Just seven months ago, the people behind Waterloo Region startup Knowledgehook described their product, Game Show, as an in-class tool that improved students’ math scores.

The mature pitch delivered today at Google Demo Day 2016 at Google HQ in Mountain View, Calif. illustrates just how far a determined team can come in a few short months spent in Communitech’s Rev accelerator. Today, Knowledgehook wants to go from a teaching tool to a big data company with enough information to tackle math illiteracy all over the globe.

“If we want to change the world, we’re going to have to train a generation that is proficient in math,” Knowledgehook CEO Travis Ratnam said from the stage. Few in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) conversation these days disagree: Engineers, technicians, and scientists need to understand math to investigate and solve the world’s complex problems.

But exactly how we improve the mathematical ability of an entire generation is an open question. Knowledgehook thinks it has found the answer, and today’s audience agreed: The company was honoured with the Game Changer Award, a people’s-choice-style prize awarded by online vote, to the company most likely to disrupt its industry.

Congratulating Ratnam and COO James Francis on their pitch and product, Demo Day judge Steve Case – Chairman of Revolution, the Case Foundation, and a renowned American entrepreneur – described Knowledgehook as “a great example of what’s happening in Waterloo.” Case admired the company’s go-to-market strategy in particular, which he described as “a landing and expanding model” starting with a free in-class tool that tantalizes users to acquire the full product.

For those introduced to Knowledgehook only as a math game show, the strategy seems bizarre: they’re giving away the product for free. But the approach betrays Knowledgehook’s greater vision for the company – one that goes way beyond an in-class experience.

For Knowledgehook, the game show alone is the educational equivalent of giving school boards a fish. Ratnam and Francis want to teach school boards how to fish, which is why Ratnam described their product on stage as “the first prescriptive math software, that – under the hood – is searching for the reasons why students are struggling.”

Ratnam and Francis have an idea about why students are struggling, one that underpins everything they’re doing as a company. As Ratnam puts it, they believe students are confused “because they have underlying misunderstandings that are going undetected and untreated.”

Knowledgehook holds that poor math performance is not the result of a students’ lack of natural ability or effort, but due to misunderstandings that live in their minds like cancer cells, undetected by everyone but the most skilled of educators.

By aggregating huge amounts of data on how students answer math problems, Knowledgehook believes it can uncover these misunderstandings, glean where they’re coming from in a student’s grasp of a topic, and correct them with expertly-crafted interventions. Armed with a data-guided strategy, Ratnam and Francis believe they really can raise the mathematical proficiency of an entire generation.

Getting from Knowledgehook from MVP (minimum viable product) to the Demo Day stage has required a tremendous amount of effort, and a heathy dose of luck.

“I read a lot of business books, and if they don’t attribute at least half of success to luck, I’m immediately suspicious of the entire work,” said Francis with a laugh during an interview in October. “There’s always an element of timing and luck in business,” he says, and Knowledgehook’s fortune came in the form of a bug.

“Students are given a curriculum to prepare for the standardized tests in Ontario, and they’re broken into levels: mostly applied and academic,” says Francis. “In our early days of testing, when the school year ended, we basically stopped watching the program. We started working in the back end, making improvements before September, but we didn’t close any one of the students’ accounts out.

“About a month into the summer we noticed that we still had activity in the system. Users were completing the academic-level modules, which was strange because we didn’t really have any students doing academic at the time. At first, we thought we’d been hacked, but then we thought ‘Oh wait, who would want to hack into a system to do math software?’

“Turns out some of the students from the applied class had gotten access to the academic modules, and were doing the academic games for fun. That really got the attention of the board. That was the beginning of Knowledgehook, where we really got to start to develop the software we have today.”

A great, gamified approach the math learning process was only step one, the Trojan horse that got them into the classroom.

“I think it’s three billion hours a week are spent playing video games,” says Francis. “And some of the video games, if you look at them – Candy Crush and FarmVille – the actual thing you’re doing isn’t that much fun. Crushing candies isn’t that much fun, farming doesn’t look like it’s all that much fun, but the games are really addictive. We learned that a lot of game mechanics is just psychology done really well, and we wrapped that around a math curriculum.”

With a working game show, Knowledgehook has turned its attention to big data analytics for solving macro-level problems with the education system, and hopes for a network effect to come from all the students they have in the system solving problems.

“When we reach critical mass with 30 per cent of school boards, we have statistically sound evidence to say what’s representative of what the school board should do in their teacher training,” Ratnam said on stage at Demo Day.

“Two weeks ago, we walked into a school board and asked them about whether they would be meeting their teachers for the next training. (We) literally just passed on instructions on the top trending issue in their school, that is likely effecting 20 per cent of their kids, and told them that they should probably focus on this before the next standardized tests come in and just blew them away. This is how we’ve been going from school board to school board.”