“Learnovate provided the pizza base on which we only had to add the toppings. In this way, they helped make the ALPACA assessment tool – a potentially complex product – into something very simple but powerful while also appealing to young children”

Joe Fernandez, CEO, ALPACA

Project Duration: March 2022 - September 2023

Accelerated Digital Transformation

About ALPACA project

The ALPACA is a highly-visual tool that can be used with children between the ages of 4 and 6 for early identification of reading difficulties. It is a digital tool designed to identify young children who might be experiencing difficulties in acquiring early word reading skills in their first year of school. The tool increases assessment accuracy and reduces teacher time compared to current paper-based assessments.


ALPACA, Assessing Letter & Phonemic Awareness Class Assistant is one of a kind, game-based screener offering teachers the opportunity to spot literacy challenges early, before small struggles turn into large hurdles.

The Problem

Dr Jennifer O’Sullivan of the Marino Institute of Education, who specialises in early reading development, had developed a proto-type assessment tool for identifying children with literacy issues at an early age. Her extensive research had shown that early detection was hugely important in preventing children encountering difficulties with literacy at a later stage of their education.

In 2021, Dr O’Sullivan was put in touch with the Learnovate Centre with a view to developing her idea into a viable, commercial product. Following initial discussions, her product idea was quickly identified as a strong candidate for an Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund. 

A multi-disciplinary project team was assembled consisting of members of the Learnovate team specialising in learning technologies, user experience design, innovation and project management. The team proceeded to put together the funding application while also beginning the initial work on a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Learnovate were able to provide the project with all the support staff it required and, most importantly, manage the entire funding application process which included commissioning a Feasibility Study to verify the market demand for the product. The Feasibility Study uncovered a strong demand for the product amongst the target customer segment of primary schools and funding for the project was successfully awarded.   

The Research

Once funding for the project had been secured, the Learnovate team worked closely with the subject matter expert, Dr O’Sulllivan and Commercial Lead, Joe Fernanadez to develop the product.

This involved a series of iterative ‘sprints’ in which workshop outputs were quickly transformed into mock-ups that could be validated with the target customers before being refined and incorporated back into the product design. This ability to quickly go from product to customer and back to product helped to rapidly develop the product while also ensuring a very close ‘product-market’ fit.

Using tried and tested processes and methodologies, the Learnovate team were able to unpack the knowledge and expertise that was available to the project team and extract insights that could be used to enhance the product.

The Learnovate technical team were also able to come up with some very innovative solutions that meant the project avoided potential roadblocks on the route to scaling up in the market.

Throughout the duration of the project, Learnovate provided what Joe calls ‘a rapid incubation space’ where the team could grow the product at speed since a lot of the peripheral issues that often hamper start-ups were taken care of by the Learnovate support staff.

Reflecting on the Learnovate role in the project, Tom Pollock, the centre’s Commercial Development Manager, explains that ‘the ALPACA project offered an exciting opportunity for Learnovate to work on the development of an innovative and ground-breaking learning tool’.

The Result

According to ALPACA’s now CEO Joe Fernandez, ‘The ALPACA tool will reduce waiting times for assessments by between 70 and 80% while also cutting the cost of diagnosis by over 50%’

As a result of the work done with Learnovate, the ALPACA team were able to embark on a year-long pilot involving 1000 infants in 30 schools across 5 countries. Since then, a further 8000 children have been screened with another 17000 on a waiting list in 250 schools.

More significantly, the ALPACA tool is a ‘game-changer’ when it comes to assessing reading difficulties in children during their first year in school. This was recognised In March 2024 when ALPACA won the EdTech Accelerator Pitch Day run by Amazon Web Services (AWS) after competing against 9 other start-ups for the coveted award.

In terms of employee numbers, the two developers hired during the initial phase of the project have been retained in the ALPACA team and the target is to add another five team members over the next two years.

Reflecting on the process of working with the Learnovate Centre, Joe describes how ‘Learnovate provided the pizza base on which we only had to add the toppings’. In this way, they helped make the ALPACA assessment tool – a potentially complex product – into something very simple but powerful while also appealing to young children.