Turning the great outdoors into a virtual classroom

Vicky O’Donnell is the founder of Wilder Wander, an astonishing mobile game that gets children out into Nature to explore the wonders of the world.

I grew up on a farm in the Wicklow Mountains, loved the great outdoors and from an early age I always wanted to work with animals, so when I left school I studied zoology and animal behaviour in TCD. I am sure I asked David Attenborough for a job at one stage and I managed to get some work with the wildlife filmmaker Éamon de Buitléar, finding pine martens for him to film in the West of Ireland.

But jobs in nature are scarce on the ground so I went back to college to study geo-informatics and spent the next thirteen years working in maritime research in UCC. I worked with data at all stages and, although the job was technical, the work was very applied so it was easy to see the value of data in decision making and the importance of data as currency.

While working at UCC in 2000, I saw an article in The Irish Times advertising jobs with Irish Aid’s Rapid Response Corps which sends experts to work in the initial stages of an emergency. All of the data/information skills that I was using in maritime research were directly relevant to working on the ground during an emergency so I decided to pack my bags and I worked with UNOCHA, UNICEF and UNHCR in the Middle East, Africa and Asia until 2015. Since then I have worked with the UN developing emergency toolkits and training courses for those deploying to humanitarian disasters.

“Our first game uses thousands of biological datasets which were collected over the last decade.”

The idea

In the summer of 2017, we started a family tourism business and were in the planning stages when we heard about the Kilkenny Bank of Ireland TechStars startup weekend. I had a couple of ideas that had been going around my head, mostly to do with mapping and the reuse of data so I pitched a ‘gamifying scientific data’ idea and we won the weekend competition. It’s really only because of the TechStars weekend that we are here today with the offering that we have.

Many people today have lost a connection to the environment and an understanding of biodiversity. Animal populations have plummeted by 70% since 1970 and if people do not appreciate the biodiversity on their doorstep they will not protect it. A lot of youngsters are quite disengaged from the natural environment and it is easier get them outdoors and learning with a device in-hand. In that way, we can teach them about the world in their own way.

Our first game (due out this summer) uses thousands of biological datasets which were collected over the last decade by scientists and we are gamifying this data to get people outdoors, exercising, competing, learning about the environment and most importantly having fun.

wilder wander 2

Wilder Wander 

We identified a brand-new market opportunity for our products due to a number of key factors emerging at the same time including the introduction of global open-data standards, the widespread availability of WiFi and low roaming rates, the proven market for location-based apps and advances in mobile technology.

Key markets

We are only four months old so we are still in the early stages of the startup rollercoaster, but we got our first sales for summer games and this has definitely been the proudest moment. The business is a family affair with my father Patrick leading the sales and sister Deirdre, a developer based in the UK. The UK is a key market for us and we will be pushing to sell there early next year.

“We have been astonished at the available support and are lucky to be based in Gorey.”

Starting a business

The lack of free time is really tough. I love hill running but exercise had taken a backseat for the last four months. I’ve recently got back on the hills and love the freedom and all the fresh air, great for body and mind.

We have had a global focus from day one as our data is global in nature and we have identified key markets that we will be aiming to develop over the coming years. The really exciting thing for us though, are the rapid technological advances. Within five years we will still be a data company but we have no idea what hardware and wearable devices we will be using.

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

Use all the support available. We have been astonished at the available support and are lucky to be based in Gorey, so we have access to the brilliant M11 business campus which houses the HatchLab run by Wexford County Council and Bank of Ireland. We have also been involved with Acorns, Leader in Wexford, New Frontiers/Enterprise Ireland in Waterford and we have had amazing support and advice from South East BIC and of course our Local Enterprise Office and the County Council here in Wexford.