WSL Is Featured In theMarker's EdTech Special

TheMarker, Israel's premier daily business newspaper, published an interview with Weird Science Lab's Chairman Gary Pickholz for their special Edtech supplement. Click here for a PDF of the shortened article or read the full interview below.

The most talked about educational technology is without doubt Virtual Reality (VR). Far from a futuristic pipe dream, VR technologies are already showing up in classrooms around the world, albeit slowly and selectively. Meanwhile, tech giants including Google, Samsung and Facebook’s Oculus continue to invest billions of dollars in further developing education applications for VR technology, while niche VR firms focusing on education are popping up worldwide.

One such firm is Weird Science Lab (WSL) a University of Oxford Edutech company which opened its Tel Aviv office in 2015. WSL’s mandate is to free the 21st-century intellectual property of Oxford University from the 15th-century shackles of the Gutenberg printing press. Its first project in expressing this mandate is to adapt advanced virtual reality technology to revolutionize Oxford’s traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum for secondary and higher education in both the developed and emerging regions. To achieve this, WLS partners with businesses, educational institutions and other stakeholders to adapt existing commercial VR technologies to the educational needs of today’s students.

HaAretz's the Marker met with WSL’s chairman Gary Pickholz to discuss WSL’s mission and the worldwide potential of VR in STEM.

Joel Tzafrir: WSL actually delayed its launch, which is quite rare for any entrepreneurial endeavour. Can you tell us why?
Gary Pickholz:
We launched in 2015, and one of the first awards we received was to be selected as one of three companies to work in a cohort with the UK Design Council. That was an astounding experience, coming into close collaboration with some of the greatest firms and visionaries the UK possess in both design and product placement. To our surprise, the emerging consensus was that we could be the last firm employing technology about to be eclipsed and forgotten, or wait about a year to be one of the first firms employing the next generation of technology. We had the luxury of only one seed funder, Oxford University itself, and therefore had the capacity to make the right decision and "circle above Heathrow Airport" for a full year awaiting new technologies that could be incorporated and implemented. From an end perspective, it was brilliant. So many of our technologies did not exist even a year ago, but we recognize it was a unique strategic luxury not available to most start-ups, or even adolescent companies.

Joel Tzafrir: Can you give us an example?
Gary Pickholz:
VR has gone through radical transformation and at least two technological
generations since 2015. In retrospect, the IP we would have been working with in 2015 looks prehistoric today. Holograms had no viable commercial product at all two years ago, now I routinely pop up in miniature life form on corporate conference tables across the planet like Yoda in Star Wars. Most important from a STEM perspective, however, has been the dramatic improvement in nonvisual VR, which was only a dream two years ago. When we commenced, our first partnerships were with the space program, whose European simulator is actually at Oxford. We discovered that their sense of virtual touch was surprisingly poor relative to our expectations, because they are preoccupied with not blowing a hole in a spacesuit in outer space. One of our Directors in Palo Alto, however, a very creative and senior VC, then contacted both the California pornography industry as well as the simulated games industry. Turns out they are at the vanguard of multisensory virtual experience, particularly touch and pressure, and have devoted vast sums of R&D to take the virtual experience far beyond the mere visual. For example, as of next year the touch technology of our surgeon students will be as delicate and precise as to mimic true human touch and pressure, in lightweight gloves they won't even feel and are readily discernable.

Joel Tzafrir: WSL is headquartered at Oxford and has facilities at Harvard. Why did you decide to open an additional office in Israel?
Gary Pickholz:
Far too many entrepreneurs, particularly in distant lands like Israel or Chile are preoccupied with proving their engineering expertise rather than developing a viable global product. Between Harvard and Oxford, we have access to some reasonably intelligent minds. We prefer to focus on developing the end product, and incorporating the best the world has to offer within that product. We have little incentive to recreate the wheel. We are particularly gratified at our ability to incorporate some marvellous Israeli technology, which was the purpose of opening our Tel Aviv office across from the new Technion campus. Hopefully the Tel Aviv office will grow and compliment the offices at Oxford and Harvard.

