Top-Performing Tech Toy Videos of 2014

January 14th, 2015

The following is an article I wrote for the January 8, 2015 issue of the iKids weekly online newsletter.

The Spin Master Dino robotic toy was among the top viewed toy videos in December, 2014.

In early 2014, I wrote an article about the hottest tech trends found at the annual International Toy Fair in New York, an industry Mecca for the biggest toy announcements of the year. At that time, I recorded 50 videos of some of the largest toy presentations. Most of the videos I captured featured technology toys, remote-control robots and tablet-based playthings, though a few action figure-centric videos were captured here and there due to the strength of their IPs.

Looking back on the year in kidtech products, I wondered what I could learn by going through my YouTube collection of toy videos and checking out which clips garnered the most views for the month leading up to the Christmas holiday. Here for your consideration are my Top 10 YouTube toy videos, based on number of views in December 2014.


Company Product Views
Hasbro Furreal Friends – Get Up and Go Go & Pom Pom My Baby Panda 11,971
Mattel Hot Wheels Super Loop 3,413
Spin Master DigiBirds 3,244
Tomy Pokémon Battle Arena 2,408
Spin Master Zoomer Dino 745
Jakks, Lego, Hasbro Star Wars Rebels/Star Wars Command collection 655
Hasbro My Monopoly 603
Spin Master Zuppies 540
Hasbro Nerf Attacknid 534
Hasbro Simon Swipe 522

If YouTube views translate into purchasing interest, then both Hasbro and Spin Master had a good holiday selling season with a few key product lines, primarily those that include robotics or animatronic toys like Furreal Friends or the DigiBirds, Zoomer and Zuppies products. One big surprise was that while the toy industry made great strides in the app and tablet space in the last year, only one of the app-based toys I recorded attracted a large number of views on YouTube. What might this mean? (Note: the number-one item in this Top 10 list included an app that worked with the tech toy. No other toy in this list had a companion app, even though I covered many app-based products at Toy Fair last year.)

A couple of additional surprises: While I was impressed with the technical achievements of robotic toys like Ozobot and Moss, their view results for the month were small. Also included in my collection were video clips of toy products from the smash hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie was a box office success, but it appears the property did not drive interest in its related toy line ‒ at least according to my view tally. One product I referenced in my earlier article that impressed me was Osmo (formerly called Tangible Play). I had the opportunity to review the product multiple times in 2014, but was asked by the founders not to record or post any video of the app/toy. If I had, I believe it would have placed in my Top 10 viewing list.

Another striking observation from my collection of videos recorded at Toy Fair over the years ‒ in 2006 Hasbro released a giant novelty animatronic pony called Butterscotch, which cost almost $300 at the time. While the clip is now eight years old, it still drove a sizable amount of views in December 2014. Also in 2006, the then popular preschool show Teletubbies had a remote-control Noo-Noo robot used for promotional fun in the hallways of the show. Noo-Noo was not for sale, but the video continues to grab interest. The device was never turned into a toy product for kids, but my stats tell me that if it were, it would be a hit.


Company Product Views
Hasbro Butterscotch Pony (2006) 2,686
Ragdoll Noo-Noo RC Robot (2006) 2,735

Looking at 2015, I’m already seeing some amazing tech innovation in the arena of play. Some are combined physical/digital products, some are pure app plays, and some will tap into the maker movement and 3D printer space. Based on the groundwork of 2014, there will continue to be more innovation coming to kids in the app world, but will that innovation be enough to drive sales and create sustainable products from a business perspective? Of the scores of robots lined up to debut this year, which ones will include “must have” features and contain a level of novelty to help guarantee financial success? Stay tuned for the flurry of announcements sure to come in the next few weeks!

Scott Traylor is the founder of 360KID and an advisor to a number of children’s interactive businesses and products (none of which are referenced in this article.) He’s also a former computer science teacher and currently lives in Silicon Valley, seeking out the next cool kidtech business. Scott can be reached at Scott (at) 360KID (dot) com.

