Judging this year’s Venture Sharks business pitch competition was the opposite of a no-brainer because BrainSTEM University, led by founder Ricky Mason, came out on top. Launched in February 2019, the startup offers both in-person and virtual STEM training for kids from kindergarten through high school. Louisville Future recently caught up with Mason to learn more about his company.
What does BrainSTEM University offer?
Mason: BrainSTEM University is an EdTech startup that provides online and in-person STEM education for K-12 students, increasing access and exposure using our gamified virtual learning environment. Parents, schools, and community organizations can enroll students or add STEM programs for students across their schools or in their after-school programs. We meet students where they are: at home, at school, or after school.
How has COVID-19 affected operations?
Mason: In March, we shut everything down. I rolled out the virtual learning environment over the summer. We had 30 kids participate in our eight-week summer camp, introduction to coding and computer engineering. That’s kind of what led us to where we are now: competitions and rolling out the second version of our virtual learning environment. We’re partnering with the new YMCA at 18th and Broadway to do a hybrid program. We’ll do online learning, and then the students will come in one day a week for the lab portion where they’ll do hands-on learning with an instructor.
What led you to create a STEM program for kids?
Mason: I played sports growing up in a single-parent household in Louisville, and no one around me was doing robotics. So I had no clue of where to go. I started BrainSTEM to increase access and exposure and give students the opportunities that I didn’t have as a kid.
Your education is in engineering, not business. Where did you learn about startups?
Mason: My wife Kara is a fashion designer and we built her fashion brand. She has a business background. I’m also a real estate investor; I started investing in real estate when I moved back to Kentucky from D.C. I’m just putting all our experience together.
Did you find a robust startup community when you moved back?
Mason: I found that most of the people who were investing in businesses were in circles that were tough to get into. My friend Chris Redd and I started a program called Network N Chill where we started bringing in founders, angel investors, and venture capitalists to educate us and tell us how to navigate the startup world. I kind of took that knowledge and learned from those experiences, and here we are.
Has the startup scene improved since your launch?
Mason: Louisville is being more intentional as of late in supporting their startups and their founders. Render Capital coming in and supporting local founders and bringing businesses into Louisville—that’s big. Giving founders $100,000 per company—that’s huge; that creates momentum. I think that people coming in and building are going to help that ecosystem. We’ll see where it goes from here.