While growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, a young Vassili Philippov watched his father dip a nail into a container of blue copper sulfate solution. The metal turned into a red color, and the 7-year-old turned into a lifelong love of science. “It was like magic,” recalls Philippov, now 42.
Now a father himself, Philippov saw home experiments as a way to teach his four children as well as a way to spend time together. The entrepreneur has made his passion into his latest venture and now wants to bring that experience to homes and classrooms around the world.
Founded in 2015, MEL Science has raised a total of $12 million to date. The Amersham, England-based company’s name stands for “more efficient learning,” and through a subscription-based mix of physical chemistry lab sets and virtual reality programs, Philippov hopes to make his name come true for students worldwide.
Each month, MEL sends subscribers one of 36 lab kits that cover topics from crystals to corrosion. The first kit is currently free and comes with a VR headset. After that, the company charges $34.90 a month. Philippov’s products are aimed at children who are around 9 to 13 years old.
Through the VR headsets, students see how the world looks on an atomic level. Lessons include the properties of atoms, ionization and fusion. MEL offers 28 VR lessons lasting up to seven minutes each. Those lessons mostly cover chemistry today, but the company is building more content for physics and biology students, Philippov says.
His hope is that by making microscopic concepts more dynamic for students, they develop the same passion for science he did. “Humans are bad about understanding what’s bigger and smaller than us,” he says. “If we make the children smaller than an atom, then they can understand.”
With the new investment, MEL wants to expand to 5,000 schools worldwide, Philippov says. He declined to say how many schools he’s sold to so far. Educational customers listed on the company website include Mercury Mine Elementary School in Phoenix, Oakland Academy in Portage, Mich., and Eisenhower High School in Lawton, Okla.
When the company last raised money in 2016, Phillippov had a staff of 12. Since then, MEL has grown to over 100 full-time workers today, most of them involved in manufacturing the lab sets.
A year ago, the U.S. made up the vast majority—95 percent—of the company’s individual consumer customers, Philippov shared. But today America makes up closer to 75 percent as MEL has grown its footprint abroad. Philippov has his eyes on growth in Europe, Australia and East Asia.
He credits the growing interest in VR for learning and the growing affordability of headsets as part of his company’s growth. According to a report from Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit, headset prices have dropped significantly over the years. Google Cardboard now sells for about $15. On the higher end, HTC Vive sells for about $500. Common Sense predicts the price to drop about 15 percent in the coming years.
Companies like MEL may still have parent perception to overcome. The Common Sense report found that while one in five U.S. parents live with a VR-enabled device, 60 percent say they’re somewhat concerned about negative health effects from the technology on their children. About 60 percent of parents also said thy believe VR can enhance children’s education.
Still, adults aren’t the sole target audience when it comes to educational VR. “It’s easy to forget you have to make students happy,” Philippov says. “They have a high bar for what’s interesting.”
MEL was not an easy sell at first for TMT Investments, which supports mostly software companies, says partner Igor Shoifot. When Shoifot first met Philippov over lunch by the San Francisco Bay last summer, the company was still too early for an investment and the resources dedicated to manufacturing gave Shoifot pause.
Six months later, Philippov reported that his company had become profitable. Revenue had grown threefold, his products were in homes across the U.S. and he’d gained traction with schools. Shoifot was convinced. His firm invested $2 million for this round, he says.
Philippov’s past business success also helped win over investors. He co-founded SPB Software, a Russian mobile app developer that sold to Yandex, another of his investors, in 2011 for reportedly about $38 million.
The MEL founder says he feels a closer emotional connection to his current startup because of his family’s history with science experiments. He acknowledges that online tools may make his physical chemistry sets seem like an anomaly in an increasingly digital education market. But he believes that’s part of his company’s appeal.
“Kids need to be touching things,” Philippov says. “And you have to see it in kids’ eyes that they’re learning.”
Foto: MEL Chemistry has raised a $6 million round to help bring its VR lessons and chemistry set kits to schools worldwide.