Sooinn Lee

[Rising Startup: Enuma] Made for Children with Special Needs, Todo Math Takes the World App Market by Storm

Used in over 1,000 U.S. classrooms and funded by Korean, American and Chinese Investors

This article was translated from the original (written in Korean) for Joongangilbo’s Economist and bears light editing. It originally appeared in their May, 2017 issue.

Written by Youngjin Choi | Translated by Eugine Chung

“What did you do for a living?”

“I was an online game designer.”

“That’s wonderful. Don’t you think you can do something for your child with your experience?”

What transformed her life was the pediatrician’s comment: you can do something for your child. A well-known, successful game producer in the Korean online gaming industry, she went to the U.S. in 2008 to be with her husband, who was pursuing a Computer Science Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley. Her husband was also a highly regarded software engineer in the gaming industry. Their departure to the U.S. was meant to be another steppingstone in their soaring careers. Once her husband’s degree was completed, the plan was to return to the company where they had worked before in Korea.

However, in the winter of 2008, a pediatrician told the couple that their newborn son “may have learning difficulties due to his physical disabilities.” For their child, they decided to stay in the U.S., where special education is well established. The couple deviated from their original plan. To the Korean mother who felt helpless trying to figure out what she could do to make a living in this new place, the comment from the pediatrician became an inspiration.

Apple App Store #1, Google Play Family App of the Year

The day she had that conversation with the pediatrician, she and her husband got online and searched for “special education programs.” Numerous services and mobile applications came up, but to her eyes, the quality of all the content and services seemed low. “I can make a better product,” she thought. And with that, she jumped into creating educational content for children who are struggling to learn. This is the story of Sooinn Lee, who founded the education technology startup Enuma in Berkeley in 2012.

Enuma also has offices in Seoul, Korea and Beijing, China. I met Sooinn at her Korean office. It had been six months since her last visit, as she recently gave birth to her second child. Enuma comes from the word ‘enumerate’ which means to count one by one. The company’s name reflects its commitment to supporting all children.

Enuma’s mobile application Todo Math is a globally recognized math app. Since its launch in the Apple App Store in June 2014, it has ranked #1 in the education category of the App Store. Lee says, “To this day, our app is the #1 math app, and is available on demo iPads in retail Apple Stores worldwide.” Todo Math launched its Android version in July 2016, and that year was named as “Family App of the Year” in the Korean Google Play Store. Last year, Todo Math was also finalists in SIIA Education’s CODiE Awards for Best Educational App for Mobile Device and Best Early Childhood Learning Solution.

Todo Math is one of the most beloved math apps for Pre-K to early-grade students in the U.S., Korea, China, and Japan. The word ‘Todo’ means ‘all’ in Spanish. Available in 20 languages, including English, Korean, and Chinese, Todo Math has recorded over 3.5 million downloads to date. In the U.S., over 1,000 classrooms use Todo Math as part of their school curriculum. Enuma’s business model is based on in-app purchases for consumers and B2B contracts for organizations like schools and districts. “I cannot share exact revenue figures, but we are continuously growing,” said Sooinn.

Todo Math was initially developed to support children with special needs who struggled to keep up in the classroom. The app’s strength is in its intuitive interface and design, which enables children with special needs to engage independently without adult support. Gaming aspects were also added to ensure the child is self-motivated to learn. When the app launched, Sooinn was surprised by the unexpected results. Todo Math was not only popular with children with special needs, but also with children who do not have special needs. Parents downloaded Todo Math to supplement their children’s math education. American investors, who initially declined to fund Enuma due to its focus on children with special needs, began to show interest again.

Softbank Ventures of Korea and TAL Education Group of China, along with others, invested about $4 million in February 2015. TAL is the largest after-school education company in China. “When Todo Math was ranked #1 in the Chinese App Store, TAL Education Group reached out to us to share their interest in investing.” To date, Enuma has raised about $5 million in investments. Including investments from early American venture capitals such as K9 Ventures and Newschools Venture Fund, Enuma is a global start up with investments from Korea, the U.S. and China.

Another reason Enuma is notable is its distinctive team. The company’s Chief Engineer, Dr. Gunho Lee, is Sooinn’s husband and former co-worker from NCSoft. “We were friends from Seoul National University. I went to the School of Arts and my husband the School of Engineering. We met during freshmen year at the Hitel (a Korean AOL-like service) Club and are still together,” laughed Sooinn. “Gunho co-authored a paper about cloud computing that is now known as a must read in the field. He was highly sought after and could have worked at any company, but I think he decided to work with me because he thought that would be better for our son,” she added. Other members of Enuma’s 20 or so team members include Eugine Chung, who has an MBA and Masters in Education joint degree from Stanford University, Minkyung Kim, who has a Master in Education from Harvard University, and Hyekyung Lee, who has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.

Sooinn was able to make her leap to becoming an entrepreneur thanks to an opportune connection. From 2009 to 2012, Lee led a project to develop an app for children with disabilities with funding from a Korean company. This project caught the attention of Manu Kumar, the founder of K9 Ventures, a U.S. venture capital fund. After the project was complete, Kumar proposed to Lee to start her own company with his investment. “I first refused. After four months, I decided to take his offer and start the company,” recounted Sooinn with a smile. “Working for a company and starting a company is fundamentally different. Being able to do the work that I want to do is the most attractive thing about running your own startup,” she said.

These days, Sooinn is focused on the Global Learning XPRIZE competition that began in 2015. Organized by the U.S. XPRIZE Foundation and in collaboration with UNESCO and the Tanzanian government, the competition calls for open-sourced education solutions for children in underdeveloped countries. Enuma submitted its entry Kitkit School, a tablet-based app for children in Pre-K through 2nd grade that teaches basic literacy and math.

Sooinn said, “Last year, in collaboration with KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency) and Good Neighbors, we conducted a field test in Tanzania and received positive results. Because we developed Kitkit School based on our know-how from developing Todo Math, we are hoping to achieve positive results from the competition.” Later this year, the list of the five teams who will be the finalists will be announced. Each team will receive $1 million in prize money. The final winner will be announced in early 2019 and receive $10 million. Sooinn said, “Still, there are 250 million children around the world who do not learn how to read and write. Making great content for those children is our ultimate goal.”