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Moving the Needle with Kids Interactive Media

January 8th, 2015

In the final weeks of 2014, I spent a lot of time reviewing all of the kidtech product I had seen throughout the year. In part, taking stock of the past year’s digital playthings was related to providing recommendations as a judge for the KAPi Awards (KAPi meaning Kids at Play Interactive.) The KAPi’s are an industry award for innovation and outstanding design in children’s interactive media. While you can find the complete list of KAPI award winners here, there were a handful of products that didn’t make the list that are worth mentioning. The product may have been too old for kids, or was not digital, or was simply a book. I thought it might be helpful for others to see some of these additional products that, in this reviewers opinion, are deserving of high praise for moving the interactive industry forward in 2014.

Here’s my list…

The Book with No Pictures – by B.J. Novak

The Book with No Pictures is a breakthrough in children's books The first item on my list is not an app. It does not require batteries, and no assembly required. It’s a children’s book. Buy it, find a four or five year old child to read it to, and let the fun begin. If you don’t have a young child send it as a gift to someone who does. As an adult, don’t over analyze why this book works for young children. It’s silly, appropriately speaks to its target audience, and it just works. I call this book out because of the disruption it’s caused in the children’s book world, and because it can help teach app developers to think about alternative approaches to content creation. Break outside of self-imposed barriers to creating content in any medium.

Monument Valley

Beautiful art and engaging game play can be found in the Escher-esk app called Monument ValleyI fell in love with this app earlier in 2014. The artwork is absolutely beautiful, the Escher-esk puzzles are fun and challenging. It did win a KAPi Awards for best app for older kids, but teens and adults will greatly enjoy it as well. It’s only flaw is that the app eventually ends. It’s a game you wish would go on forever. But fear not, the makers of Monument Valley released an additional content download late in the year to extend the challenge with additional levels of play. This app sets the bar very high for the rest of the industry. Currently it’s the yardstick I use to measure against all other apps.

Fibbage

From the makers of You Don't Know Jack, the social game of FibbageHere’s one you won’t find on any kids list. The game of Fibbage is rated T for Teen, and is a major hit at parties for adults young and old. They’re many things to say about this game. First, do you remember the You Don’t Know Jack titles from years ago? Well, Fibbage was developed by the same creative folks! The game uses a series of fill in the blank phrases, and audience members try to give a response, or a lie, that throws others into voting for your answer. After a short number of rounds the player with the most votes wins. It’s easy to learn, and the humor grows as more people play. But here’s what I really appreciate about this game. In an age of over the top 3D graphics, and deep story lines, and super slick characters and properties, Fibbage is incredibly simple console game, and in a sense a minimalist approach to game play that beats all other games it competes with. It’s also designed to work easily with any kind of smartphone, and you don’t have to be in the same room to play with others. You can have team members from around the world compete with you! Be forewarned there’s crude humor and fart noise throughout. If you can put that aside you will be amazed at how much fun this game is. As a developer, you will appreciate the beauty and simplicity of it’s design.

Osmo

Photo of the Osmo interactive gameInteractive products that successfully marry together fun interactivity software with physical objects can be counted on just one hand. The industry is littered with virtual and digital product combination failures. Osmo, another KAPi Award winner, stands as one of the shining example in this category. The product can be purchased at most Apple retail stores, and comes bundled with physical pieces to play three games, along with the three apps you download for free to play those games. There’s a fun and challenging tangram puzzle, single or multi player spelling games, and a drawing game where you control the direction of falling virtual balls based on what you draw. It’s a clever set of games and I can’t wait to see what new products this company announces in 2015.

