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Amanda Thompson

Amanda ThompsonIf you ask her kids’ friends, Amanda Thompson (MBA ’05, PhD ’10) is “the cool mom who makes videogame apps.”

While that is technically true, she more formally serves as CEO of Explore Interactive, a Purdue-affiliated startup whose MindLabs platform was featured by TechCrunch, Forbes and the 2020 National Parenting Product Awards.

The startup is turning hands-on game play into serious learning for elementary students, even those away from classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to grow through partnerships, grant funding, and product sales.

“We want to use emerging technologies like augmented reality in ways that make learning more intuitive for students specifically in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas,” Thompson says. “Our newest product, MindLabs, extends the foundational Explore platform to allow kids to collaborate remotely on engineering and design of circuits.”

MindLabs uniquely pairs digital and physical worlds by combining an app, tabletop playing cards, and the excitement of augmented reality. With MindLabs, kids not only can create circuits in 3D, but can also share the playing experience with friends — either in person or remotely.

Families and educators download the free MindLabs: Energy and Circuits app from the App Store or Google Play, then purchase playing cards from the MindLabs website.

The cards feature an assortment of electrical components, including different types of batteries and lights, plus fans, buzzers, switches and more. Within the app, two helpful robots guide players through a sequenced series of over 20 interactive exercises that challenge kids to learn the secrets of circuitry. Lessons include basic energy sources, open and closed circuits, short circuits, as well as engineering design and troubleshooting.

Thompson and her team conducted educational research with researchers at the INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering at Purdue under SBIR funding from National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and Elevate Ventures.

In addition, Explore has received support and guidance from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship and commercialization hub housed in the Convergence Center for Innovation and Collaboration in Purdue’s Discovery Park District, adjacent to the Purdue campus.

Explore Interactive also has worked with educators and elementary students from across the U.S. in the development of the MindLabs platform, which lets children work together to solve hands-on STEM challenges and conduct open-ended design and play.

In the first week of August 2020, the startup collaborated with the Museum of Science, Boston, and Homewood Science Center, located near Chicago, to host a virtual STEM camp for students 8-12 years of age. Thompson led virtual sessions, and then the students completed projects on their own.  Indiana’s Yorktown Community Schools also tested the product with much success in live and remote classrooms this fall.

Thompson says the MindLabs platform unlocks the potential of augmented reality to deliver analytics of soft skills like collaboration and hard skills like systems thinking through applied, hands-on design and troubleshooting, a far more effective approach compared with worksheets and multiple-choice tests.

“In the current remote learning environment, MindLabs is a solution for teachers now when they have very limited options for students to engage collaboratively on STEM projects,” she says. “STEM learning products too often have been priced beyond the reach of most families and even schools. Our goal is to increase access to high-quality STEM learning experiences, through immersive, educational games that are affordably priced.”

Thompson never envisioned working in an entrepreneurial environment when she arrived at Purdue from Texas A&M in 2003 to begin her MBA studies, which focused on finance and operations.

Upon graduating in 2005, she took a post as assistant director of Krannert’s Global Supply Chain Management Initiative and the Dauch Center for the Management of Manufacturing Enterprises before returning to the classroom as a PhD student in finance in 2006.

After receiving her doctorate in 2010, she joined the Krannert faculty as a visiting professor for a class on venture capital, which connected her with the Purdue Foundry. “That’s how the whole entrepreneurship thing began,” Thompson says. “I started working with startup companies from my first day as a faculty member and have been doing both since 2011.”

Her teaching resume now includes courses for full-time and executive MBA students in financial management, corporate financial strategy, derivatives, venture capital and investment banking, and international financial management.

Serving several years as Entrepreneur in Residence at the Foundry, Thompson also helped startups including Amplified Sciences, LLC, which she cofounded as chief financial officer and continues to remain involved as an investor.

For Thompson, it has been a family affair. Her children, Dante, age 12, and Marinda, age 10, engaged with Explore Interactive technology even before Thompson formally became involved with the company, which was founded by Wabash College graduate Wesley Virt.  

“My kids love Explore Interactive,” she says. “Marinda stars in our web series, and Dante has joined us for several winning pitch competitions and also likes to help assemble the game packages before shipment."

As avid users in their target demographic, they also lend valuable feedback.

“They play with the product and tell me what’s wrong with it,” she says. “And they’re always right. They always sees something that we don’t see. I’m excited about them seeing entrepreneurship at the ground level and how they use the experience in life.”