After two years of quiet but steady expansion, the startup once known as Personalized Learning Games is expanding to a giant new market—China. The move ensures that in just a few short months, Centervention’s computer games designed to improve social and emotional learning (SEL) skills will impact more kids than ever before.

The opportunity to expand is thanks to a strategic partnership with Chinese holding company ZionLion Group, which owns businesses in sectors as diverse as construction and education. The two companies plan to translate and subsequently distribute Centervention’s games throughout China.

The market is huge—in 2015, over 28.8 million students were enrolled in China’s primary and lower secondary (junior high) schools.

But for Centervention and ZionLion Group, there are benefits that far exceed revenue from a new market. Their chief excitement stems from a strong belief that the skills these games teach are universally important and can benefit children of all backgrounds. As Centervention CEO Tim Huntley says, “the skills we focus on are empathy, character and kindness—soft skills that cross cultures and apply to everybody.”

This type of education is especially important in China, says Joshua Zhou, ZionLion’s US branch Manager. Chinese schools are mostly focused on teaching to boost IQ, intelligence and STEM skills. SEL skills are often forgotten. He says it’s important “to teach kids to be successful in society.”

Centervention’s evidence-based games are the perfect way to do that, he adds.

Slow But Steady Growth

Centervention’s work comes from years of research conducted by a government-funded child psychology research group focused on gaming called 3C Institute. In 2014, its founder Melissa DeRosier saw an opportunity to commercialize her group’s work, creating a new business entity to distribute the games to children and schools.

Shortly after, she participated in the first cohort of SoarTriangle, an organization helping local female founders raise funds, and brought Huntley on as CEO. They’ve since raised over $800,000 from local angel investors to grow the business.

Since its first partnerships with 200 schools during the 2015-2016 school year, Centervention has grown to 20,000 users and 2,000 schools. Much of that growth came this past school year with new games and targeted marketing.

Centervention expanded its suite of games in the 2016-2017 school year with the launch of Hall of Heroes for middle school students, and Stories in Motion for autistic students. Its legacy game designed for 2nd-4th graders is ZooU.

A scene from Centervention’s game designed for Autistic children, Stories in Motion; Credit: Centervention’s

Unlike some K-12 EdTech offerings, Centervention’s games are meant to be affordable and accessible to anyone—an individual student, a class or an entire school. Parents, teachers, counselors or administrators can buy the game at any point in the school year and licenses for schools are priced per student between $7 and $12, allowing even the most cash-strapped schools to use the games.

So far, Centervention has expanded the customer base in two ways: through partnerships with new schools, sourced by word of mouth or conferences, and by adding new students within existing partner schools. The best customers have been school counselors, who typically begin using the games with just a handful of students to test efficacy, then expand to other students within the school.

This target market prompted the recent company name change—Centervention better resonates with counselors and conveys the mission, Huntley says.

Centervention plans to expand stateside this coming school year—the goal is to reach 10,000 schools by year-end. Helping the effort will be digital marketing as well as a new game called Adventures Aboard the SS GRIN for 3rd-5th grade students.

The company also plans to apply for a federal grant to develop a game for Kindergarten and 1st grade students. But Huntley says regardless of whether the grant is awarded, his team will brainstorm other ways to continue building the portfolio of games. That will only help fuel the growth in China too.

From North Carolina to China

The China connection came through a unique organization tied to NC State University. Called the Carolina China Council, the nonprofit led by NC State professor Lian Xie works to connect North Carolina and China through business, culture and education. Huntley was looking for an opportunity to expand internationally, and got an introduction to Zhou and the ZionLion Group.

ZionLion’s education arm called Zionlion Education has a mission to fuse Chinese and western education styles through an international education platform.

It had been looking for a partner that focused on soft skills and student success. Zhou says he was impressed with Centervention’s research foundation and focus on social and emotional learning. That addresses an unmet need in China, he says.

Few Chinese schools have guidance counselors; thus there’s a lack of focus and leadership around teaching and developing SEL skills. The ZionLion Group hopes “to help schools change culture,” he says, adding “as a whole we can do much better to help the schools get a better sense of how to teach and learn SEL.”

The partnership allows both Lion Zion and Centervention to do what they do best—Centervention will license its games to the joint venture, and contribute initial financial support and resources to translate them to Mandarin Chinese. ZionLion will translate the text and audio components of the games, and then market, sell and distribute the translated games in China. The companies share ownership in the venture, which is based in North Carolina.

They’ll start with Zoo U, then translate the other games in coming years. Though translation will take the entire school year, Huntley expects some students to begin playing this fall.

A scene from Centervention’s flagship game, ZooU; Credit: Centervention

A relationship with a Chinese educational foundation means they’ll start in schools in Beijing and the Zhejiang province. The hope is to eventually partner with the Chinese government to distribute the games throughout the public school system nationwide.

“More and more parents realize it is really important,” Zhou says. “[there are] many challenging things happening in Chinese schools, like bullying, so they’re realizing we probably also need the softer skill training besides only focused on IQ training.”

Ultimately, it’s this realization and the shared focus on bettering the lives of kids that binds the partnership.

As Huntley says, “the skills embodied in the game—cooperation, how to communicate, how to begin a conversation—these are universal skills and not limited to the U.S. Part of our mission driven culture is getting this around to as many kids as possible this [partnership] gets us access to a huge market we wouldn’t have access to on our own.”