Joel Tzafrir: Was there any BDS pushback for opening an office in Tel Aviv?
Gary Pickholz:
Yes, it was brutal. However, I am pleased to stay we weathered through it and did not steer off course. Our office is in fact the first affiliate office of any global top ten university in Israel. I hope our Tel Aviv office can contribute collaborations and R&D to further strengthen the relationships between British and Israeli tech companies.

Joel Tzafrir: What have you found unique about Edutech versus other markets?                       
Gary Pickholz:
Edutech is a world apart from almost any other market of entrepreneurship or technology. We see many VCs and entrepreneurs come into Edutech from other markets, try to graft a previously successful strategy onto Edutech, and fail. First, Edutech is a particularly poor soil for planting stand alone apps to be sold to mothers or students for $50 at Christmas. That works in many other markets, but has a dreadfully poor track record in Edutech, no matter how ingenious your game to teach maths or English may be. Second, if one is seeking the mainstream larger education and scholastic markets, very few schools or even school districts are willing to take responsibility for incorporating new technologies into the curriculum. They are not expert, they do not want the responsibility, and they vastly prefer reassuring an inquiring parent that they employ the Oxford or Columbia curriculum in their school, and then accept whatever the experts at the given academic publisher have decided should be the lesson plan or laboratory experiment for Week 9 of the academic term. We have seen attempts to graft some brilliant Edutech technologies, and games, in particular into existing packaged curriculum. We know of no successful case long term.

Joel Tzafrir: That also makes for a very interesting pricing model and profitability skew, if I comprehend.
Gary Pickholz: Indeed, you are perceptive and correct. Yes, it means that our products are embedded into the larger curriculum purchased for a given course. We are neither asked, nor disclose a stand alone cost for either our product or equipment that comes with it. It is opaque and incorporated into the larger "12th grade Honours Chemistry" or "University third year physics" curriculum product sold.

Joel Tzafrir: Why is WSL focusing on STEM education?
Gary Pickholz:
We started in STEM, having argued that if Sir Isaac Newton arose from the dead and returned to his laboratory at Oxford there were almost no experiments in the current curriculum that would not be perfectly familiar to him. We therefore embarked on developing capabilities for experiments in zero gravity, zero oxygen, or altering time to permit experiments that should take years to be completed in 14 week academic terms. Furthermore, the resource-intensive STEM subjects are often the most expensive courses for colleges and universities to produce. In most cases, the tuition fee alone is not enough to cover the costs of the delivery of the program, particularly when you take into account that there is a limit on the cohort size due to health and safety legislation and/or the limited availability of space and equipment in laboratories. VR can negate this issue completely.

Joel Tzafrir: What are you currently working on?
Gary Pickholz:
Our first project focuses on technologies that permit new medical surgeon students the ability to practice and perform operations on living, pumping, bleeding hearts and brains via VR, rather than learn on cadavers. The new technology is not only far more realistic, but dramatically increases the number of "reps" and practices a student performs relative to prior generations of surgeons. Our secondary initial focus has been on dramatically improving the science laboratory and text curriculum for secondary school students. It is arguably less important that the Honours students can now perform experiments they never dreamed imaginable, and more important that significantly more students for whom STEM concepts were previously both quite difficult and quite boring now comprehend and "get it" via the lessons and experiments that could not have been offered technologically even last year. Oxford has, arguably, the largest secondary school clientele in the world for its curriculum so the potential is huge.