Positive Digital Content for Kids

Image of the book Positive Digital Content for KidsThere are two things I really admire together; great design and insightful articles about the interactive industry. This beautifully designed online book includes both! It’s a free, informative guide for developers, complete with excellent interviews from leading children’s product developers like the BBC, Ravensburger, and Toca Boca. Interactive media designers, play designers, and print designers can learn a lot about making successful products and great designs for kids from this book. Another must read for product producers. For me, it was one of the best finds of 2014. Now download a copy and enjoy, but do know the book is also available in a limitedprint run.

Google Cardboard

Photo of Google CardboardRegardless of what you may think of this deal, the world of virtual reality took a giant step forward in 2014 with the acquisition of Oculus Rift by Facebook. What many people may not be able to see is just how fast the VR space is moving. Google Cardboard is a great example of that breakneck speed. Cardboard is an innovative, low cost solution to experience virtual reality. Folding together a pre-perfed cardboard mailer and sticking your Android compatible phone in the back allows anyone access to a compelling VR experience. The idea itself suggests that a lot can be done with VR in short, affordable bursts. The Google Cardboard initiative is definitely thinking outside the box. Watch for many copycats in the coming months.

Moff Band

Photo of the Moff Band interactive productThe Moff Band is a set of two flexible wrist bands that communicate motion activity of your arms back to an Apple tablet or smartphone. That motion drives a simple sound effects app. Ever play air drums and wish you could enhance the experience with the perfect set of well orchestrated rhythm effects? Ever have a wooden spoon and needed the audio support to make you feel like you dueling with Zorro? Or maybe a princess’ magic wand is more your style, complete with sparkle sounds? The Moff Band provides a great audio backdrop to your pretend play. The product was a huge Kickstarter success in Japan earlier in the year, and is now just making its way to the US. Watch for it in 2015.

Press Here – by Hervé Tullet

Image of the Press Here children's book by Hervé TulletI’ll end my list with another children’s book. Press Here is not just another great children’s book, it’s an excellent example of how to capture the spirit of great interactivity. In a sense it’s a new breed of books, one the feels like the author spent a lot of time studying the world of successful kids apps and theater of the mind, and folded the two into the book’s pages. Anyone working in the industry must experience this book with a child. This is not simply a book for techie wonks. Kids love it. You will love it. It’s a great addition to a young child’s library as well as your professional library.

Have you used any of the above products? Have you read any of these books? Have thoughts about other products that should be added to this list? Leave a comment below to share with others!

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A Year of Children’s Conferences

November 11th, 2014

Photo of a conference hall

Where do you go to stay smart in the kids interactive industry? What conferences keep you on top of your craft, while also helping you grow your network? What events are vital to attend to learn the latest trends? There are so many conferences these days which ones are right for you? Look no further, here’s a compiled conference list to get you started! It covers areas of the children’s interactive media business like toys, eBooks, video games, children’s television, apps, play, research, consumer products, and more. The list below covers most of the big US and international shows in 2015, and just a few important smaller events.

You can download a PDF copy of this list here. Let us know what you think. Which events do you attend? What speakers draw you to an event? If there’s an event that’s not on this list, and you think it’s important, please let us know in the comments below.


