Founder and CEO of Illumix
“Yes, before anyone asks, I’m the girl that gets to play games for a living,” said Kirin Sinha ‘11, founder and CEO of Illumix, during her keynote address at GDS’s 2019 High School STEAM Conference. Kirin launched the mixed reality technology and gaming start-up in 2017, after a series of start-ups, some of which “failed spectacularly.” Combining her expertise in technology, engineering, math, and business with her love of storytelling, Kirin’s Menlo Park, California-based company appears destined to make a splash when its first augmented reality (AR) game drops this fall.
If one were to catch a glimpse into Kirin’s office, it would be like getting a peek at the director’s notes to her personal story. “You’d see a thousand memes posted on the wall behind me,” Kirin explained. “They are a remnant of our first awful office, when we were just building Star Wars stuff. Even though I’m in a nice office now and everyone insists they make me look less professional, I’ve kept them. I find them inspirational.” In so many ways, the memes are the projections of her positive self-talk—or rather, for a Harry Potter lover like Kirin, they are her personal pack of patronuses*.
A graduate of MIT and Stanford, Kirin found her love of storytelling at GDS where she began as a third grader. “It was the GDS literary curriculum that exposed me to different worlds that would be the inspiration for Illumix. While I was here, I sailed to Ithaca, hunted a white whale, partied with Gatsby. I could jump in and out of any number of stories, environments, and adventures.” On her own, Kirin found an enduring love for Harry Potter. She related deeply to the characters’ coming-of-age-as-outsiders tale.
“When I was in school, feeling different and isolated was something I struggled with. GDS created a community in which individuality was valued,” Kirin said. “I learned to become comfortable in my own skin. Looking back, it might have been the most valuable part of my early experiences.”
“Rarely does one encounter a child with such self-motivation, determination, and unquenchable thirst for learning at such a young age,” said Mary Lou Berres, retired Lower School math coordinator and Kirin’s third grade teacher. “Kirin reminded us all to remain open to adjusting instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.”
Kirin rocketed through the math curriculum at GDS—Middle School geometry by 5th grade, calculus by 8th, and in 10th grade, an advanced linear algebra seminar tailored to Kirin’s exceptional talents.
“A lot—if not all—of what I have become today is a result of Mary Lou and Kevin Barr making that first leap of faith that I could be accelerated in math,” Kirin recalls. “It’s a simple thing of believing in someone. It’s really the story of Peter Pan: you need magic dust, sure, but if you jump off a cliff with just that, you’ll fall. You need belief also. Whether a kid or an adult, everyone has some kind of magic dust—some kind of spark—and all you really need is someone to believe in you to fly.”
From High School onward, Andy Lipps was and has been Kirin’s predominant teacher/mentor and fan, as he has been for so many GDS students. “I’m incredibly thankful to have such a strong advocate and supporter in Andy,” she said. “He made me believe in myself and that changed my whole trajectory.”
In her career, Kirin has created as much for others as for herself. While volunteering and teaching in Cambridge public schools near the MIT campus, Kirin launched her first start-up SHINE, an after school program targeted at middle school girls. She noticed that girls were using the word ‘can’t’ when boys said ‘don’t’ to describe their frustrations in math. And so she created a program that combined math and dance based on kinesthetic learning. “The abstract nature of math was simplified through the physicality of dance,” she said.
Kirin herself had studied classical Indian dance from the age of three. In 2013, she told MIT News, “[Dance] teaches you discipline, attention to detail, and creativity. It gives you the confidence to stand up there and not apologize for anything you’re doing. And that’s something I thought was missing with girls in mathematics.”
The success of the program—both in meaningful, reproducible outcomes for students as well as requests to expand all over the country—drove Kirin to pivot from her ongoing studies in machine learning and artificial intelligence at Cambridge and the London School of Economics to pursue an MBA at Stanford so that she could better understand how to manage a growing business. SHINE’s creative work continues across the U.S. and overseas, and Kirin remains the chair of the board.