Joel Tzafrir: Are there plans to bring Oxford’s VR enhanced STEM curriculum to the emerging markets?
Gary Pickholz: Absolutely. While we were focused on pushing the Edutech envelope to new
advancements and heights in our original mandate, we accidentally fell upon an entirely different, and arguably antipodal, mandate that may prove even more important long term to global education, as well as more profitable to our shareholders. As distinct from the social sciences, STEM is notoriously monopolized by only 16 nations. For a significant part of the emerging world, a simple classroom with a blackboard is within budget, but serious science laboratories are beyond the capabilities of almost all secondary schools and universities. Additionally, many experiments falter and fail in different climates. We stumbled upon the fact that via VR, Holograms and similar technologies we could transport an entire Oxford lab to a roomful of students in a barren classroom in Cambodia or Nigeria, at more than 65% less than the cost per pupil of actually building them a lab. This has radically altered Edutech for most of the world, and promises to open Oxford and its curriculum to literally millions of new students in the emerging markets.

Joel Tzafrir: How will WSL overcome the practical barriers to the adoption of technology in the emerging regions?
Gary Pickholz: This new project is being spearheaded by one our Rhodes Scholars, a native of Zambia who already held two Masters in Computer Technologies from Oxford prior to his Rhodes, and a very sharp new Princeton graduate on the American side of the pond. They will be working not only with the major VR/AR/Holograms software firms and suppliers, but with major supranationals such as the World Bank as well as the Ministries of Education in various emerging markets to bring this ambitious project to fruition.

Joel Tzafrir: So in short, WSL’s target audience can be split in two: Major universities, publishing houses and technology providers on the one hand and supranationals and Ministries of Education on the other.
Gary Pickholz: Indeed. Jeffrey Immelt, when he chaired General Electric, used to note that he actually chaired two very different firms: one that sought to push the technological envelope in its development of NASA rocket and passenger jet engines, and one that focused on the far more simplistic technologies of toasters and refrigerators, but on a mass scale worldwide. Each were equally important to the company. I find myself in a very similar situation today, with one group pushing the technology envelope at Oxford, and one group focusing on dramatically reducing STEM education costs for basic secondary school and university curriculum in the emerging world. Both are vital, and both will reap both dramatic benefit to clients, and significant profits to shareholders, for many years to come.

Weird Science Lab Appoints New Director, Global Innovation

We are excited to announce Kabeleka A.D. Kabeleka has joined our firm as a Director - Global Innovation to further strengthen our ability to open Virtual Reality (VR) STEM labs in the emerging regions.

Kabeleka comes with a wealth of experience, having studied Computer Science at the highest level and developing E-learning initiatives for schools in his home country Zambia. As a Rhodes Scholar, he received two Masters from Oxford: one in Computer Science by Oxford Brookes and one in Social Science of the Internet by Oxford University. Kabeleka was also the chief programmer in the IEEE funded Digital Learning Units project which focused on the development of an E-Learning program to assist the pupils of Mitanto high school in Zambia in their studies.

Chairman Gary Pickholz said: “Through VR and similar technologies, we can transport an entire Oxford lab to a roomful of students in a barren classroom in Cambodia or Nigeria, at more than 65% less than the cost per pupil of actually building them a lab. We view Kabeleka’s appointment as a sign of our commitment to bring the Oxford’s University Press STEM curriculum to the emerging regions. I’m confident that Kabeleka will play a key role in bringing our ambitious project to fruition.”

In his new role, Kabeleka will be working closely with supranationals, Ministries of Education, and major technology firms in the emerging regions to help schools overcome the practical barriers to the adoption of VR labs.

 Click here to download the press release. 

WSL Wants To Bring 'Girls Who Code' To The UK

Tech jobs are among the fastest-growing -- and most important -- in the world, yet girls are consistently being left behind. While interest in computer science ebbs over time, the biggest drop off happens between the ages of 13-17.

Source: Girls Who Code

Source: Girls Who Code

The American NGO Girls Who Code was founded in 2012 with the mission to close the gender gap in technology by inspiring, educating, and equipping high school girls with computing skills. Begun under the White House Science & Technology initiative, it is now the largest nonprofit initiative in the world dedicated to secondary school girl students’ technical skills, with over 150 chapters across the United States. The organization runs programs during the academic year teaching high school girls computing skills like programming, robotics, and web design with sessions including projects and trips to companies like Twitter and Facebook. Since its inception, 60 top companies have pledged to hire Girls Who Code alumni.

