small_factory_2Special-needs education programs developed by the Fair Haven animation studio Small Factory have been recognized with a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation.

Two small businesses on the Greater Red Bank Green — one in Fair Haven, the other in Lincroft — have been named recipients of major grants from the National Science Foundation.

Fourth-district Congressman Chris Smith  announced on December 9 that Small Factory Innovations of Fair Haven and Mgenuity Corporation of Lincroft had each been awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grants in the amount of $225,000 to help improve the way American students learn.

The Small Factory grant is to develop groundbreaking computer software to improve educational techniques for students with autism and other special needs students, said owner Chris Dudick.

Small Factory teaches art, animation and tech skills to area children from its headquarters at a River Road shopping plaza. In his application, Dudick noted the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder births. As reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number has skyrocketed in recent years by 110 percent, from 1 in 150 to 1 in 68 births in the past decade — with New Jersey’s number standing at 1 in 41, the highest prevalence in the nationwide study.

“Our project will develop a software that teaches social skills to children and young adults on the autistic spectrum,” Dudick said. “We will have a browser-based and virtual reality component. Our prototype has been successful and is currently selling in school districts across New Jersey. This grant will enable us to scale the product and company and in turn help the lives of these students who are dealing with the struggles of autism.”

The Small Factory project is expected to be commercially marketable, and sufficiently flexible for use in speech therapy, bullying awareness, foreign languages, life-skills training, job training and socially-conscious role playing. Software is currently limited to personal computer and has been tested with successful results. The project now seeks to develop a browser-based version in an effort to become device agnostic and more available.

“Small Factory Innovations is a very worthwhile project to advance social skills training software that can be of help to children and adults with autism by using browsers and virtual reality,” said Smith, founder and co-chairman of the House autism caucus.

Mgenuity, an education technology company of about seven software and education experts, plans to use its grant to enable students understand complex scientific concepts by viewing them in 3D, helping them to see them visually. The company says the grant will fund one of the first projects that will develop holographic applications specifically for science education.

The final result of the project will be a set of mixed-reality holographic 3D applications that lets students explore and understand scientific concepts and phenomena. Intelligent avatars will guide students through thought-provoking scientific explorations and continuously assess their learning. Students can interact with the avatar in natural ways: by manipulating objects in the virtual environment or by clicking buttons and constructing sentences. In teacher-guided mode the avatar can be turned off and the teacher can lead the exploration.

“If you don’t quite understand why ocean tides happen every six hours or so, you are not alone,” said Mgenuity CEO Dr. Attila Medl, who foresees students wearing holographic headsets touching giant red blood cells that float around in the science classroom just like they do in the blood stream. Students can grab any one of the cells and examine how the cells pick up and release oxygen, and why breathing in carbon monoxide is so dangerous. A talking expert avatar assists them in their explorations…or, they can dive into the unimaginably hot core of a star and experience thermonuclear fusion in front of their eyes.

NSF’s SBIR grants dispersed high-risk technological innovations using research and development grants to small businesses and startups. Some well-known examples of NSF SBIR-funded companies include Symantec, which is now a global leader in cybersecurity, and Qualcomm, a world leader in wireless communications technology. For more about the grant program, click here.