# Conference w link Location Date(s) Focus
1 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Las Vegas, NV 1/6-9/15 Hardware, tech
2 Kids@Play Las Vegas, NV 1/7/15 KidTech
3 Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair Hong Kong 1/12-15/15 Toys
4 Digital Book World New York, NY 1/13-15/15 eBooks
5 FETC Orlando, FL 1/20-23/15 Ed tech
6 PAXsouth San Antonio, TX 1/23-25/15 Gaming
7 Nuremburg Toy Fair Nuremburg 1/28-2/2/15 Toys
8 NY Toy Fair New York, NY 2/14-17/15 Toys
9 Digital Kids Conference New York, NY 2/15-17/15 KidTech
10 Kidscreen Summit Miami, FL 2/23-26/15 Broadcast, Children’s TV
11 iKids Miami, FL 2/26/15 KidTech
12 Game Developers Conference (GDC) San Fran, CA 3/2-6/15 Gaming
13 PAXeast Boston, MA 3/6-8/15 Gaming
14 SXSWedu Austin, TX 3/9-12 2015 Education
15 SXSW Gaming Expo Austin, TX 3/13-16/15 Gaming
16 SXSW Interactive Austin, TX 3/13-17/15 Interactive
17 SXSW Music Austin, TX 3/17-22/15 Music
18 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Philadelphia, PA 3/19-21/15 Research
19 Sandbox Summit Cambridge, MA 3/22-24/15 Play
20 Dust or Magic Masterclass Bologna 3/25/15 eBooks
21 Bologna Children’s Book Faire Bologna 3/30-4/2/15 Books
22 Early Education & Technology for Children (EETC) Salt Lake City, UT 3/15 Early ed, edtech
23 London Book Fair London, UK 4/14-16/15 Books
24 Games for Change New York, NY 4/21-23/15 Serious games
25 Dust or Magic eBook Retreat Honesdale, PA 4/15 eBooks
26 PlayCon Scottsdale, AZ 4/29-5/1/15 Toys
27 Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) San Fran, CA 5/3-5/15 Ed tech
28 Maker Faire Bay Area San Mateo, CA 5/16-17/15 Maker
29 Book Expo America (BEA) New York, NY 5/27-29/15 eBooks
30 AppCamp Pacific Grove, CA 5/30-6/2/15 Children’s Apps
31 “Content in Context (CIC, AAP) Wash DC 6/1-3/15 Ed publishing
32 NAEYC Professional Development conference New Orleans, LA 6/7-10/15 Early ed
33 Licensing Expo Las Vegas, NV 6/9-11/15 Licensing
34 Digital Media & Learning (DML) LA, CA 6/11-13/15 Ed tech
35 E3 LA, CA 6/16-18/15 Gaming
36 Interaction Design & Children (IDC) Medford, MA 6/21-24/15 Research
37 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Philadelphia, PA 6/28-7/1/15 Ed tech
38 Children’s Media Conference (Professional) Sheffield, UK 7/1-3/15 Broadcast
39 Playful Learning Summit Maddison, WI 7/7/15 Serious games
40 Games, Learning & Society (GLS) Maddison, WI 7/8-10/15 Serious games
41 ComicCom San Diego, CA 7/9-12/15 Entertainment
42 International Reading Association (IRA) St. Louis, MO 7/17-20/15 Education, reading
43 Serious Play LA, CA 7/15 Serious games
44 Casual Connect San Fran, CA 8/11-13/15 Gaming
45 Burning Man Black Rock Desert, NV 8/29-9/5/15 Art, mind
46 Digital Kids Summit San Fran, CA 9/15 KidTech
47 World Congress of Play San Fran, CA 9/15 Toys
48 Maker Faire New York New York, NY 9/26-27/15 Maker
49 MIP Jr. Cannes, France 10/2-4/15 Children’s television
50 MDR EdNet Atlanta, GA 10/4-6/15 Ed tech
51 MIPcom Cannes, France 10/5-8/15 Television
52 Fall Toy Preview Dallas, TX 10/6-8/15 Toys
53 Meaningful Play East Lansing, MI 10/15 Serious games
54 CineKid Amsterdam ~10/18-22/15 Interactive
55 Dust or Magic Lambertville, NJ 11/1-3/15 Kidtech, children’s apps
56 NAEYC Annual Conference TBA 11/15 Early ed
57 ChiTAG Chicago, IL 11/20-23/15 Toys
58 SIIA Education Business Forum New York, NY 12/15 Ed tech
59 Star Wars Episode VII release US 12/18/15 Entertainment

NOTE: Items highlighted in red indicate specifics about an event that have yet to be announced as of 11/10/2014.

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Minding the Milliseconds of Childhood

November 3rd, 2014

The following is an article I wrote that appears in the November 2014 issue of Children’s Technology Review.