Companies hiring Girls Who Code Alumni

No comparable program exists in the United Kingdom, nor anywhere in Europe, today.

Weird Science Lab is currently assessing whether sufficient interest exists to open UK branches, not only in London but also at specific girls secondary schools, in collaboration with Girls Who Code USA. We are privileged to have one of the White House Science and Tech Policy for Girls staffers joining WSL’s effort, as coordinator of the UK program.

We want to know whether your school is interested in participating, and at a minimum inform your students of the new London-based activities.

Please contact Kelly.roegies@weirdsciencelab.com to confirm your interest or get in touch with your Oxford University Press representative. 

Weird Science Lab Speaks At The UK's First VR Conference Aimed At The Education Sector

We had the honour to present Weird Science Lab at the 'Virtual Reality: The Future Of Education?' conference, a unique virtual reality conference aimed purely at the education sector organised by the private girls' school Putney Highschool in London.

The conference brought together some of the UK's leading experts in Virtual and Augmented Reality including James Leonard from Google for Education, Hackaton expert Amandine Flachs, and Jeremy Dalton, the VR/AR lead at PwC UK. All attendants seemed to agree on one thing: while it will take some time before VR can be found in every classroom in the UK, the potential for VR in the classroom is huge!

WSL attends Putney VR Conference.png

Weird Science Lab attends BETT 2017

We had a great day at BETT 2017 (Europe's most important EdTech event) yesterday!

As expected, there was a strong focus on ‘game changing’ technology within the education sector including Virtual Reality but the overarching theme was the championing of creativity in STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). We see a leading role for VR in filling the digital skills gap with a STEAM approach and bridging the gap between education and industry.

Oxford University Innovation: EduTech startup Weird Science Lab brings science to life

Article by Oxford University Innovation (24 July 2014):

An Oxford-based EduTech startup, Weird Science Lab, announced it has joined the Isis Software Incubator programme, run by Oxford University’s technology transfer company Oxford University Innovation, which supports young software ventures in their developmental stage. Weird Science Lab is using gaming and virtual reality software to advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in middle and secondary schools.

Weird Science is adapting advanced virtual reality technology found in computer games to create interactive science experiments for students worldwide,' explained Director Gary Pickholz. 'This means lower costs per student compared to traditional science kits, and the ability to conduct a wide range of experiments beyond the capabilities of a school laboratory.

Weird Science’s first series, SpaceLab™, allows students to conduct experiments as if they were in space.

Originally devised through Bento Accelerator, Weird Science Lab is now joining the University of Oxford affiliated Isis Software Incubator. ‘We are delighted to partner with the Isis Software Incubator,’ stated Bento Accelerator Director Gabor Szecsi in San Francisco.

Contact us to learn more about how Weird Science Lab is using virtual reality and gaming software to advance STEM education, and how Oxford University Innovation is helping tech start-ups at the University of Oxford.

Jewish Business News: First Israeli EduTech Joins Oxford Incubator Even While Gaza War Is Raging

Article by Jewish Business News (24 July 2014):

First Israeli EduTech Joins Oxford Incubator Even While Gaza War Is Raging

"During the war no less!” boasted founder Gary Pickholz, currently with the Columbia Business School, following the the announcement of his startup, Israeli EduTech “Weird Science Lab,” joining the University of Oxford affiliated Isis Software Incubator program.

The Isis ventures support young software ventures in their developmental stage.

Weird Science Lab uses gaming and virtual reality software to advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in middle and secondary schools.

Weird Science is adapting advanced virtual reality technology found in computer games to create interactive science experiments for students worldwide,” explained Director Gary Pickholz.

Pickholz suggested this means “lower costs per student compared to traditional science kits, and the ability to conduct a wide range of experiments beyond the capabilities of a school laboratory.”

