Corridor Business Journal: Software Startup Launches iPhone Application

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Web Note:  The three principals of Componica, LLC are alumni of The University of Iowa College of Engineering -- Steven Mitchell (BS 1998 electrical engineering, 2000 MS, 2004 PhD electrical and computer engineering), Michael Merickel (BS 2006 electrical engineering and mathematics, MS 2007 electrical and computer engineering), and Patrick Kellen (BS 2006, MS 2007 biomedical engineering).

By Gigi Wood
Corridor Business Journal

 The iPhone has a new app.

That's nothing new; applications are added daily to the iPhone app store.  One aded last week was created in the Corridor by a start-up software company.

There are more than 25,000 applications available for the iPhone, many of which are games and bug-ridden.  As of last week, there were 2,100 educational applications available, many offering study guides for math, classic literature and learning foreign languages.

Memorize Words for Spanish is an application created by a company called Componica, a software start-up located at the University of Iowa's Technology Innovation Center, one of the school's business incubators.

"We specialize in high-end software development leveraging the fact that the three of us have upper-level degrees in engineering, so we have a strong background in mathematics, particularly in image processing and pattern recognition," said found Steven Mitchell, speaking of himself and Componica's two software engineers, Michael Merickel and Patrick Kellen.

While most language programs available offer dictionaries, pronunciation lessons and video tutorials, Memorize Words offers something different.

It is a vocabulary-building program with more than 6,300 words.  Within the program, each word appears on a digital index card, the way many students learn language in school.  A set amount of words are presented with their translations during each session, then quizzes are provided and games are offered to aid with retention.

"The three of us have probably developed on every platform, anwhere from web design to Linux to OSS to Windows-type applications, so developing something for the iPhone was relatively not that difficult," Mr. Mitchell said.  "But since the iPhone came out we decided to develop something useful and beneficial to people."

Mr. Mitchell, who is half-Asian, said he never learned his mother's language, Korean, as a child.  The same language barrier resurfaced when he married Katya Boltanova, who is from Russia.

"Whenever I visit home, you can picture me sitting in a room full of people speaking a language I don't understand," he said.

Memorize Words, its developers say, is smarter than most language applications because it learns with the user and tailors lessons to the user's proficiency.

The application tracks the user's progress and deficiencies and adjusts accordingly.

"It learns with you, so if you get really good at a particular flash card, it will start to show you the opposite of the flash card," Mr. Merickel said.  "Instead of going from Spanish-to-English, it wills start showing you English-to-Spanish automatically.  And if you get really, really good at a particular Spanish-to-English card, it will go to audio only, whee it will just say the word and you have to guess what it is."

Memorize Words uses a Spaced Repetition algorithm, comparable to what is used in SuperMemo, a similar yet difficult to use PC-based language program.  SuperMemo was developed in 1985 by Piotr Wozniak, who took a complex theory for learning and for the first time used computer technology to hone it into a versatile language learning program.

Componica, which was founded in 2004, has taken that concept and made it user-friendly, adding games and other perks.  Words can be grouped into categories, such as nouns or food and medical terms.  Memorize Words costs $7.99 on iTunes.

"It's something you can do for a half hour a day at your leisure wherever you are," Mr. Kellen said.

The company is working to create extension files for Memorize Words for Spanish, to add additional features.  Developers are also taking the games within Memorize Words and adapting them into standalone apps for 99 cents.  They will likely create similar applications for other mobile platforms, such as Google Android, an upcoming cell phone operating system.  Other future projects could include creating Memorize Words applications for learning Korean, Japanese and additional languages.

"It's something that doesn't exist for the mobile platform," Mr. Mitchell said.

Componica is also partnering with Cognitive Media on projects.  Cognitive Media is a company co-founded by Joan Severson, who runs Digital Artifacts, a business that creates digital interactive exhibits and is also based in the TIC.  Cognitive Media develops computer games that will measure and track improvements in a player's mental capabilities.

Componica works on other software projects as well.  It has created pattern recognitions products that track sounds as they travel thorugh natural gas lines, track smoke through infrared cameras and a red-eye removal program for web-based photo editing software for Leepfrog Technologies, an Iowa City-based software firm.

According to iPhone reports, users have downloaded more than 800 million applications for the phone.