Chinese-Israeli ed-tech startup teaches kids to code

Shanghai-based LeapLearner represents the first global venture built from the ground up by Chinese and Israeli cofounders.

Chinese students rank best in the world in standardized tests but don’t excel in thinking out of the box. Israeli kids aren’t great test-takers but have exceptional innovation and problem-solving skills.

Chinese students rank best in the world in standardized tests but don’t excel in thinking out of the box. Israeli kids aren’t great test-takers but have exceptional innovation and problem-solving skills.

LeapLearner, the first Chinese-Israeli startup, puts those qualities together in a disruptive online and offline platform to teach kids coding along with critical 21st century skills including innovation, self-learning, problem-solving, creativity and adaptability.

During the three-week self-learning program meant to be used outside of school, children as young as five are guided in examining the coding in games they play and then learn how to change variables in the code of those games. For example, in Pac-Man, children can change Pac-dots into bananas and Pac-Man could appear as a pet dog.

LeapLearner helps users progress in their coding expertise from variables to natural language programming to Java Script, culminating in an in-person or online hackathon to build a video game from scratch. This gives the kids a way to get acquainted, work together, and connect with adults who can help them advance.

“Whether you want to be a philosopher, doctor, lawyer, artist or banker, you must be literate in the language of the future,” says CEO Ami Dror.

 LeapLearner launches commercially on June 1 in Shanghai, in September in Latin America, and in early 2018 in Greater China, India and the Middle East. The multilingual platform also will be provided free to children in European refugee camps, pending a deal with a hardware partner.

“Places that give strong weight to education in the family are our target market,” says Dror, noting that Chinese families invest a high percentage of their income in their children’s education.

A screenshot of education start-up LeapLearner’s mobile platform. Photo: courtesy

LeapLearner was created in 2016 at Za

itoun Ventures, an Israeli hybrid investment firm cofounded by Dror and Forsan Hussein. Aaron Tian, a well-known Chinese math teacher, is CEO of the LeapLearner China in Shanghai.

“I had the idea for a company that teaches kids soft skills, and I wanted to start with coding because the process teaches children how to innovate and problem-solve,” Dror tells ISRAEL21c from Shanghai.

Taking advantage of cultural strengths

Dror’s close friend John Wu, formerly the CTO of Alibaba in China, loved the idea.

“He said, ‘You have to do this in China because they’re struggling in soft skills.’ So I went to China and was introduced to two top educational companies. They said it was a super-innovative idea but wouldn’t be easy because of cultural differences.”

Tian, Dror and CTO Leo Zhao not only believed they could overcome those differences but even take advantage of the best of both worlds, namely “the Israeli ability to solve problems and deal with challenges from different angles, and the Chinese way of dealing with conflicts very harmoniously and getting things done quickly,” explains Dror.

Zaitoun is the major shareholder in LeapLearner but most of its $5 million in seed money comes from Chinese investors including Wu. The company has some investors in the United States and in the Arab world “who believe in the vision,” says Dror.

He moved his family to Shanghai, where he is handling strategy and product design alongside the LeapLearner staff of about 50 people, many of whom do not speak English. Hussein is managing the Israeli end of the business in Haifa.

Dror, a serial entrepreneur who taught himself to code as a child, is a fellow at the Aspen Institute-linked Aspen Global Leadership Network. This worldwide community of entrepreneurial leaders from business, government and the nonprofit sector share a commitment to using creativity, energy and resources to tackle societal challenges.

Dror says it is the Aspen Institute GLN that infused him with the vision of making LeapLearner available for free in refugee camps and he is actively looking for ways to make this happen.

In general, however, LeapLearner users will pay a “tuition” fee for the program.