Storytime Online is a new German-Rhode Island educational technology platform where children can read and listen to interactive children’s books from cultures around the world, translated and narrated in more than 15 different languages.
It works with authors and artists to digitize and publish stories on a global scale, promoting cultural education and literacy skills. And it’s needed more than ever before. More than 40 percent of the world’s children still have restricted access to children’s books, a key resource in child literacy and cognitive development, according to recent studies.
Founder Andreas von Sachsen-Altenburg is launching the Storytime Online platform internationally this month.
How did you come up with this idea?
von Sachsen-Altenburg: I was back in Germany with my family when I was with my sister Julia, who was 9 at the time, and had just moved there from Georgia (the country). I’d bring her to bookstores there, but we didn’t always actually purchase a book. She was just learning German as her second language, and she would quickly advance to the next level or simply get bored with reading the same book — like most kids. At the same time, while around the rest of my family, she was learning English; so, trying to learn two different languages at the same time. I looked for resources for her, but it was difficult to find anything in German, especially for a Georgian. I could find resources in English, but they were expensive.
I knew she couldn’t be the only one struggling: Germany is a diverse country, where many Syrian, Afghan, and Ukrainian refugees, and others are resettling. Many of those adults have children with them, who are in a new country where they don’t speak the language and now have to learn it. If you go to another country where your language isn’t supported, especially as a child, it makes learning in school nearly impossible. Julia made me aware of this problem, so it became our problem. And I built my own solution.
How does Storytime Online work?
It’s really easy to use, which was the key. The point is to allow a child to use this technology on their own, even as young as 3. After choosing a language and reading level, various book covers are displayed, and then the child can flip through the pages of the book online. You can read the book to the child, clicking through the pages on your own, or have a narrator read the book by clicking the play buttons. You can also alter the language of each book in any of the other languages that it is available in.
Which languages are available?
The languages that are currently on deck or in development include English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese (European and Brazilian); Armenian, Georgian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian, Arabic (Modern Standard); Kurdish, Pashto, Persian (Farsi/Dari), Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu.
Who is your target audience?
Kids that are about 3 to about 10 years old. In the future, we might include graphic novels and comics. But right now, it’s predominantly earlychildhood education to about fourth or fifth grade. While anyone can use Storytime Online, I’m hoping it bridges a gap for migrant populations, refugees, and multicultural families.
How much does it cost?
For unlimited access to all languages, it’s an average of $5 each month. It’s designed to be affordable, even in developing countries.
How do you get authors and artists to be on the platform?
Our model is similar to Spotify for artists. You get published and then get royalties, not just for that one language that you wrote the book in, but in all the languages I get it translated and narrated in. But this also multiplies their reach to other cultural markets without doing any additional work.
Also, all authors, designers, illustrators, translators, and narrators get credit for being part of this effort right on the book’s landing page. If your child wants to continue reading a book from one particular author or narrator, you can click on the person’s profile to see what other books they worked on.
Who is translating and narrating these books into other languages?
They are paid contractors. But I prioritize refugees. All they need is a smartphone with a relatively good microphone and a space with no background noise to narrate a book.
How are you identifying global refugees to work with?
I just started working with a digital skills and marketing firm in the UK that trains and employs refugees in Africa. Also, the CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center recently sent out a newsletter about the company’s initiatives to support Ukraine during the war, and I replied to it regarding Storytime Online. I was connected with a CIC director in Poland, and he was able to put me in touch with more translators.
I developed a partnership with the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, and they have a network of thousands of migrants. Right now, I’m prioritizing Ukrainian narrations and translations, but also working with Ukrainian refugees to support them during this time. With the League’s help, I’m looking to quickly translate and narrate 100 stories in Ukrainian.
How does Storytime Online fit into your background?
I grew up between the US and Germany. Learning another language was much different in Europe than here in the US. I took Spanish classes in both Germany and the US, but I actually learned Spanish in Germany. In Germany, you’re not just learning for the next test, you’re learning to become fluent. I graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 2018 where I studied entrepreneurship. I founded two other startups since then.
Have you received funding?
I received an innovation grant from the German government for 12,000 euros (about $13,050), which has gotten me pretty far. I’ve used some of my own savings. (von Sachsen-Altenburg also builds websites for clients and businesses. He does not pay himself from Storytime Online.)
Who else is helping you develop Storytime Online?
I don’t have any employees. While in Germany, I applied for a number of incubator programs and received little or no feedback other than the fact that it was not “high tech” or AI-related, which is really what Germany is focused on right now. I was back in the US during the summer of 2021 and was introduced to the CIC here in Providence (where Globe Rhode Island also has an office) and RIHub. Through RIHub’s Venture Mentoring Service (a nonprofit providing business consulting at no cost to entrepreneurs), I’ve received guidance and surrounded myself around other entrepreneurs.
What are some of your long-term goals for Storytime Online?
In three to five years, I want an educational or publishing platform, that has more knowledge in this space than I, to take it over but while never forgetting the mission. The business model is shaped around this mission, which is making children’s books accessible to all. Why doesn’t that exist already?
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.