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AI Edtech Entrepreneur’s Journey from Neuroscience to Toys

Dr. Dhonam Pemba is  the CEO and Co-Founder of KidX, he is a neural engineer by education, a former rocket scientist by work, and AI entrepeneur by entrepeneurship.

He received his Biomedical Engineering undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, and hi  PhD from the University of California, Irvine also in BME, but worked on neural interface for his thesis.

Can you me about the NASA JPL project and how it was related to your PhD work?

My PhD work was building micro implantable neural implants. Very similar to the work that Elon Musks’s company Neuralink is now doing. We had to produce very tiny electrodes that that could read the electrical activity of neuronal cells without causing damage.

You can think of the electrodes as very tiny cone shaped needles. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was investigating micropropulsion, and needed small thrusters that were low in mass and efficient. The neural electrode design worked perfect for these thrusters, instead of reading neuronal signals the needles were modified to act as electrospray thruster of indium propellant.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I have always been entrepreneurial in nature and my first venture backed company was Kadho. It was started in December of 2013. The idea for that company was to plan the multilingual seed for language acquisition. I was on a trip to China in 2007, and had a hard time speaking basic Chinese and tried to understand why. I met with Noam Chomsky and the late Virginia Mann to talk about language acquisition and came to conclusion that if you don’t get the sounds and practice of foreign languages before the age of 5, it will be harder to learn them as an adult. So we created Kadho, launched 12 apps on the iTunes and Google Play store, some were in the top 5 on the charts in multiple countries.

What happened to that company and what happened next?

Kadho pivoted in 2017 during the AI boom. There were many companies adopting AI, and we had experience working with children’s products and understood the market need for better speech recognition software that worked offline. This is why we built kidsense.ai, which was later acquired by Roybi Inc.

While at Kadho, we were approached by USA volleyball to see if we could do anything for them as we were combing neuroscience with games for children. So we found an another opportunity to use  brain science in other fields, and in this case sports. We built cognitive training for athletes and a spin off called Kadho Sports was created. It was a separate company, and our chief creative officer from Kadho left to be the CEO of that. We used interactive video to train perceptual learning in athletes. One of the first companies to actually use interactive video in mobile app. We had clients in NCAA, MLB, NBA, Olympics and many more.

I was involved in building the core technology for Kadho Sports, but hands off on day to day, and Kadho had been closed down after the acquisition of Kidsense.ai. I was in China, as well and that’s where the idea for forming KidX, my current company came out.

What is the goal of KidX?

The X in KidX means interaction. The idea is to be the next generation kid interaction platform. From my experiences with my two previous startups I realized interactive video is a very useful method because content creation barrier is lower and it feels more immersive. I realized hardware interaction for children is important, both for parent and child satisfaction from less screen and swiping, but also in a cognitive developmentally appropriate angle. KidX is AI powered interactive video and hardware

My other co-founder is Jim Miao. He is experienced in business, software and hardware management and him being a dad with a child using all the different online apps also realized the importance of combing offline and online.

I believe children interaction is limited through screen and VR. Elon musk is creating Neuralink to improve the bandwidth for interfacing with technology which is currently limited by keypads and touchscreens. This is great for a developed adult brain, but for children, during critical periods of brain development, I believe it is crucial that interaction with technology mimic real world experiences. This is why KidX was created, to be the next generation kid interaction, merging offline and online. We want to create a hardware and software product that allows the best of both worlds.

What did you learn from your startup experiences that helped with your current company?

I learned focus is critical factor for success, in Kadho we tried to do too many things at the same time, launch in China, USA, build apps, build robots, do SaaS, do sports training. You start a company for a purpose and vision, and although other opportunities come along, they need to be valuated otherwise it is a distraction. By doing so many projects from apps, to hardware to content to services to interactive video, it gave me a lot of skills for my new startup. I also learned a lot about children and parents needs and wants for products. I learned that parents will always want an offline experience for their young children, they understand online is useful but have instinctive feeling that swiping the screen is missing something for their child’s development. I learned there is a big divide between game developers and educators.

Game developing companies have the resources to make games, and some do hire educators to help with content, but it isn’t the same as the teacher creating the content themselves. Educators have some roadblocks to create digital games due to art and programming needs. Youtube and video streaming platforms have allowed teachers to create content in a natural way, however these lack the physical interaction. All these learning points and experiences have made choose the path I am taking on this current venture.

Our company allows children to play with toys in the real world and interact with videos on the screen. Imagine children could play with the same toys as Ryan Kaji does on youtube, and his videos change based on how you play with your toys. We have an online platform for content makers to create interactive videos, hardware platform for sensing interactive toys, and software platform creating interaction between the videos and hardware. Initially, our toys launch with our own developed content that targets 3 to 6 years old’s using Montessori math and science based brain and logic training.

How can we try KidX?

We are launching our product through Kickstarter this summer and then through Amazon and our website. The best way to stay tuned for updates is through our website https://www.playkidx.com

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