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.