Mason’s Virginia Serious Game Institute has doubled in size and impact

(Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

(Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

The Virginia Serious Game Institute (VSGI) has doubled in size in response to the growing demand for startups in the information technology (IT) industry.

Opened in March 2014 on Mason’s Science and Technology campus, VSGI is the “business development, community outreach and applied [research and development] arm of the Computer Game Design Program at Mason,” according to its website.

Since then, VSGI has helped create jobs for Mason students and alumni, attracted more than $1 million in corporate support and reached out to more than 1,000 children each year through educational outreach.

After assisting with the development of six student-founded companies and helping create more than 70 jobs for Mason students and alumni, VSGI will now be able to not only continue supporting the eight companies currently housed there, but also accept four new companies into its incubator program.

Dr. Scott Martin, founder of both VSGI and the Computer Game Design Program at Mason, explained that VSGI is a multifaceted institute. He says the research, outreach and incubator branches within VSGI will all benefit from this proposed expansion.

“The first part of the program focuses on students and faculty being able to collaborate on applied research with industries and even government,” Martin said.

Martin explained that this first aspect of the program occurs when government or industry representatives approach VSGI looking for research assistance in specific fields. VSGI helps by providing faculty and students to conduct the research. Martin continued that the contracting division of VSGI not only helps students and faculty gain experience working professionally, but it also provides industry members with the research and information they seek.

The second division of the institute is focused on community outreach. Through this facet of the program, VSGI has helped spread awareness about everything from video game technology to basic information technology education.

As Senior Projects Director James Casey explained, “Outreach is another way for us to get out there and make sure people understand what all these terms in tech mean and how they can use it.”

The outreach program provides teacher-training programs in both public and private schools throughout Prince William County and also funds the Mason Game and Technology Academy program, which teaches kids how to design computer and video games.

VSGI is also an incubator, or excellerator, for new startups. The building is currently home to eight companies, six of which were founded by Mason students or alumni. The building’s size, which included 4,000 extra square feet of space, made it possible for VSGI to start incubating.

This facet of VSGI was developed to address a specific problem that Martin and Casey both recognized was holding back many companies from reaching their full potential.

“Nine out of ten start-ups typically fail before their first year,” Martin said.

In order to counter this statistic, Martin and Casey have created a specialized program for startups to help them succeed. The program lasts for a year, during which time resources and services are provided to students and developers to allow them to focus on their products instead of worrying about the business side of things.

“We provide a free office, a full time senior project manager to help with product development, a concierge service, customer support, a legal partnership with Shephard Mullins, and server support from LeaseWeb,” Martin said.

After their year-long stay, some students may even receive investments from VSGI’s board of directors if they are interested in the startup. This ensures that companies who start through VSGI are given a chance to get on their feet and keep growing once they leave the incubator.

Dr. Catherine Swanwick, a Mason graduate and founder of Catlilli Games, initially applied to be a part of VSGI after Martin urged her to do so. As she explained, “VSGI is a tremendous resource for our company.  It provides us with business mentorship, office space, resources, and networking opportunities that are already helping our company to thrive.”

Kyle Bishop, another Mason graduate and founder of Little Arms Studios, is another example of how VSGI has helped startups beat the odds. Bishop’s company developed a fire simulator which earned the Fairfax County Fire Chief’s Commendation award.

VSGI’s expansion, which occurred with the help of Prince William County and private investors, will help its incubator program grow from hosting just eight companies to hosting twelve Martin said. As the institute continues to flourish, Mason students and faculty will have more opportunities to take advantage of the resources VSGI has to offer.

Though not all of the startups sponsored by VSGI will end up finding success, Martin believes that the incubation experience will be helpful for young entrepreneurs.

“Our goal is to see startups from students, and even if the company does fail, we believe the experience of starting a new company is invaluable,” Martin said.