Why these Houston founders are gamifying financial literacy education

Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery, co-founders of Earn Your Freedom, join the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photos courtesy of EYF

Houston co-founders Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery are a team when it comes to building their business — but the two are locked into a very serious competition on their phones.

"Keeley and I are both avid users of Duolingo which is, in my opinion, still the best like best example of gamification for education," Watkins says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Just the simple 'keep your streak alive,'" he explains, adding that he's recently crossed the one-year mark of daily participation, "it keeps me incentivized to keep my street going. I don't even want to learn Spanish anymore. I just want to I just don't want to lose to Keely."

Watkins is inspired by the app — not only to learn a foreign language, but to apply a similar gamification to financial literacy. He learned to code in 2021 and founded Earn Your Freedom, launching the Money Quest game in April after bringing on McEnery, a business student at the University of Houston, as co-founder and COO.

Both Watkins and McEnery have overcome personal finance obstacles, as they share on the show, and they aren't alone. Sixty-seven percent of Americans are considered financially illiterate, McEnery says, and 60 percent lives paycheck to paycheck.

"It's becoming more and more apparent how financially illiterate our country is," she continues. "It's a different mindset. People could be making $100,000 a year but if they don't know how to manage their money, they're still going to be in a cycle of not being financially free."

EYF's solution is a comprehensive, entertaining way for high school students to learn. And the timing is great, since Texas recently passed a bill about providing financial literacy education in high schools.

"Texas is not alone in this. There are actually 23 other states that have recently either passed or in the process of passing financial literacy bills, and most of them are aimed at high schools," Watkins explains. "I do believe high school is kind of the last best opportunity to teach them. When we're traveling around the state and talking to these kids, we're seeing the juniors and seniors in high school very engaged with this information."

The duo, which originally connected at the Ion and volunteering with the G-Unity Foundation, has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to help grow their network and connections to do more of the game's testing in Houston schools. Most recently, EYF announced its first crowdfunding campaign with the support of Impact Hub Houston, a community supporting impact-driven startups and opportunities. The campaign, launched online earlier this month, is seeking $100,000 to further expand its testing in students.

Watkins and McEnery share more about the game, their plans for the business, and more on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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