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Substrate Games Receives $1.49M Grant to Develop Next Generation of Science Education Tools

Substrate Games DSM USA

October 16, 2019

Quietly forging new frontiers in studio #471 at Mainframe is Will Schneller, co-Founder and CEO of Substrate Games. Earlier this year, he received nearly $1.5M in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Division for Research Capacity Building to continue developing Mol.

Mol Chemistry is giving students learning the complex concepts of organic chemistry a leg up. The mobile platform offers unprecedented access to a gamified framework that is interactive, and even fun. Students are able to move through the extensive content and mental processing required for higher learning with greater ease and confidence.

It’s not difficult to understand why the application won the grant. This level of disruption in such a complicated subject is catalytic. However, the path to Substrate’s award has been a slow burn involving years of development and a healthy dose of focus.

The Creation of Substrate

Schneller recently explained how he and Substrate’s co-Founder Dr. Eve Wurtele began working with NIH in 2008 when they were building a cell biology computer game called Meta!Blast at Iowa State University. The idea for Mol Chemistry came in late 2015 and they won a NIH Phase I grant in the fall of 2017 that established proof-of-concept.

“Our most recent grant is Phase II of NIH’s three phase SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program,” Schneller stated. He added, “While these are Research and Development grants, the primary outcome is a commercial product. They want to know that you've thought through every aspect of your business and product. Certainly, having been born out of a major research institution, and going through the National Science Foundation's I-Corps technology transfer accelerator went a long way to help us build credibility.”

The Phase II application required about 4 – 6 months of work laying out how they would effectively address the problem being solved while citing supportive academic literature. Schneller says they also like some indication that “you’re on to something, and we had a successful pilot test that demonstrated statistically significant increases in quiz scores.”

Utilizing Mainframe Studios

With the ability to work remotely with team members at Iowa State University, Texas A&M University and elsewhere, Schneller has found his decision to work out of Mainframe Studios in Downtown Des Moines (DSM) a smart one. He states that “it's great being able to work around others who are creating similar things, and being able to bounce ideas off one another or talk about issues we're all facing.”

[Read more about development of Mainframe Studios in Downtown DSM.]

He shares studio #471 with Josh Larson of Numinous Games, who has also experienced achievements in designing games that challenge the assumptions of what gaming can do for the betterment of society. Reviews of That Dragon Cancer are astonishing tales of life-altering impact. His latest, Galaxies of Hope, offers an interactive journey that connects those struggling with neuroendocrine (NET) cancer.

When asked what role his fine arts degree and design skills play in his success Will’s reply reveals a valuable asset artists offer seemingly disparate industries. He explains, “Creativity is being able to connect dots where others can't or haven't yet. In context of the business we're building, it's about changing your perspective and trying unorthodox, maybe even crazy things to solve a problem. When we're hiring we always look for people that display some level of creative thinking. Those are the people that will continue moving forward when heading into uncharted territory.”

As for what’s next for Schneller, he indicates a rebranding to Substrate Interactive is in the works and plans to deliver their organic chemistry product for a fall 2020 beta test. He adds that they are also contemplating what other projects they’d like to explore that furthers their mission “of building interactive media that showcases the wonders of science while helping to educate, entertain and inspire learners of all ages.”

Downtown Des Moines (DSM) is a growing, vibrant community that offers the energy, sophistication, housing and attractions of a burgeoning city with a brilliant future. It’s also easy to visit with plentiful and affordable street and ramp parking options.

Siobhan Spain

Siobhan Spain is director of Mainframe Studios, a new nonprofit model for providing permanent affordable workspace to artists of all disciplines. With the belief that a thriving arts community is a key factor in creating resilient economies, she champions the breadth of talent that contributes to the region's vibrancy.