How getting lost in the Columbus Zoo helped this startup find its niche
Going to the zoo is a common summer activity and field trip destination for kids. But as the pandemic continues, in-person activities for students have become more difficult than ever to schedule and organize. So how can parents and teachers provide kids with an educational and immersive experience in a world that’s becoming increasingly virtual? To address this growing need, Hari Kunduru founded Zoptiks in Columbus to develop virtual, interactive, experiences for zoos.
“At Zoptiks, we make interactive zoo maps that you can use on your phone and virtual field trips that are built for an iPad,” said Kunduru. “We are a mix between a zoo-tech and an edtech company. On the edtech side we create virtual field trips and on the zoo-tech side we create zoo maps. We can take you across the world and deep into the ocean. We can bring a whale into your room so you can take pictures with it. We can bring you lions, elephants, ancient pyramids and ancient Roman artifacts.”
The idea for the company began when Kunduru got lost one day at the Columbus Zoo. After circling the same exhibit four times, he searched on the zoo’s website for a map. The only one available was a PDF that was difficult to load on his phone.
“I thought, ‘there’s got to be a map for this, right?’ There was a PDF version, but it didn’t sync well with my phone and it wasn’t precise — it was just a general one,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Hey, I can make a digital zoo map out of this.’ Now we have the ZooKit, which includes the map for zoos and enters all the exhibits, stores, entrances, restaurants and facilities. It’s integrated directly into their website and we also provide analytics to improve their digital presence.”
When the pandemic hit, zoos no longer had an immediate need for digital maps, due to the lack of visitors. However, Kunduru saw an opportunity to bring another aspect of the zoo experience to the digital world. He pitched the idea of creating a virtual field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo and brought the idea to life with interactive elements.
“In 2020, many zoos saw a loss in revenue,” he said. “They didn’t need a new map because they didn’t have people in their zoos anymore. When I was talking to the Philly zoo, they told me they were about to lose $2 million in field trip revenue. I saw this as an opportunity for more interactive and experiential learning while partnering with zoos. We want to replicate a real field trip in a new way.”
Their virtual field trips have now expanded outside of the classroom to include all zoo visitors, but the company is still passionate about helping kids in need. Kunduru created the Zoptiks Foundation to bring the company’s virtual field trips to kids who were in the hospital, who lived in the foster care system or those from other underserved communities. The foundation also works with other organizations around the world to support wildlife conservation and promote sustainability.
“I wanted to put Zoptiks in the hands of kids who really needed it most,” he said. “One of the things I did was reach out to foster care networks and nonprofits to help distribute our memberships, but I found lots of bureaucracy and associated costs. So we created our own nonprofit and that’s how we distribute our free memberships. We partner with various foster agencies and networks and help them distribute our memberships as an enrichment program. If you buy a Zoptiks membership, we give one for free to a kid in foster care.”
But it doesn’t stop there for Zoptiks. The company is preparing to launch a virtual summer camp this year, as well as 16 additional virtual field trips that feature zoos from around the world. And while they’re growing their products on a global scale, Kunduru knows that Columbus is the perfect home base for the burgeoning startup.
“My alma mater is Ohio State and there were a lot of connections that I could leverage and a great alumni network,” he said. “Ohio also has a lot of zoos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Columbus. If I were to create a zoo company in the entire world, it would be in Ohio. It’s also very business-friendly and good for young startups. The state is good for the longevity of a startup or small business and there’s a growing community here that’s open to new ideas.”