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Innovation Economy

For Unruly Studios, the pandemic has been a real education

Bryanne Leeming and Tim O'Leary.  She is founder and CEO of Unruly Studios; he's dean of curriculum at Roxbury Prep High School in Hyde Park.
Bryanne Leeming and Tim O'Leary. She is founder and CEO of Unruly Studios; he's dean of curriculum at Roxbury Prep High School in Hyde Park.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Bryanne Leeming was building her first startup, and raising her first major round of funding, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts in March. Unruly Studios had nine employees, office space in Downtown Crossing, and a product that was actually finished and shipping to customers.

Unfortunately, it was a product intended to be used in schools — by teams of students learning together.

“Right after schools shut down, we stopped reaching out for new sales,” Leeming says. “The schools were in crisis.”

Unruly makes a system of durable electronic tiles called Splats that can be programmed to do things using a tablet or laptops. Students can create a physical version of the game “Memory,” requiring others to step on the tiles in a particular order; play “Whack-a-Mole” by stomping on tiles when they light up; or create their own dance games. The tiles can play sounds or light up in different colors — but students need to learn to write code before they’ll do anything. They’re widely used in the Somerville Public Schools, among other systems.

Like many other Bostonians in the white-collar workforce, Leeming, of Roxbury, spent spring and early summer quarantining at her home, trying to figure out what was next for her company and applying for a federal payroll loan to help her avoid layoffs. But she had the benefit of a spouse, Tim O’Leary, who was going through similar turmoil. He works as an administrator at Roxbury Prep, a charter school with about 650 students. He also found himself suddenly at home, meeting with colleagues on Zoom, trying to work out how to deliver laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students.

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As the spring semester was wrapping up, Leeming says, her team was primarily working to support existing customers, rather than trying to win new ones.

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“I was talking to Tim about what was going on for him and his colleagues,” she says. “Is now the right time for us to reach out to schools?” Unruly eventually began to field surveys and conduct interviews with about 200 educators and principals around the country to “understand what they were going through, and what their challenges were,” she says.

As the startup saw that schools were creating scenarios in which students might be learning at home, in school buildings, or with a hybrid approach, the company began to create online guides for using its product in those ways.

And since many students couldn’t be in classrooms working with the actual Splats tiles, Unruly made it possible for them to write code that would make digital Splats on their screens behave just like a “real” tile would. There were also lesson plans that involve writing code at home, and using the Splats on days when a student is in a physical school space. The product became more collaborative, too, so that two students learning at home could work on a program together.

“I was also learning from Tim and what his colleagues at Roxbury Prep were going through,” Leeming says. “We leaned in to social and emotional learning, and put out a pack of lessons intended to build class culture, better communication, and team-building.”

While Leeming was overseeing a shift in Unruly’s product development, she was also navigating the uncharted waters of raising money without meeting investors in person.

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“We did an online event where 10 founders gave their pitch,” she says, but “it was tough. It was so different from networking in real life.” Still, she managed to reel in several new investors, raising almost $2 million. The company also hired two new employees, bringing the total to 11.

“So much is changing on the education front, and I think Unruly is in a good place to take advantage of the crazy shifts,” says David Chang, an entrepreneur and angel investor who put money into Unruly over the summer.

One key to the company’s successful growth, he says, was keeping the price low enough that it didn’t require approval from school administrators, which made the sales process simpler. (The company offers its product on a subscription basis; annual memberships start at “a few thousand dollars,” Leeming says, but work out to less than $1 per student per month.)

“Obviously, COVID really impacted school systems — it was a curveball nobody anticipated,” says Satish Tadikonda, another investor in the company. But Unruly “started building a community of all their users and teachers, and seeding best practices to facilitate how they were teaching coding” with students at home, or in hybrid at-home and in-school environments. Leeming and her colleagues “have been very scrappy in navigating all these crazy changes,” Tadikonda says.

School budgets this year are tighter than ever, says O’Leary, Leeming’s husband. “You have to buy PPE, and do cleaning, and buy Wi-Fi hotspots for some students — those line items have to come from somewhere.”

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Leeming is aware that schools are watching every penny. But she says that since the school year started, “we’ve been stronger than ever, in terms of sales.”

She and her colleagues are getting together once or twice a week at their office downtown to brainstorm in person — with masks on. Occasionally, they go out for a drink after work. O’Leary has been going into Roxbury Prep’s buildings for meetings, but there are no students on campus yet. That won’t happen until after Thanksgiving.

Things aren’t exactly approaching normalcy at startups or in education, but they’re a little less abnormal than they were before.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.