The British Embassy in Israel released the following statement: “The embassy was delighted to have helped pull this exciting deal together. It brings together one of the world’s most distinguished universities, and one of the world’s most exciting tech economies. Oxford’s technology subsidiary and Israel will prove a powerful combination.

Weird Science’s first series, SpaceLab™, allows students to conduct experiments as if they were in space.

Originally devised through Bento Accelerator, Weird Science Lab is now joining the University of Oxford affiliated Isis Software Incubator. “We are delighted to partner with the Isis Software Incubator,” stated Bento Accelerator Director Gabor Szecsi in San Francisco.

Based at the offices of Isis Innovation, the Isis Software Incubator is a key part the University of Oxford’s entrepreneurial infrastructure, supporting young software ventures in the development of products or services before they receive investment. The incubator has been operating since late 2010, and has taken in 29 ventures with 6 graduating from the program.

Click here to read the article on Jewish Business News.

 

University of Oxford Press Release

EduTech startup Weird Science Lab brings science to life

An Oxford-based EduTech startup, Weird Science Lab, announced it has joined the Isis Software Incubator programme, run by Oxford University’s technology transfer company Oxford University Innovation, which supports young software ventures in their developmental stage. Weird Science Lab is using gaming and virtual reality software to advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in middle and secondary schools.

Weird Science is adapting advanced virtual reality technology found in computer games to create interactive science experiments for students worldwide,' explained Director Gary Pickholz.

This means lower costs per student compared to traditional science kits, and the ability to conduct a wide range of experiments beyond the capabilities of a school laboratory.

Weird Science’s first series, SpaceLab™, allows students to conduct experiments as if they were in space.

Originally devised through Bento Accelerator, Weird Science Lab is now joining the University of Oxford affiliated Isis Software Incubator.

‘We are delighted to partner with the Isis Software Incubator’

stated Bento Accelerator Director Gabor Szecsi in San Francisco.

Contact us to learn more about how Weird Science Lab is using virtual reality and gaming software to advance STEM education, and how Oxford University Innovation is helping tech start-ups at the University of Oxford.

Design Council supports three new digital start-ups from Oxford's Startup Incubator including WSL

Article by Design Council (30 September 2014):

We have started work with three new start-ups from the Startup Incubator at the University of Oxford’s research commercialisation company, Oxford University Innovation.

The three start-ups include a big-data analysis interface for businesses, a mobile app for university alumni and a virtual reality laboratory, giving students the ability to see what it would be like to work in adverse conditions such as zero gravity.

Our Services Manager Pauline Shakespeare said: “After the success of Dr Povey’s Flare Pan earlier in the year, we’re excited to welcome the next group of start-ups from Oxford’s stable, it will be interesting to explore how our design experience will help these specifically digital ventures.

The trio of start-ups begin their six-month consultation at the end of September. They include Weird Science Lab, an ‘education-tech’ start-up employing state of the art virtual reality and computerisation technology to bring science education to life;Singular Intelligence, developing a big-data analysis interface; and Alumnest, a mobile-technology solution for higher education institutions that helps them build stronger relationships with their alumni.

We recognise the ever-growing role good design plays in the software space and are delighted by the opportunity to collaborate with Design Council

- Roy Azoulay, Founding Manager, Startup Incubator

Through a mixture of workshops and direct support, the programme will teach the decision-makers of the three start-ups how design can play a key role in developing a vision and strategy for their businesses, developing appealing propositions to attract investment and new customers for products and services.

Roy Azoulay, who manages the Startup Incubator said: “We recognise the ever-growing role good design plays in the software space and are delighted by the opportunity to collaborate with Design Council to ensure our ventures implement this as a core part of their strategy.

Each start-up will receive coaching and guidance from Neil Gridley, our experienced Design Associate. Gridley said: “We are delighted to start work with three very promising start-ups. Working with Oxford University Innovation, the Design Council’s support will assist with their strategy, strengthen their commercial potential and speed up the commercialisation process. The projects are three very different offerings; I’m looking forward to getting started.”