Logan Winston, Langone MBA Class of 2016

Last week the Jacob K. Javits Center hosted the 112th annual American International Toy Fair, perhaps the largest toy and youth product marketplace in the Western Hemisphere.  A life-long kid with a long-standing interest in robotics and the educational technology industry, I decided to parachute in to learn about different ed tech companies, as well as to meet with entrepreneurs to hear about their journeys from concepts to revenue.

The show hosted the entire toy gamut, from you’ve-never-seen-so-many different styles of inter-locking bricks to action figures, stuffed ponies, reading toys, apps, robots, sustainably manufactured toys, and the list goes on. Probability junkies would likely be in heaven given the overwhelming quantity of dice (die?) at the event. According to show materials, the 2014 Toy Fair occupied a “record-breaking” 412,000 net square feet of exhibit space and hosted attendees from 100 countries.

Many of the show booths belonging to larger, more well-established companies (e.g., Lego) were built like forts, and one needed an appointment ahead of time to even get in to see the goodies.  Given limited time and my interests, I focused on younger, more start-up-y companies whose booths were typically open and whose products, representatives, and sometimes founders were quite accessible.

Do-It-Yourself

Kickstarter success story MakeyMakey was one of the most interesting DIY-type products I came across. The MakeyMakey – yes, it’s really called that – allows you to create interfaces with your computer and the internet via everyday objects.  An invention kit for the 21st century, the device connects to your computer via USB and looks like a Nintendo Entertainment System controller (circa 1989) and circuit board hybrid.  Once the device is connected, you can run alligator clips from the device to countless other objects in the world, so long as they conduct electricity (i.e., they can complete a circuit). From there, the device essentially tricks your computer into thinking the object(s) to which you have connected the device are actually a computer mouse button or key.  I later tried it with a soup pot in my apartment, and every time I touched the pot, I played a note on a piano app on my computer.

As luck would have it, Jay Silver, one of MakeyMakey’s inventors and an MIT Media Lab Ph. D. candidate, was at the booth when I stopped by. He shared some of his DIY philosophies that informed the development of MakeyMakey.

“As you may or may not know, the world is a construction kit,” he told me. “Most products don’t highlight the fact that you can repurpose and redesign the world you live in.  MakeyMakey points to the world … and says, ‘Oh, you have a tree? Make it into a musical instrument. You have bananas? Make them into drums. … You want your cat to lick the water in the bowl and take a selfie of himself?’… Everyday objects like your grandma and ice get repurposed and dumpster-dived and turned into interfaces for computers,” he continued.  “This is pure creative repurposing. And repurposing means that you designate your own purpose – and that’s where you get creative confidence from – from practicing designating meaning in the world, at first in small ways and then changing the world in a big way.”

Jay informed me that during the Kickstarter campaign MakeyMakey received twenty times the response they had asked for, ultimately $568,000 according to Kickstarter.  It was hard not to feel inspired while talking to Jay and playing a drum set made out of bananas.

Robotics

On the robotics side, there were quite a number of interesting robotics companies with booths at the show; some were pure fun, and others were fun and educational. Calgary, Alberta-based EZ-Robots displayed a number of different robots that were created with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in mind.  I chatted with founder and CEO DJ Sures who started the company in his basement and likened his vision for robotics to the home computer revolution of the late 70s and early 80s, that is, making robots accessible to everyone.

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“We decided to build something that was more STEM related, meaning that it was more preparing the customer, the user, the student for a real world application in robotics,” he said. “We allow people to build robots to solve problems, everything from disaster recovery, to fire and safety, to handling dangerous waste to exploratorial stuff into caves, under water, into space.”

Ez-Robot offers three different starter robots that retail for $250 – $470, but receiving the physical robot is just the beginning.  You can purchase additional parts or print some of them using a 3D printer. EZ-Robot has also developed EZ-Builder, a robot software control package that allows the user to program the robots. Programs can be uploaded to the EZ-Cloud and then sync with mobile devices, allowing for robot control via phones and tablets. Sures informed me that there were over 300 apps that had been uploaded to the EZ-Cloud to date. From his basement to market, Sures now has 9 staff, a 2,200 square foot retail location with lab in the back, and nine 3D printers running 24 hours a day.

Girls and STEM

If you were watching the Super Bowl recently, you probably saw the commercial for GoldieBlox, a company that aims to inspire the next generation of female engineers. GoldieBlox grew from a successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign, one which had aimed to raise $150,000, but that ultimately raised $285,000.

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During the show, GoldieBlox took home the Toy Industry Association’s Educational Toy of the Year and People’s Choice awards – akin to “Oscars” for toys – for its GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine toy.  The toy allows the user to assist Goldie, the toy protagonist, in creating a belt drive machine that helps her dog, Nacho, chase his own tail. The Educational award recognizes an outstanding toy that helps children develop special skills and knowledge through play, and the People’s Choice award recognized the most online votes from consumers.

GoldieBlox had an impressive display and founder Debbie Sterling was so busy that I did not have a chance to meet with her.  She was, however, kind enough to share some thoughts on lessons from entrepreneurship after the show via email.

“One important lesson I learned is that no means maybe and to never stop fighting for your vision,” she said.

“When I first came up with GoldieBlox, I chose to share my idea with toy industry veterans and various toy store owners in order to get their feedback. I was met with a great deal of skepticism telling me, ‘You can’t fight nature. Construction toys for girls don’t sell.’ Knowing that GoldieBlox was something I would have appreciated as a young girl, I chose not to give up. I decided to crowdfund GoldieBlox into production on Kickstarter which proved there was market demand for the product.”

Sustainable Toys

When I eventually wandered out of the educational toys section I stumbled upon a booth for Tegu, a company that manufactures magnetic blocks in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  Aside from having a beautiful product, Tegu also has an impressive mission: to help bring lasting change to the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Tegu’s means for doing so include: creating living wage jobs that focus on career growth over simple task-based jobs, planting trees, and breaking the cycle of poverty by getting kids out of trash dumps and into classrooms.

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I left the show thoroughly exhausted, overly impressed with the entrepreneurship and creativity I had witnessed, and excited to know that the NYU Entrepreneurs Festival was just around the corner.

Follow me on twitter: @LoganWinston

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