Durham startup Centervention, which develops game-based social and emotional learning programs, is looking to grow its edtech offerings after securing a grant from the National Science Foundation. And within the next nine months the firm hopes to have progressed enough to land another $750,000 in NSF support.


Centervention, which now has four employees, is also looking to beef up its sales force, says CEO Tim Huntley.

“We are the only company (that I am aware of) that is using game-based learning to improve social and emotional skills,” Huntley tells TechWire.

“The benefit of using games is that we are able to simulate school-based social scenarios in a structured way so  students can practice and gain confidence and bring the new skills into the classroom.”

The Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research grant is the latest milestone for the company. And much work remains.

“Over the next nine months we will have access to those funds to develop a prototype and test it with educators and students,” Huntley says. “Assuming that goes well, we will then apply for a Phase II grant in the fall, and that would provide non-dilutive capital of approximately $750,000 over a two year period.”

Huntley and his team approached the NSF with what Huntley calls a “very narrow and specific” project.

“What we are building is an online game that is developmentally appropriate for students in K-1 and helps assess and improve their social and emotional skills,” he explains.

“I think the two primary reasons we were selected is because of our existing track record with a similar set of programs for grades 2-8 AND the strength of our plan to commercialize the technology after the R&D phase.​”

In the award announcement, Huntley pointed out the potential of the project: “The earlier we can identify students who are struggling, the better chance we have to help them. And based on our conversations with educators across the country, we know that this program would fill an unmet need.”

The backstory

Centervention was formed two years ago from Personalized Learning Games, a Cary startup  spun out by Melissa DeRosier from 3C Institute 

To date, the company has launched four programs:

Huntley, a serial entrepreneur in the Triangle was named CEO at the launch of Centervention.  Huntley previously was was COO of Paired Health, but he has a long and successful history of running the business side of Triangle tech startups. His first, Ganymede Software, was acquired for $170 million by Mission Critical (which then merged with Net IQ.)

Chief Technology Officer Jim Thomas led the NSF project.

“With this grant from the NSF, we will develop a game-based intelligent social tutoring system (ISTS) that assesses behavioral readiness and social emotional skills. Each student will create a personalized avatar and will be challenged with a series of simulated social scenarios,” Thomas, who is Principal Investigator for the grant, explained. “By comparing student responses in the game against research samples, our ISTS will allow educators to proactively and reliably identify students in need of additional support.”

Not seeking capital

 Huntley says he sees a lot of potential in the company even though he doesn’t have an educational or gaming background. He relies on other team members for that expertise.
 I graduated from NCSU with a degree in computer science in 1989, and I am a serial entrepreneur. My strengths are primarily in sales and marketing,” he says.
As for outside funding, Centervention isn’t seeking any, he points out. And he see a bright future even if boot-strapping the company along.
Asked why he’s in the job, Huntley explains:
“​We have an opportunity to build a very successful company over the next few years and at the same time make a huge, positive impact on the lives of thousands of young people.