Photo of a stopwatch, measuring the milliseconds it takes for a tablet to respond to a child's tap request.

If we look at the amount of time a child has to enjoy being a child, it works out to something like 6,753 days, or 157,680 hours. Every hour of childhood is important, as is every second. Who knew, but milliseconds seem to matter as well. Engaging a child successfully in an interactive experience can boil down to what happens within a fraction of a second.

While working in the children’s interactive industry for many years, there’s one question I’m asked more than any other: “What is the single most important thing needed to successfully engage a child in an interactive experience?” In today’s world that means successful engagement through tablets and apps, of which there are many things to consider. Engaging characters, compelling stories, a strong game mechanic, lots of user testing, a willingness to change something for the better when developing, an understanding of child development and child related research. But that’s not where I start. These are all “must have” components of a successful interactive experience. So what’s the one item that will make or break your app? Responsivity.

It’s usually at this point the person asking the question says “Huh? What do you mean? Responsivity?” Even if the app includes all the must have items mentioned above, if the app does not respond immediately to a child’s request, usually in the form of a tap on a screen, your product is dead. It won’t be used. End of story. The time you have to successfully respond to a child’s request can be measured in milliseconds.

Let me share a recent article to help crystallize just how little time you have. I’ll reference a technology advance outside of the children’s industry. There have been some amazing discoveries in the virtual reality space in the last year. You know, those crazy headsets that cover your eyes and ears to deliver an otherworldly experience, be it on Oculus Rift or Morpheus.

The vision of this technology might one day deliver a mind blowing, life changing, “real” experience. Part of recent successes in this industry boil down to this:

a.) If a user makes a request through the technology (input),
b.) and the display in front of the person updates as quickly as possible (output),
c.) the more believable and enjoyable the experience.

However, with a slow update, the user will feel nauseous. Literally. This performance, or latency, can actually be measured. A response time longer than 30 milliseconds will make someone sick.

For years the virtual reality industry has been unable to break a performance speed below 60 milliseconds, and in the process of trying, has made a lot of virtual reality testers sick. The breakthrough is this industry will be when they bring the performance issue down to about 15 milliseconds, which some say is now within reach.

In reaching that goal, virtual reality designers have had to look at everything that causes latency: Computer processing speed, software, cables, accelerometers, display screens,… everything. (See background info in Wired for more)

Let’s put that in context to an interactive experience for a child. What are the ingredients that make up the response time of an app? Just like the discoveries found with the virtual reality example above, the same components are equally important here. Interactive responsivity can be simmered down to what hardware and software combinations you use.

Lets start with the hardware. We’re talking about tablets. Are all tablet technologies created equal? If you look at the responsivity of just the hardware component of a tablet surface alone, though the differences are small, it appears the response time of a tap is hardly equal across all devices. Have a look at how long a single tap takes to register through the hardware of a tablet:


Tablet Response time (in milliseconds)
Apple iPad Mini 75 milliseconds
Apple iPad (4th generation) 81 milliseconds
Microsoft Surface RT 95 milliseconds
Amazon Kindle Fire 114 milliseconds
Samsung Galaxy Tab 168 milliseconds

(Note: A shorter response time is better. Source)

Okay, no big deal, right? We’re talking just a fraction of a second, and we’re not even measuring hardware latency from devices specifically targeted to children in toy stores, which by the way use cheaper (AKA slower) chips and tablet surface components.

Now we need to add in latency that is introduced from software. What software tools are being used to create apps for children? Most app-based software tools fall into one of two categories; native apps and non-native apps.

Native apps tend to be written with programming code that is “compiled.” Compiled code is translated into something a computer can understand at a machine level. Languages like C and C++ are compiled languages that tend to execute quickly.

