by Len Lear

Were you ever tempted to give your child a credit card to take to the mall, but you were terrified that he/she might run up a bill that would require a bankruptcy lawyer to sort out? Well, a brilliant Chestnut Hill physicist has created a Philadelphia company that should be able to solve this potential dilemma.

Chestnut Hill resident Jo Webber of Moggle, chairperson of a company called Moggle, Inc., which started “Virtual Piggy” in February of this year, is seen at home with her 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, playing on a computer.

Jo Webber, 47, chairperson of a Chestnut Hill-based company called Moggle, Inc., started Virtual Piggy in February of this year after one year of design and development. The new service is a sort of online piggy bank (hence, the name Virtual Piggy) that allows parents to give their children money to spend online in a way that does not break the bank.

A native of London, England, Webber has a Ph.D. in “A Quantum Mechanical Study of the Thienopyridine Isomers (Quantum Physics)” from the University of Nottingham Trent in England. She moved to Chestnut Hill in 2004 when she ran InnaPhase Corp., a Philadelphia-based developer of laboratory management software. The company was bought by another firm, Thermo Electron Corp., for $65 million in cash in 2004.

With Virtual Piggy, parents would deposit money into an online account linked to a credit card that their children can spend. However, the money could only be spent at certain Web sites, and there is a limit to how much can be spent. When a child tries to make a transaction at one of the specified Web sites, his/her parents are informed, and they could approve or reject the transaction.

Thus, parents and guardians can determine how much the child can spend in a single transaction or over time and also control the merchants with which the child can transact. Parents also have the ability to set up approval rules and notification methods. Virtual Piggy tracks all spending, and parents can receive alerts and reports on patterns for when and where money is spent.

According to Webber, “Virtual Piggy was developed in response to the growing need for parents to allow their children to transact online in a controlled manner as a result of an increasing number of online services and products targeted towards children.”

Webber got the idea for Virtual Piggy in collaboration with Pradeep Ittycheria, who works with her at another company, Energy Solutions International, a Houston developer of software used to design and run oil and gas pipelines. ESI, which has been in business since 1976, has 120 employees and about 30 consultants. (Webber says she spends most of her time in Chestnut Hill, but she puts in a lot of frequent flier miles to and from Houston as well.)

“We were discussing how different it is for today’s kids who really haven’t known the world when the Internet wasn’t there,” explained Webber. “We were initially just talking about our kids, and then we realized there was a growing need for parents to allow their children to transact online in a controlled manner as a result of an increasing number of online services and products targeted towards children.”

Virtual Piggy has been certified by the Chase Paymentech™ system and can process transactions from all major credit and debit card systems, including MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. Chase Paymentech is a subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase, and a global leader in payment processing and merchant acquiring.

“Moggle is at the forefront of developing platform architectures that create a safer environment for children online,” said Webber. “In 2009, an estimated $26 billion was spent by children on online purchases, a figure that is expected to grow. Many of these purchases were incurred without adult supervision and lead to accidental buying sprees for virtual games and goods using parents’ credit cards.” (According to pollsters, the most often-used shopping websites for children are Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and Walmart.)

Moggle, by the way, is a word derived from MMOG, the acronym for Massive Multiplayer Online Games. The company had originally planned to develop a framework for building online games for children, but it jettisoned that plan last fall because it was unable to raise enough capital to proceed with it. However, it was able to raise $2 million last November from private investors, which enabled it to get Virtual Piggy off the ground.

Moggle recently made a presentation of Virtual Piggy at Engage Conference and Expo in New York, an important technology event for young entertainment professionals. “We generated a lot of interest,” said Webber. “We are talking to several larger toy manufacturers/distributors from that show.

We do have some merchants signed up and have generated a small amount of revenue so far.”

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