Just last week, the XPRIZE Foundation announced that AmritaCREATE, a team from Kerala-based Amrita University, finished as one of the top four in its Adult Learning XPRIZE. Winning $125,000 dollars for an app that teaches adults how to read and write English, and aimed at the US market.
At the same time, the foundation’s Global Learning XPRIZE—also focused on basic literacy, but for children—is set to conclude in the coming months. Up for grabs is $10 million, courtesy Tesla founder Elon Musk. And another Indian team—Chimple Learning, founded by Bengaluru-based IT veteran Srikanth Talapadi—is among the five finalists (each of whom, by the way, have already received a $1 million “milestone” award in 2017).
Depending on how you see it, it’s either natural or ironic that two teams from India—which has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world, close to 300 million—are leading races to develop apps and software that can help teach people to read and write.
For the uninitiated, XPRIZE is a non-profit launched by American serial entrepreneur and engineer Peter Diamandis that runs global competitions to develop technological solutions to intractable problems. From moon landings to AI to mapping the ocean floor. And for the past five years or so, literacy.
With both the Adult Literacy and the Global Learning prizes, the goal is to develop applications that an adult or a child, respectively, can use to learn how to read and write on their own. No intervention from any sort of instructor, or caretaker for children.
The million-dollar question (or 10-million-dollar question, as the case may be) is, can an app really solve a problem as big as illiteracy? And if yes, if the likes of AmritaCREATE and Chimple really have hit upon a digital solution, can they bring it to India’s notoriously fragmented education system?
All work and no play…
“We don’t really believe in videos,” says Talapadi, whose non-profit company Sutara Learning Foundation developed Chimple (“simple” plus “chimp”, their logo).
“It’s exciting to watch videos for some time, but after that, it doesn’t really stimulate the minds of children. So our software is completely gamified and interactive,” he says over the phone. From playing with alphabets to figuring out connections between words to counting fish.
Talapadi, who has for 15 years now run an IT outsourcing firm called Amiti Software Technologies Pvt. Ltd along with his wife Anupama Kolamala, first heard of the Global Learning XPRIZE back in 2015, a year after it was launched. It was a big, hairy goal, and he thought he could do something about it.
And so, he started Sutara (initially called Zoolore) and put together a 12-member team (now expanded to 16) to develop what the Global Learning XPRIZE wanted.