Written by Andrew Seale

Impact is always at the back of Julia Rivard Dexter’s mind when she’s nurturing an idea for a startup. It has guided her and her continual co-founder Leah Skerry through several successful companies over the past five years. But Squiggle Park, an education tech startup that helps teach kids to read, hits closer to home with its impact. 

“This was an issue that was close to our hearts,” says Dexter. “We both had people in our lives who had struggled with literacy.”

The pair launched the startup in 2016, but the idea had been incubating for a couple years. They’d been working with a university research group to track eye patterns and see if they could predict reading challenges. “What I realized in those studies was that the researchers were hiring interns to create the games that kids had to do for the eye-tracking and (the games) were horribly boring,” says Dexter. “I remember thinking, you're not going to get accurate results because the kids are not engaged.”

These were the same kids that were playing Clash of Clans and Minecraft, says the Squiggle Park co-founder. The same ones that Carnegie Mellon University had just pointed out in a study were part of a generation that would likely spend more than 10,000 hours video gaming by the time they finished high school. 

“That was a bit of an a-ha moment for me – this is the parallel that we see in education where we've got kids who are playing super games outside of the classroom and then in the classroom they're delivering extremely traditional materials a lot of the time,” says Dexter. “So it's no wonder that we're losing them.”

Dexter and Skerry began working on the concept in 2014 and spent the next two years trying to create something that would rival video games while still being an effective and curriculum-aligned tool for teachers to use in the classroom. They started to build a team that could get them there. 

“One of our very first hires was a PhD in games for learning and really brought the academic side to the table like what are the game mechanics that really inspire kids to be motivated?” says Dexter. “It's all about keeping them in what's called the zone of proximal development – it's a space where it's challenging but not so hard that it's frustrating and it's never so easy that it's boring.”

And then you insert the learning elements without interrupting the flow. “It was a big challenge,” she adds. As they got the company off the ground they relocated to Waterloo to participate in the Google for Entrepreneurs incubators which led to Communitech’s Fierce Founders accelerator program. “And then we graduated into Ryerson's DMZ program and that brought us to Toronto proper, right downtown,” she says. After exiting the DMZ, Squiggle Park decided to open an office in the city. 

“We had the opportunity of hiring some key talent that wanted to stay and live in Toronto,” says Dexter, who grew up in Ontario before moving east. Since then, they’ve used the city as a draw for international talent. “We've been able to bring up some staff from Brazil because they've really wanted to live in Canada and live in Toronto so that it's been great for us,” she says. Costs are a bit higher than out east, but “it seems to be outweighed by the fact that they just love living there… it's a special city.” 

Today, Squiggle Park is used in more than 10,000 educational institutions from major school boards in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia to schools in New York and Chicago. Last year, Squiggle Park partnered with the Canadian Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to help children and adult English language learners boost their literacy skills. 

It’s a global company, says Dexter, and one that prides itself on its diversity as much as its impact. “We're 55 per cent female and 35 per cent of our company are immigrants,” says Dexter. “I’m a true believer that it's those types of teams that are able to solve global problems and that's something that we wouldn't get in many cities in the country.”

Photo provided by Squiggle Park.