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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at William F. Glaser ’53 Rensselaer Entrepreneur of the Year Celebration

Category: Regional
October, 2018
CBIS Auditorium
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, to one of the most delightful occasions of the academic year at Rensselaer.

We are very pleased today to name another in a long line of brilliant technological entrepreneurs as the William F. Glaser ’53 Rensselaer Entrepreneur of the Year for 2018: Dr. Tobi Saulnier, founder and CEO of 1st Playable Productions.

Dr. Saulnier is an important part of the Rensselaer family, and for her, Rensselaer is a family affair.

A native of upstate New York, Dr. Saulnier followed in her father’s footsteps and came to Rensselaer in 1980, ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1984, a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1989, and a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1994. Her husband, Dr. Gary Saulnier, also is a distinguished alumnus who served on the faculty of our Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering for over thirty years, before joining the University at Albany as Professor and Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2017. Their daughter Kelsey is a member of the Rensselaer Classes of 2011 and 2013, and their son Erik is a member of the Rensselaer Class of 2019.

Today we are recognizing Dr. Saulnier because she represents precisely what we mean, when we challenge our students, “Why not change the world?”

Dr. Saulnier began her career in research and development for embedded and distributed systems at General Electric, where she led initiatives in new product development, software quality, business strategy, and outsourcing.

After twelve years at General Electric, she left to join Vicarious Visions, whose co-founders Mr. Karthik Bala of the Class of 1997, and his brother, Mr. Guha Bala, were our 2013 Entrepreneurs of the Year.

At Vicarious Visions, Dr. Saulnier served as vice president of product development, implementing new processes to help the company become profitable, while delivering games ranging from “Blue’s Clues for Game Boy Color” to “DOOM 3 for Xbox.” After five years, Vicarious Visions was acquired by Activision, and Dr. Saulnier decided it was time to strike out on her own.

Once again, she returned to Rensselaer, this time to our business incubator, where she went through several iterations of her business plan before landing on her mission: to develop games for young children that combined her lifelong interest in education with her experience developing video games.

Gamification can be a powerful tool for education, and it is an important part of the innovative pedagogy we offer at Rensselaer. For example, Professors Tarek Abdoun and Victoria Bennett have developed Geo Explorer, a mixed-reality mobile game that allows engineering students to inspect, design, and test flood protection systems—and to experience extreme conditions virtually, such as the recent Hurricane Florence, that we would not send our students out into, in reality. At our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, we continue to deepen and expand The Mandarin Project, which uses a semester-long game narrative, immersive experiences, and interaction with digital characters—imbued with artificial intelligence—characters designed to teach the Chinese language and culture.

Since founding 1st Playable Productions in 2005, Dr. Saulnier has developed a wide range of games that have improved people’s lives, expanding beyond her original focus on games for young children to develop games that educate, transform, and change the minds of people of all ages.

To date, 1st Playable Productions has created over 150 games, and today produces games for mobile, web, and virtual reality platforms, as well as board games, developed for clients as diverse as Nickelodeon, Disney, and the National Institute of Health. Recent notable titles include “Jamboxx: Breathe Easy,” which gamifies respiratory therapy to help speed patient recovery; “Shift: The Next Generation,” designed to teach emergency room doctors better heuristics; and “Cards Against Calamity,” a card game that helps coastal communities improve their planning for disasters. This last title was awarded a gold ranking at the 2017 International Serious Play Awards.

1st Playable Productions has also led the way in its business practices. Since its founding, 1st Playable Productions has focused on social impact and community sustainability, as well as business profitability. In 2013 1st Playable Productions became the first gaming company in the United States, and the first company in New York State’s Tech Valley, to be certified as a B-Corp, a standard for measuring social impact that has been called “the highest standard for socially responsible businesses.”

Even as Dr. Saulnier built a business that is globally competitive, she has maintained deep roots in the Capital District community, and has been credited with helping to revitalize downtown Troy, which, thanks to the leadership of 1st Playable, is now home to a cluster of game and software developers that employ hundreds of people.

In addition, she has served in many volunteer roles, including as Chair of the International Game Developer Association, and on the boards of the Emma Willard School, Museum of Innovation and Science, and the Proctors Collaborative. She has also generously volunteered her time with many programs to encourage girls to consider careers in STEM.

We are so proud to call Dr. Saulnier one of our own. Before we present her with the 2018 William F. Glaser ’53 Entrepreneur of the Year Award, we are so pleased to have with us Congressman Paul Tonko, who has represented the 20th Congressional District of New York State since 2009, and who will offer his own words of appreciation to Dr. Saulnier.

Congressman Tonko is a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and the research-focused Science, Space, and Technology Committee. With a degree Mechanical and Industrial Engineering from Clarkson University, he long has been viewed here at Rensselaer as a true friend, and one of us.

And now, for her innovation, social entrepreneurship, and dedication to the Capital District community, we present Dr. Tobi Saulnier with the 2018 William F. Glaser ’53 Entrepreneur of the Year award.