For Unruly Studios, the pandemic has been a real education

Unruly makes a system of durable electronic tiles called Splats that can be programmed to do things using a tablet or laptops. Students can create a physical version of the game “Memory,” requiring others to step on the tiles in a particular order; play “Whack-a-Mole” by stomping on tiles when they light up; or create their own dance games. The tiles can play sounds or light up in different colors — but students need to learn to write code before they’ll do anything. They’re widely used in the Somerville Public Schools, among other systems.

Like many other Bostonians in the white-collar workforce, Leeming, of Roxbury, spent spring and early summer quarantining at her home, trying to figure out what was next for her company and applying for a federal payroll loan to help her avoid layoffs. But she had the benefit of a spouse, Tim O’Leary, who was going through similar turmoil. He works as an administrator at Roxbury Prep, a charter school with about 650 students. He also found himself suddenly at home, meeting with colleagues on Zoom, trying to work out how to deliver laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students.

As the spring semester was wrapping up, Leeming says, her team was primarily working to support existing customers, rather than trying to win new ones.

“I was talking to Tim about what was going on for him and his colleagues,” she says. “Is now the right time for us to reach out to schools?” Unruly eventually began to field surveys and conduct interviews with about 200 educators and principals around the country to “understand what they were going through, and what their challenges were,” she says.

As the startup saw that schools were creating scenarios in which students might be learning at home, in school buildings, or with a hybrid approach, the company began to create online guides for using its product in those ways.

And since many students couldn’t be in classrooms working with the actual Splats tiles, Unruly made it possible for them to write code that would make digital Splats on their screens behave just like a “real” tile would. There were also lesson plans that involve writing code at home, and using the Splats on days when a student is in a physical school space. The product became more collaborative, too, so that two students learning at home could work on a program together.

“I was also learning from Tim and what his colleagues at Roxbury Prep were going through,” Leeming says. “We leaned in to social and emotional learning, and put out a pack of lessons intended to build class culture, better communication, and team-building.”

While Leeming was overseeing a shift in Unruly’s product development, she was also navigating the uncharted waters of raising money without meeting investors in person.

“We did an online event where 10 founders gave their pitch,” she says, but “it was tough. It was so different from networking in real life.” Still, she managed to reel in

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