Connecticut-based Slooh is bringing space exploration to the classroom in fun and interactive ways, thanks in part to support from Connecticut Innovations, CTNext and a recently awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) SBIR grant. Founder Michael Paolucci tells us more about the recent developments including the company’s international expansion and partnership in the United Arab Emirates.
Tell us about Slooh.
Slooh is a network of online telescopes that makes it possible to explore space among a community of people in school and after school as part of an adult learning environment. Anyone who wants to learn how to explore space can log into the telescopes and learn about space. We launched online in 2003, and we will soon have 17 telescopes in three different observatory sites around the world, once we install seven new telescopes as part of a new partnership in the UAE.
How does Slooh work?
Our telescopes are available to members, and each telescope has its own reservation system. Anyone can reserve a telescope for five to 10 minutes up to a week in advance. They are all tuned for slightly different types of things to be seen and are very easy to use. It’s a social environment, so everyone can access what is being seen and communicate with other members in real time and take photos. We provide a complete solution that costs only $10 per student per year. Pricing is based on a membership structure, which ranges for the public from $20 to $300 per year. For schools, the price range is from $10 to $60 per year, all the way up to college.
Do you have to know a lot about telescopes to use Slooh?
Probably one of the best things about Slooh is that you don’t need to understand how telescopes work at all. We’ve made it possible for novices to explore space. Let’s say you know you want to see a particular galaxy – we’ll tell you the best time and telescope to use to see that galaxy. This is ideal for education markets, because it means teachers don’t have to know a lot about telescopes.
You’ve just announced an exciting new international partnership – can you tell us more about that?
Yes, we have partnered with the Sharjah Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences as part of our international expansion. Together, we are going to deploy seven new telescopes in the UAE that will be available to students in the United States during the daytime. This is really exciting because it means, for the first time ever, schools will have the ability to use online telescopes to explore space during school hours.
And you are launching some new platform features as well?
We’re also launching a “gamification” experience across the platform to make Slooh even more of a learning tool. Users can complete curriculum-driven Quests that we’ve created to earn points. We built this over the past year after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation. The new features will launch in April 2019, with the telescopes based in the UAE coming online for back to school in fall 2019.
Tell us about your SBIR experience.
We became aware of the opportunity to apply for an NSF SBIR grant shortly after hiring our director of research and education, who had experience in applying for grants. We wrote our application to focus on the gamification elements that we wanted to develop and integrate into the platform. We put it all together in a 15-page paper, and after many follow-up rounds over several months, we found out that we had won. Since only 4 percent of applicants get funding, we felt very fortunate to have been awarded the grant. We’re now in the process of applying for a Phase II grant.
Have the Connecticut Innovations and CTNext ecosystems supported Slooh and contributed to your SBIR success?
As part of their evaluation process, the NSF looks for other institutional support. CI provided us with that initial support, which absolutely helped us from a credibility standpoint. We’ve had several engagements with CI and CTNext programs, including the Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program, which netted us our full-time COO. We’ve leveraged the Technology Talent Bridge program twice and hired four interns as a result. One intern has since been retained for a full-time position. At the end of the day, access to the CI and CTNext programs and support has been invaluable.