessons. “It’s really engaged the kids. They’re taking some of the things we do every day in the classroom and having more fun with them,” she said.

In 2011, Pickering was selected for the Kauffman Foundation incubator program, which helps education-minded entrepreneurs. iCreate also benefited from its association with Tufts, teachers in the northeast were familiar with the Center and its research-backed educational mandate.

In 2012, iCreate released the iPhone and iPad version of the software. Last year, Pickering moved to Austin and received an investment from education company Kaplan. Hue started distributing iCreate’s product in the UK back in 2011 and just recently bought out Kaplan. Pickering is pleased with the acquisition because Hue has a small product line that fits with her product. Also, she’s fielded a lot of interest from teachers and parents in Europe and the UK, so it’s good to have a partner based there.

Even today, Pickering says word of mouth among teachers is her best source of advertising. Some 60 percent of new users hear about the product from another teacher, she said. A school-wide software license runs $500-1,000 depending on the size of the school, a single computer license is $30 and the iPad/iPhone app is $4.99. About 100,000 users have downloaded the free (abbreviated) version, and 300 school licenses and 20,000 individual licenses have been issued.

Before acquisition, iCreate only ever had four team members. Presently, Pickering and an assistant are based out of the Center61 coworking space, but will likely move into a more permanent shared office sometime this summer. “It’s a huge relief,” Pickering said, “And it’s exciting that another entity sees enough value in what I’ve built in the last four years.”