Acing the startup world with Singapore math

Kungfu Math

Do the words 'Cheryl's birthday' send a shiver down your spine? You're not alone. A question from a Singapore maths competition, which asked test-takers to figure out Cheryl's birthday from scanty clues, went viral in April, with stumped adults worldwide amazed by the prowess of the city-state's children at solving tough math quizzes.*

It is this reputation for mathematical excellence that Singapore's education start-up KungFu Math hopes will act as a multiplying factor as it expands abroad.

Since venturing into Southeast Asia late last year, the three-year-old online learning portal has scored tie-ups with several local schools in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

"Once people know we are a Singapore company, they want to know more about us," Derrick Koh, CEO and co-founder of Kungfu Math, told CNBC by phone. "Singapore has always produced top students in maths and that is a selling point. Our portal has been pretty well-received by schools overseas."

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Students from Singapore have had impressive showings in international math tests, while the country's approach to teaching the subject is being adopted in other countries, including India and France. But stress is a perennial complaint among Singapore's students and parents, with the baffling logic problem about Cheryl's birthday reviving criticism that the city-state's education system is too competitive and challenging.

With that in mind, Koh teamed up with Foo Pau Choo - an educator with more than 20 years of teaching experience as well as Koh's former teacher - to come up with an e-learning website to allow primary school students aged 7-12, to play with numbers, literally.

Branding itself as a "revolutionary math gaming portal," Kungfu Math allows users to adopt virtual pets and through the completion of math problems, earn points to grow and decorate their pets. The aim is to help children develop math-problem solving skills through gameplay and transform the mentality of e-learning in Singapore, which remains largely school-driven and focused on assigning homework via online portals.

"It was an inspiration I had after running my own [private] education center for the past six years. I noticed that children are not interested in e-learning portals... they will do their online homework quickly and then rush off to play games on their computers," Koh said. "So we decided to come up with something that combines the best of both worlds."

Kungfu Math

This "gamification" also plays a key role in differentiating Kungfu Math from its competitors. According to Koh, Kungfu Math is the first of its kind in Singapore.

"In this part of the world, there's a huge focus on education and parents from our foreign markets want products that their children will like and enjoy," Koh said. "That's where we come in."

Asia could see the rapid adoption of "gamification" -- or integrating elements of games into non-game situations for training -- in the education arena within the next couple years, a report from the not-for-profit organization The New Media Consortium said late last year, as teachers are fast recognizing the "large gains in engagement, productivity, creativity, and authentic learning."

For the near term, Kungfu Math has its sights on Southeast Asia where it aims to grow its active users to half a million by end-2016, from approximately 100,000 users across the region now. The region's potential will help push the start-up into the black for the first time, the founders tell CNBC.

In 2012, the e-learning website required start-up capital of 500,000 Singapore dollars (around $374,590), with half raised from angel investors including seed accelerator Tri5 Accelerator and a grant under Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA).

In its home market, Kungfu Math is collaborating with 30 public schools in Singapore to use the portal as part of their math curriculum, but reaping more users will require combating the country's stigma against games.

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"It's really about traditional versus new-thinking schools. While the latter loves us, the former remains averse to 'gamification' for fear that [such learning methods] may get students addicted to gaming," Foo told CNBC.

That's why the portal added new analytics features to help teachers monitor their students' progress and enable authorized moderators to limit users' time on the website.

To be sure, high levels of user satisfaction have offered encouraging signs that the start-up is headed in the right direction.

"Schools have conducted surveys with their students and Kungfu Math garnered more than 90 percent of positive reviews. That is higher than all our competitors and that's what matters," Foo added.

*Spoiler alert: According to the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad, which conducted the competition featuring Cheryl's birthday as a question, the answer is July 16.