Non-native apps may be created with a “wrapper”, something that can bundle together other kinds of “runtime” code, like JavaScript, HTML, and HTML5. Runtime code is not compiled. Runtime code reads like English, which is great for writing code quickly by humans, but not necessarily the best form to be understood quickly by computers. When this kind of code is executed at runtime, a tablet needs to interpret it, one line at a time, into something it can understand. Translating this runtime code on the fly is time consuming for any computing device, including tablets, and creates latency with a response back to the user.

When a tap or a swipe is sent to a native or non-native app, we’re still talking about a fraction of a second for this instruction to execute. However, just to put this in perspective, generally speaking, runtime code can take up to ten times longer to execute than compiled code depending on the processor being used. This can mean the difference between 2 and 20 milliseconds for a small number of lines of code to execute before the user receives a response. (Source 1, 2)

By now you may be doing some math in your head. Keep in mind, we’re still talking best possible scenario here. On top of all this hardware and software latency there’s the need to load assets (graphics, sound, video) in and out of memory. How memory management is handled can also add a lot of latency to an experience, more so for apps that download its content at runtime from the web as opposed to apps that bundle all of its content within the app locally. This is often where the difference between an experienced developer and an inexperienced developer pays off. Creating lean yet appealing art, animation, and audio is an art form, one that often adds to the benefit of “perceived” performance, and ultimately the end user’s experience. A talented developer also will know how to “mask” some of this latency, in a way that makes both the tablet’s processor, and the end user, very happy from a performance perspective.

So, do slow performing apps make kids sick? Maybe not literally like the virtual reality example cited earlier, but, many theorize that it can influence how engaged a child is in the experience. An app that is responsive can mean the difference between successfully engaging a child or making them not want to interact with an app at all. It can also influence your rating in CTR, which measures responsivity of every activity.

If you design products for children, immediacy is vital. Sluggishness can make you feel sick, and contribute to the death of an app.

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Breaking New Ground

June 17th, 2014

Summer 2014 cover of iKids Magazine for the story Breaking New Ground.

The following is a cover story I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of iKids Magazine.

In this blog version of the article I’ve included some additional information that didn’t make it into the magazine. I originally wrote this piece to discover what elements help a kidtech business succeed, and what part does geography play, if any, in the growth and success of that business.

I also wrote this piece because I’m exploring larger business ideas in the kidtech space. If you’re a like-minded entrepreneur or investor interested in engaging kids through the latest technology or digital device, send me an
email
. I look forward to having a future conversation with you.

Note, dollar amounts mentioned in this article represent US or Canadian dollars, depending on the country being discussed.


In this developer’s eye view of the North American children’s tech startup landscape, 360KID founder Scott Traylor finds flourishing life—and dollars—in some pretty exotic places beyond New York and San Francisco. You may never look at Pittsburgh the same way again.

As a Boston-based developer of children’s games, I’m well aware of life outside the confines of San Francisco and New York. Of course, many kidtech startup businesses can be found in these two cities, with Toca Boca, Duck Duck Moose, Fingerprint, Curious Hat, Wanderful, Launchpad Toys and ToyTalk all dotting the Bay Area. And Tinybop, Hopscotch, Ruckus, Speekaboos, Hallabalu and MarcoPolo—to name a few—having set up shop in the Big Apple.

In terms of venture investments, in the last five years in San Francisco and New York City alone, venture organizations closed more than 3,300 business deals in Silicon Valley to the tune of $31.5 billion. New York saw more than 1,200 deals close with more than $8 billion invested. However, only the tiniest sliver of these investments went to fund kidtech business. Less than two-tenths of one percent, or $52 million, has been invested in kid-based technology companies in San Francisco in the last five years. An even smaller amount, just under $34 million, was invested in New York City during the same period. The capital is there, no doubt, but it’s not necessarily flowing in the direction of kid-centric businesses.

A closer look at thriving startup communities specifically in Boulder, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Kelowna, Canada, have offered refreshing insight into what it takes for a kids tech business to grow and succeed. Business success in the kids space isn’t simply an entrepreneurial stew made up of creativity, talent and perseverance. It’s about access to capital, and it also has a lot to do with where you start your business geographically.

