William Heathershaw was looking for a new project after moving from Silicon Valley to Minneapolis to be closer to his native Iowa.
During a visit with his sister, he noticed how she and her husband struggled with controlling their children’s screen time on the iPad he had given as a gift. “I said, ‘Why don’t I work on a solution here?’ ”
Once he figured out his goal, he started reaching out to his network to figure out what the product would be and to develop his startup, UncleWilliam.org.
The result, the app “Ava — Kids Screen Time Mentor,” was released to the Google Play store this month. Ava the rabbit rewards children for time spent on educational apps with “recess time” to use on YouTube videos or other recreational content approved by their parents.
As he was developing the concept in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on media recommendations for children. Among the findings: the importance of the quality of programming and parental involvement with screen time. The findings dovetailed with Heathershaw’s market research, which encouraged him that he was on the right track.
So he set out to tell his story to angel investors in Minnesota to gain seed money to bolster his own savings invested in the company. Among those pitched were Ryan and Rob Weber, who had recently sold their St. Cloud mobile advertising company.
The Webers knew Heathershaw’s talents through one of his former employers and his work with a trade conference and found the idea intriguing, Ryan Weber said.
So the family decided to invest. (The investment predated the Webers’ current venture-capital fund Great North Labs.)
“Features like this need to be tested in the marketplace and evolve,” Weber said.
Heathershaw has a decade of work behind him in marketing and business development in startups and tech companies in Silicon Valley and China, as well as working for the Global Mobile Internet Conference.
Weber said he knew Heathershaw was well connected with other people in the mobile-app industry and would find the expertise needed to build the app.
“William’s network is one of the best you’ll find in the mobile app space,” said Ryan Weber, adding that Heathershaw is a valuable asset for Minneapolis.
Take Jeremy Gross, for example, who worked on mobile gaming for EA. Gross and Heathershaw met at a gaming conference in Amsterdam when their booths were by each other. They both lived in San Francisco at the time and kept in touch.
Heathershaw called Gross to pick his brain about how Ava would fit into the app space. “I had the bandwidth at the time because I was doing freelance consulting,” Gross said, so he became part of the development team.
Another member is Greg Essig, who had worked with mobile gaming content for the Apple app store and was born in Golden Valley. A neighbor when Heathershaw lived in Beijing, Alex Ronalds worked for Facebook and Twitch.
For another round of funding, Heathershaw pitched David Wilson, who is one of the largest auto dealers in the nation.
Heathershaw, who received a Horatio Alger Association scholarship, met Wilson at a reception for the society and found their Iowa hometowns were near each other. They kept in touch throughout the years as well.
All involved saw the need for the product and hadn’t seen anything similar on the market.
“A big part of it is letting your child have a safe controlled space,” Gross said.
As often happens, in the development of Ava, the bigger tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple have developed their own parental-control products and will be competitors to Ava.
The advantage of Ava, Heathershaw and Gross said, is that it’s more than a tech solution, instead using the idea of a game to create a more personal approach.
“It doesn’t just seem like another piece of security software,” Gross said.
Heathershaw set up his company as a social enterprise, so he was committed to making the first tier of the app’s services free.
The company has built a higher subscription tier to monetize the app.
Now that the app is launched, UncleWilliam.org will start new projects such as adapting Ava’s technology to a classroom setting and developing new digital security or privacy apps aimed at children’s usage.
Heathershaw now is meeting with leading researchers on the best way to do so and also continuing to tell his story to investors and foundations in order for the company to grow.
“The idea here is we’re looking to better enable the mobile apps industry to better take care of their children consumers,” Heathershaw said.