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Startup Spotlight: Bitcubs founder wants to make computer coding fun for young students
Startup Spotlight

Startup Spotlight: Bitcubs founder wants to make computer coding fun for young students

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Amber Manry has collected a stack of notes that she received from school children about her cartoon called Bitcubs.

A handwritten note penned by one child says: “I can teach my dad what coding is, thanks to you.”

Manry chuckles at the note, which is charming but also revealing. Computer coding is becoming an increasingly important skill set in the job market — “it is right up there with reading and writing as far as a skill set, in my opinion,” she said.

Yet most parents of children in school today don’t know how to code. Even some adults have told Manry they’ve learned from the cartoon she has created to help teach basic coding knowledge to children.

“There’s a knowledge gap I am trying to fill,” said Manry, a systems engineer who worked as a federal contractor before founding her startup venture Bitcubs in 2017.

The startup, which provides educational animation about coding, grew from Manry’s efforts to teach her two daughters computer coding.

“Kids won’t sit through a lecture” about complex coding concepts, she said. “I’ve tried that. My solution to the problem is to make it fun.”

Her solution was to translate abstract coding concepts into animated characters that go on adventures. There’s “Larry Loop” — a lasso-shaped character who represents repeating lines of code, and “Ida If,” who represents conditionals, and “Sleepy Sam,” who represents a pause, among others. They go on missions to outfox Bugnacious, the villain who represents buggy code.

Manry’s own experience with computers goes back to her childhood in Virginia Beach, where her father was in the Navy. Growing up in the 1980s, she watched her older brothers tinker with Commodore computers and Atari game systems.

“There were all these women in my family that were in engineering,” said Manry, whose parents immigrated from the Philippines. “My mother had a degree in chemical engineering. So it was a natural path for me to study engineering.”

After getting an engineering degree from the University of Virginia, she moved to Washington and worked for 18 years as an independent contractor for the federal government, mostly in software engineering and as a technical architect.

Once she had the idea for Bitcubs, Manry worked with Flatland Animation Studio in Richmond to create the animations and In Your Ear Studios in Richmond for sound production.

Her goal is to have Bitcubs become a regular educational series on television or a streaming service and to have a downloadable app.

“We are now pitching it to networks and studios,” she said. “We are building a brand around the cartoon, and we are starting to develop a curriculum.”

“I don’t think everyone needs to become a coder, but everyone needs to have a basic skill set in coding,” Manry said. “So many industries are being affected by it.”

Bitcubs was among the first members of Propellant Labs, a “virtual” business incubator based in Southern California that now has more than 100 members globally.

Gene Swank, co-founder and managing director of Propellant Labs, said Manry’s creation reminds him of the “Schoolhouse Rock!” animated musical educational short films that he grew up with on Saturday morning television that taught children basic concepts in civics, science and history.

“She’s doing that with coding,” Swank said. He described Propellant Labs as a “community of entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs.”

“We have some members who are doing their first ventures,” he said. “We have others who have had successful exits already. We have one whose last venture was over $10 million [in revenue]. It is a great melting pot.”

Locally, Bitcubs also is a member of Startup Virginia, a business incubator based in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.

“All the founders here have been a good sounding board for me,” Manry said of Startup Virginia. “A lot of them have been farther along than me and have helped guide me, and the mentors here, as well.”

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