Saturday, April 21, 2018
Business

Froguts.com offers neat way to learn through virtual dissection

TARPON SPRINGS

A typical workday for Rick Hill involves dead creatures laid out on a work table. As president and creative director of froguts.com, he has spent many days with the stench of formaldehyde in his nose and the sight of, well, frog guts, splayed out in his home office.

"I guess it is accurate that my office can be described as a little weird at times,'' he said.

Froguts.com is an educational software company offering virtual dissections of frogs, fetal pigs, starfish, squid and cows' eyes. With a click of the mouse, the user is able to work with a virtual scalpel to cut open a specimen, peeling away its layers of skin and studying its inner organs without the real-life blood and guts.

But "I need to use real specimens as models to create accurate 3D sculptures on the computer,'' said Hill, 44.

A former Pasco County science teacher, Hill runs the company with his childhood friend, David Hughes. They are both graduates of Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.

While Hill works out of his home near Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, Hughes, 44, the chief executive officer, works from his home in Seattle.

The business has customers in more than 100 countries, ranging from homeschoolers in Pinellas County to students at a Catholic girls' school in South Africa. The website boasts up to 30,000 hits a day.

The men won't say how much the business is earning, but Hill said it has consistently seen a profit.

"Let's just say I am making more money than if I had stayed a science teacher,'' he said.

The impetus for the business came in 1999 after Hill attended a science program with his stepdaughter, Erin McCafferty, who was in fifth-grade at the time.

"We watched a teacher perform a very clean dissection,'' recalled Hill.

However, when Hill took Erin home, she could not recall what she had learned.

"So I got to work on the computer, detailing a frog dissection, identifying the parts for her,'' he said.

"What we have seen is that simulated exercises, where students can repeat the procedure over and over, ensures that they will retain the information better,'' said Hill.

About a year after he created the study guides for Erin, Hill decided to expand his work while earning his graduate degree in instructional technology from the University of South Florida.

"I even tested the marketplace with my students at (Pasco's) Mitchell High,'' he said. "I had all kinds of science students … grades ranged from As to Fs. But once I shared my software, the dissection quizzes became As and Bs across the board.''

In 2001, he launched a free website, offering people a chance to study dissections online.

"It immediately started getting hits,'' Hill said.

After just a few months, the National Science Teachers Association took notice and recommended Hill's work on its website.

In March 2002, Childnet International, a non-profit organization in Europe, contacted Hill. They wanted to award him with a Cable and Wireless Childnet Award, citing his work supporting youth and education. Hill flew to Paris to receive the honor.

But with the success came growing pains. When he arrived home from France, his Internet provider notified him that his site had too much activity.

"They wanted to start charging me,'' he said.

Hill realized he had a business opportunity on his hands.

He got in touch with Hughes, who was working for Searchopolis, a family-friendly Internet index geared toward children, in Seattle.

"I knew he understood what was going on in the industry,'' said Hill.

Hughes was thrilled to team up with his old friend. "We had stayed in touch the best we could, so I knew Rick had this great idea,'' he said.

In December of 2002, froguts.com was incorporated. Within five years, the company had hundreds of individuals ordering the software for home computers.

In June 2009, Hill and Hughes were invited to appear before the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee to help demonstrate how technology and innovative tools are being used in education.

Later that year, the pair was invited back to participate in the Senate's Technology Showcase.

The trips "were great because we do hope the business is a part of a change in the way teaching is done in America,'' Hill said. "We like to show how something like froguts.com levels the playing field for students. It can be used by a broad spectrum of learners who can use it at their own pace.''

This summer, froguts.com will introduce its first app for mobile devices. It is a sign of how quickly the company must adapt to serve students.

"Since we started, things have grown exponentially with computers,'' Hill said. "And our customers, young people, are getting more and more advanced with their computers. They are now very savvy.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.

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