Versame is Creating the Fitbit for Early Childhood Development

Versame’s founding team, Jon Boggiano, Nicki Boyd, and Chris Boggiano, is encouraging parents to engage newborn children more frequently by harnessing data-driven, early childhood developmental opportunities through their product – the Starling.
Chris and Jon Boggiano learned a lot about education through founding and selling their first company – “It was a training business for adults that taught things like solar installation, energy auditing, and LEED Green Building Standard”, mentions Chris Boggiano.

“In that business, we taught a lot of white collar folks like architects and engineers and a lot of blue collar folks.”

“[For] the people on the bottom it was really challenging because you can’t teach them solar installation if they can’t add two numbers. There’s this big chunk of society that is really hard to retrain and they’re the ones in the most need because they lack those fundamental skills.”

After selling, the Boggiano brothers went to graduate school at Stanford as Sloan Fellows, met their classmate – and now partner — Nicki Boyd, and continued to explore ways in which technology can improve education.

The group initially focused on ways to educate adults but quickly found themselves needing to help people earlier in life.

They then started to interview high school teachers who in turn implied the same sentiment – help is needed earlier.

The trio then worked their way back to the kindergarten and first-grade levels of education. While studying this age-group they discovered an Infant Studies researcher at Stanford, and after connecting with the researcher the team shifted focus towards early-stage childhood development.

“90% of brain development happens before a child sets foot in kindergarten. The thing that determines your trajectory during that critical window of the first few years of life is how much parents engage with their kids and specifically how much they talk to their kids.”

“So then how do we get parents to talk more to their kids?” The founders then had the idea to create the ‘Fitbit for words’ – the Starling.

The product itself is pretty simple. It’s a white plastic star that clips to a child’s onesie, bib, or shirt, and tracks the number of words spoken to the baby throughout the day.

Through the app, parents can wirelessly connect to the Starling to set daily, trackable word-count goals. For the times when parents’ creative juices aren’t flowing, the app will send prompts – how did you meet your spouse – to elicit longer conversations with your baby. Over several uses, trends may appear and parents can identify opportunities to engage their child more.

One thing the Starling doesn’t do – record. For privacy reasons the Starling doesn’t have any recording functionality – and besides, who wants all their conversations saved anyways?

It’s all about consistent engagement. You get home from work, you’re tired, and talking to a baby can easily take a backseat to other distractions. “Talk is free – you can do it without any special training and while you’re doing other things – and the lion’s share of parents don’t do it.”

“It’s this whole idea of building a game that encourages and reminds parents to engage with their kids. They’re rewarded for choosing to talk to their child now rather than doing something that is seemingly important” – like checking your texts or browsing Facebook.

“The Starling is an attempt to use technology to pull parents towards their kids. The device itself isn’t what makes a child smarter – it’s the parents who are doing it. It’s meant to be the nudge that facilitates that positive behavior.”

The Versame team isn’t only focused on the consumer market, but also the enterprise community.

“On the organizational side, we’re working with libraries, speech therapists, pediatricians, nonprofits, and even official state programs.”

This week, the team is launching a pilot with Reach Out & Read of the Carolinas. “The plan is to have pediatricians give Starlings to low-income patients during [wellness] visits along with the books they already give out.” If successful, the Starling will go out to more sites in North and South Carolina.

According to Chris Boggiano, “the big aspiration is to have a societal mindset shift.” Versame is out to help change the public consciousness to think of education as “learning starts at birth.”

“Parents are fully equipped to be their child’s first teacher simply by spending quality time engaging, making eye contact, laughing, and playing – the fun parts of parenting also happen to be the best parts for a child’s development.”