A Houston innovator has created a video game that teaches users money fundamentals. Image via eyf.money

The fact that the average American would struggle to cover a $400 emergency expense is a sign that there’s a dire need for a better understanding of financial literacy in this country.

But where is the proper starting point? What is the best age to start learning about debt, credit, inflation, loans, stocks, index funds, and personal finance?

According to Grant Watkins, founder of Earn Your Freedom, or EYF, and the startup’s new educational video game, Money Quest, the best time for people to start learning the basics of personal finance and economics is when they’re young.

“I stress to kids that the biggest advantage they have right now is their youth,” says former salesman turned entrepreneur Watkins. “If nothing else, I want kids to play our game to learn the value of compound interest. They’re young, so they should start early, plan early, be strategic, and have fun, life isn’t just all work. But the more you invest early, the more you’re going to have later.”

After realizing that it was best to teach solid financial principles to young people, it was a no-brainer to reach the conclusion that the best way for them to learn was via an educational video game.

That’s where Money Quest comes in.

The innovative and interactive web and mobile video game, which officially launched this month to celebrate Financial Literacy Month, was designed to help kids build a strong foundation in money management, economics and investment in a fun and engaging way. It features challenges and real-world scenarios such as renting a first apartment, opening a first bank account, budgeting at the grocery store, buying stocks and index funds and renting or buying real estate.

All of this is set up in the game’s imaginary city called Prosperity Point.

But before Watkins was able to get to his own Prosperity Point, he was in dire straits financially himself.

At only 27 years old, the native of Katy, Texas, and graduate of Oral Roberts University, found himself trying to get his own personal finances in order three or four years ago and quickly realized that had he been taught how to be an adult and all of the different financial obligations that come with that, it could have saved him from racking up thousands of dollars in debt and making other costly financial mistakes.

“After diving into it, I said, ‘Well, this is a pain, but I bet whoever solves this problem, it would be pretty great for them and everyone else in society,’” says Watkins, who lived in Beijing, China and worked in contract sales, before moving back to the United States. “So, I started working on this idea for Money Quest with the central focus on how I could make financial literacy more engaging?”

With the thread of an idea, Watkins joined Houston’s startup community in August 2021 and began to pull at it and after a prompt from Gamification Advisor Cal Miller, began learning how to code so he could build out his educational video game.

“After getting to the point where it was apparent that I couldn’t afford to get someone else to do it, I rolled up my sleeves and started teaching myself how to code,” says Watkins. “I learned it from free resources like Free Code Camp and Code Academy and we started building it in this specific programming language that we built this game in and just started from scratch.

“We went from one little house, to building an 8-bit character, to building out a road, to now it’s grown into a full-fledged city, with banks and grocery stores and cafes.”

For Watkins, half of his job is building the game and the other half is learning how to be better at building it.

When it came time to market Money Quest, he turned to CMO Keely McEnery, a 22-year-old student at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Grant is a very smart, driven person, so I’m happy to be on this team, we complement each other very well,” says McEnery. “Money Quest is still a work in progress, it has come a long way since the beginning. Moving forward, we are going to be adding content to the game on a monthly basis and always creating more value.”

The partnership between Watkins and McEnery came at the right time because Texas has started passing laws like Texas Senate Bill 1063, which requires a semester of financial literacy in schools.

“Before COVID-19, there were only three states that had any sort of financial literacy requirements,” says Watkins. “But now, post-COVID, there’s 17 states that have already passed or are in the process of passing financial literacy bills.”

To that end, EYF is working diligently to make sure Money Quest meets the requirements of school curriculums across the country.

“All the studies coming out right now about gaming and education are overwhelmingly positive,” says McEnery. “With things like higher retention rates through gaming education. In fact, it’s dramatically higher.”

In addition to working with the Texas Education Agency and school districts like HISD all over the state of Texas, Watkins and team are working with banks that want to connect with their local high schools and middle schools to talk about financial literacy.

“We’re that perfect partner to connect with those schools and banks,” says Watkins. “They need to work with us because of Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credits and it makes it a lot easier to connect with their local communities using us instead of just using pamphlets.”

As Watkins continues to bring Money Quest to the masses, he’s experimenting with creative ways for supporters of the game to get involved such as purchasing special NPC’s.

But as EYF builds its game’s brand recognition and begins to proliferate school curriculums, Watkins remains steadfast in his original goal to empower the next generation with the knowledge and skills to achieve financial freedom, which is the best kind of freedom as far as he’s concerned.

“At the end of the day, I want kids to learn to use money wisely, and not blow all their money in their 20s and get into high debt,” says Watkins. “I want to see them learn to be very strategic with their money from the beginning because not doing so will have repercussions down the line.

“I want to instill in them the importance of financial responsibility, smart money management, and economic literacy, so they can build a better financial future for themselves and their communities.”

The latest Houston cohort for gBETA has been announced. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Early-stage startup accelerator names latest Houston cohort

ready to grow

The sixth Houston cohort for global startup accelerator and investor gener8tor's gBETA program is underway, and five Houston early-stage companies have joined the program.

The no-equity program, which is based out of the Downtown Launchpad, kicked off in September and lasts seven weeks. In that time, the startups are connected to a national network of mentors, customers, corporate partners, and investors.

“This gener8tor Houston cohort is among our strongest yet,” says Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development at Central Houston Inc., in the news release. “We are excited about the caliber of entrepreneurs the Downtown Launchpad is attracting and the entrepreneurial ecosystem being created.”

The program concludes at a public showcase event at 5 pm on November 17 at Amegy Bank Courtyard.

“I’m thrilled about this cohort,” says Muriel Foster, gBETA Houston director, in the release. “We’ve seen the incredible economic impact of the gBETA program in other parts of the country, and we’re excited to bring that same impact to Houston.”

Here are the members of gBETA Houston's latest cohort:

CultureLancer

CultureLancer's all-in-one career-focused platform connects students at HBCUs with opportunities to gain industry-specific education and experience. CultureLancer also provides companies with the ability to source qualified diverse talent to meet their needs. CultureLancer has onboarded 30 students with each completing certification in digital marketing, closing on two contracts, and currently onboarding companies for beta testing.

EYF

EYF gamifies financial literacy education and provides children with a fun alternative to educational programming. EYF aims to teach financial literacy and economics in a fun, interactive, and applicable way. EYF is set to go to market at the end of of the year.

Oodles

Oodles automates the sales process and 24/7 customer service for e-commerce retailers through a conversational AI chatbot. Leveraging AI and machine learning, Oodles chatbot results in significant cost savings for retailers and improves customer retention and loyalty. Oodles has currently raised a seed round of $280,000, launched the product, and onboarded 10 customers.

SafetyKay

SafetyKay LLC promotes safety awareness to young children. SafetyKay focuses on decreasing fatality and accident rates among children ages 5-12 years by teaching them critical health and safety skills. SafetyKay's current safety awareness material has been viewed 81,359 times and it is currently in the process of transitioning into a mobile app platform.

Stobridge Education Inc.

Stobridge Education Inc. connects students with mentors and postsecondary education college, career and life resources for better outcomes. Through its comprehensive and fully integrated web and mobile platform, Stobridge Education is a safer alternative to LinkedIn for high school students. Stobridge Education has engaged with over 1,000 participants through their nonprofit partner, Adeiur and has implemented its module curriculum in two universities and four student-serving organizations.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.