At the start of Kirin’s MBA program, a professor asked the students to imagine a genie that could grant any wish. The genie, he told them at the end of the semester, reveals what you would want if you could remove the fear of failure. Kirin’s wish looked a lot like Illumix. “The real secret, of course, is that you are the genie,” Kirin explained. By shifting the narrative for young girls away from “can’t” do math and emboldening them to try without the fear of failure, she has inspired countless girls to believe in themselves. That’s where the magic starts.
Kirin co-captained the math team for nearly all of her time at the GDS High School. The ranks of the team swelled as Kirin convinced classmates that it was cool and fun to be on the math team. Even this year, as Kirin mentioned her love for the GDS math team, applause broke out in the forum. Andy Lipps shared, “Her enthusiasm for math is contagious, and the students love and respect her for it.”
Kirin was also editor-in-chief of the Augur Bit during her junior year. “I’m really thankful for what it taught me about storytelling and observation. Telling a story—presenting information in a compelling way—is a huge part of everything I do today, from the visioning of the company to crafting a VC pitch. Being a little bit of a loner myself, having the experiences at the Augur Bit forced me to watch people around me and really try to make sense of the world from different points of view.”
As Kirin prepared to leave GDS for MIT in 2010—after her junior year—Andy Lipps shared, “With all of her extraordinary talent, Kirin remains a down-to-earth teenager—warm, funny, gregarious, with a generosity of spirit that makes her admired by students and teachers alike. This is a student with a boundless future.”
Kirin had completely immersed herself in the Harry Potter series from a young age, but had never considered that building that kind of magic world could be a legitimate career path. “Advancements in augmented reality and artificial intelligence have meant I get to do more than build games. I get to build worlds,” she said. Kirin and others are taking the next step in storytelling by inviting story-seekers to become active participants in those stories. In AR, you actually walk in Neverland or step into Ahab's boat. “One of the bigger things I’ve learned since business school is that anything you really want to do—anything that you think should exist—there is a legitimate path to making that passion your job. STEM gave me the power to create.”
“Startups aren’t all fun and games—even when they are,” Kirin acknowledged. “Things that you don’t anticipate happen all the time and you have to be able to react, keep your head, and make decisions. Every day, I’ve learned to become comfortable bouncing up and down on this sea. It doesn’t mean I don’t get seasick or soaking wet or near drowned, but I accept that’s what the journey is.”
As she’s surmounted each wave on this journey with Illumix, what Kirin has been most excited about has shifted over time.
“First, it was proving that we could build the tech no one thought possible. That was hugely thrilling. Next it was seeing whether we could build a team of experts, hiring people from Google and Zynga and other top tech companies, and convincing them to leave their comfortable jobs and join this small boat. Now we are building products, and the next big thrill will be when it’s out in the hands of consumers later this year. The challenge I have my eyes on now is, what happens then? Is anyone going to play it? Are we going to make any money? Are we delivering on the fantasy of the consumer?”
With the consumer reception for their game as yet unknown, Kirin knows there will be some important decisions to make whether it goes big or bombs or lands somewhere in between. Yet, like Captain Jack Sparrow facing all the waves and mayhem cinematic world-builders may sling, she’s trusting the journey—laughing through the storms—trusting that somehow, she’ll walk out okay in the end.
“We don’t know if there’s a terrible storm heading for us or if we are about to land on a giant happy island. But I believe in the team and the ship we’ve built...and I think we’ve got a map.”
Kirin looked out onto the rows upon rows of rapt High School students in the forum as she closed her keynote. She clicked the remote and advanced her presentation to the final slide. J.K. Rowling’s tweet, posted on the 20th anniversary of the first publishing of Harry Potter, appeared on the screen. Kirin said, “This is how I imagine I will feel when the worlds I have been dreaming about and building are out there for everyone to experience.”
Illumix’s games will be playable on any smartphone with available in-app purchases. The first, which drops October 4, will fit the Halloween genre. Next year, she’ll release an open world fantasy-style game. Kirin jokes that the first will be the nightmare and the second the dream.
*Patronus: “a kind of positive force, a projection of...hope, happiness, [and] the desire to survive”
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