This musician-entrepreneur wants to change how India’s 200M youngest learners learn

Founded by Sneha Sundaram and her husband Bharath Bevinahally, Kutuki claims to be India’s first early learning app that uses a proprietary story and song-based curriculum to attract India’s youngest learners.

When your very first book of fruits and vegetables mentions grapefruit, artichoke, and aubergine, when breakfast comprises pancakes and cereal, and when a picture of a family has English-speaking characters with blond hair and blue eyes, what are you learning?

This is the state of millions of young learners in India, according to Sneha Sundaram, Founder of Kutuki.

When you feel confused and disconnected from everyday life, can you imagine what that could be like for a young child growing up in a multicultural and multilingual country like India, asks the early learning entrepreneur.

Blending art and tech for young learners

Sneha is on a mission to leverage art and technology, and transform how India’s 200 million youngest learners learn.

Along with her husband, Bharath, she has developed Kutuki, India’s first early learning app that uses a proprietary story and song-based curriculum to attract India’s youngest learners.  

Currently based in Bengaluru, Sneha was born and raised in Mumbai. She pursued a master’s in organisational psychology at the London School of Economics as a Tata Scholar.

Her love for music started when she was young. She started lessons in Carnatic music at the age of four, and then moved on to exploring Western classical music, mainly opera, which she says was pretty unheard of in a middle-class Tamil family.

“My mother would often catch me switching between varnams and Puccini’s Tosca, much to her bewilderment,” she recalls.

Having worked in organisations like Teach For India and set up multilingual children’s choirs in slum communities, Sneha realised that the creative arts give every child a level playing field to discover and express themselves. 

“Storytelling, songs, and other creative media are far more appealing to children when discovering something new, as against mere instruction. I was tremendously drawn to this idea since I was 18 and continue to be to this day,” she says.

Along with her creative pursuits, Sneha worked in some of India’s leading organisations like Infosys and Diageo in various roles in the People Practices Division. In her last corporate stint, she led learning and development initiatives for 3,000+ employees at Diageo, South.

While these roles certainly brought a lot of important learnings, growth, and stability she says she always had the entrepreneurial itch, especially when it came to creating impact through the creative arts.

Songs and stories

Around that time, Sneha also got married to her best friend, Bharath. A trained Carnatic musician, guitarist, and an ISB alum, Bharath put in various consulting stints at corporates before joining her.

After the duo quit their respective jobs, they taught music to thousands of students, upskilled as audio producers, performed with Grammy winners, like Pt. Prakash Sontakke, world renowned Hawain slide guitarist who was a co-composer of the Grammy winning album Winds of Samsara by Ricky Kej. 

Kutuki's story, "When two worlds collide?" was awarded 'Distinction' by the prestigious Nami Concours International Children's Picture book Award. They also composed audio signatures for brands like Titan, Nestle, and others.

Sneha and Bharath also continued their experiments and designed experiential learning tools through the medium of music and songs for young children.

Sneha recalls, “Our work there took us to organisations like Teach For India and preschools where educators expressed their frustration over singing the same old nursery rhymes and using learning resources that were force fit-from the West with little or no relevance to the Indian context. 

“In fact, in one of our interactions, a veteran teacher told us that 33 percent of children in her preschool were being screened for a learning disability when, in fact, the problem was the difficulty in understanding the accents, language, and contexts in the audio-visual learning aids being used. The same concept, when explained in familiar accents in their mother tongue while using everyday Indian contexts, prompted a flurry of questions and participation among children.” 

The children’s songs that came out of this experiment were a success, and revealed how underserved the early learning space in India is. This sowed the seeds for Kutuki. 

After many months of research, the founding duo brought together a passionate and committed team of educators, artists, musicians, and storytellers, with deep experience in working with young children, to build Kutuki from the ground up. 

Building a strong foundation

Launched in January 2019, Kutuki is a play on the word kautuka, meaning “the curious one” in Sanskrit.

The 8-member team has created hundreds of original, engaging, and culturally relevant stories and songs in English and four Indian languages across 30+ preschool aligned themes to help India’s youngest learners build a strong foundation in English, STEM, and socio-emotional and life skills. The founders also want ensure easy access to mothers, educators, and children across India by going mobile-first and leveraging technology. 

“When young children listen to stories and songs with characters that look like them, their parents, and grandparents, eat the food they eat, speak the languages they speak, and celebrating their festivals, there is an almost automatic emotional connection,” Sneha explains.

More than one lakh mothers and children, and 130+ preschools are using Kutuki across Tier I, II, and III cities. It is even being used in some anganwadis. 

“The one common feedback is that children connect with our stories and songs, set in familiar Indian contexts. They enjoy learning shapes through bindis, counting with pooris, and singing songs about their dada and dadi or thata and paati,” Sneha adds.  

Kutuki’s content revolves around three main characters: a young boy named Kutu, an adventurous little girl named Ki, and their best friend, Minku the haathi. Children connect with these characters because they are Indian, and enjoy having them as their learning companions.

The app recently released a free-to-use, no-panic, child safety awareness song called Corona se daro na in line with WHO’s guidelines to support parents and educators to talk about COVID-19 to children in a child-friendly way.

They received good feedback with organisations like CRY and NITI Aayog tweeting about it. Even the United Nations featured it as recommended creative media in a regional language, to spread awareness about COVID-19. 

Kutuki began as a bootstrapped company and raised a small pre-seed round from Jerry Rao, Better Capital, and First Cheque. Some of the features on the app are free to use while premium content is available on a subscription model. 

Tapping into the vibrant edtech market

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the startup had many preschools reaching out to them to integrate our content with their curriculum.

“The pandemic has unfortunately pushed many independent preschools to the brink of shutting shop. They are looking for support to adapt and deal with these challenges meaningfully. Having had our eyes and ears close to the ground coupled with our curriculum, content, and technology backbone, we have now designed a full-stack preschool solution that can be customised and adapted to suit a preschool’s need, allowing them to run it just the way they want it through virtual, offline, and hybrid models,” Sneha says.

A Google-KPMG report in 2017 pegged the Indian edtech market at $1.96 billion by 2021, with primary and secondary sectors accounting for $773 million.

Sneha says early learning is a broken and a grossly underserved market in India, with close to 200 million children in this age group and less than 40,000 preschools catering to them.

“Like Sesame Street (US culture) and Peppa Pig (British culture), we want to build a pre-eminent Indian edutainment brand that children and families across India can connect with and easily access via technology. We are also seeing an opportunity to look at other distribution models and product offerings, in physical, digital, and phygital forms,” Sneha says.