While the following new companies run the gamut from products to service-based in the areas of apps, eBooks, programmable robots and related interactive media, common threads across these three cities in which they are housed include a willing investment community, a local ecosystem that supports new business, entrepreneurial events that encourage business leaders to exchange ideas, and local universities where intellectual curiosity and talent can be shared with entrepreneurs.


BOULDER, COLORADO


One of many great block-based robitics kits from Modular Robotics.

The startup and venture capital scene in Boulder has grown significantly over the last two decades. In the last month, Boulder actually exceeded New York kidtech investing, reaching a total of nearly $41 million in the last five years. Overall, Boulder is a thriving startup Mecca across many technology sectors, and the kidtech offerings based there are heavily focused on software, robotics and electronics kits, with honorable mentions including:

  • Modular Robotics, a company that sells magnetic cube-like electronic parts that can easily be snapped together and programmed to build robots controlled by a mobile device or tablet. Modular Robotics is also a Carnegie Mellon business spinoff. (Photo above is of a Modular Robotics product.)

  • Orbotix markets a popular programmable electronic ball called Sphero, and the company’s new product rollout called Ollie, Both Sphero and Ollie can also be controlled through a mobile phone or tablet and have a growing developer community that makes apps that interact with, and control, these robots.

  • Artificial intelligence drives the Ubooly mobile phone or tablet friend that can talk to you, as well as listen to what you say. Ubooly comes complete with an accompanying cuddly plush cover, as well as a growing list of stories, interactive activities and games.

  • ATOMS, by startup Seamless Toy Company, are one of the latest electronic construction kits that work with Lego, as well as many other construction toys. ATOMS can be controlled by a mobile device and vice-versa The founder of Seamless Toy Company holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon and MIT.

While there are a number of venture capital firms that have helped grow Boulder businesses, two investment groups in particular are behind some of these companies. Incubator group Techstars, which has a significant presence in Boulder, as well as many other cities in the US, and venture investment company the Foundry Group were both founded by Brad Feld. He is particularly interested in growing the digital startup scene in Boulder. Feld believes in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a vision he’s dubbed as the “Boulder Thesis,” which suggests that an environment needs a mix of old and new entrepreneurs, inclusive of all kinds of business experience and ability. The ecosystem thrives on meetups, hackathons, conferences, professional get-togethers and business pitch events.


KELOWNA, CANADA


Game development company Hyper Hippo calls Kelowna, Canada its home.

Located roughly 240 miles east of Vancouver and 310 miles northeast of Seattle, Canada’s Kelowna is similar in size to Boulder and has the beginnings of the same entrepreneurial ingredients. A number of seasoned local entrepreneurs have turned their interests toward investing in local technology startups, many of which revolve around videogames, animation, social media and virtual worlds. In terms of local kidtech, the success story of Club Penguin, which was acquired by Disney in 2007, plays an important role in Kelowna. As with other large investment locations, an established leader in the area will often result in the appearance of many small startups with a similar interest over time. High-profile former employees include the likes of Club Penguin’s co-founders, who have moved on to start some of these new companies:

  • Hyper Hippo is one such Kelowna startup founded by Club Penguin co-founder Lance Priebe. While Hyper Hippo is a game development company, it also recently launched a new immersive virtual world for kids called Mech Mice. (Photo above is of a Hyper Hippo online game.)

  • Lane Merrifield is another co-founder of Club Penguin. He recently left Disney to start a new business called Fresh Grade, which develops classroom management and assessment products that teachers and parents can use to access up-to-the-minute information about their students through a mobile device.

  • Just Be Friends is a local-social education platform that connects parents, kids, neighbors and schools to help strengthen local communities. Founded by Janice Taylor, who has appeared on Oprah, the startup initially launched in San Francisco but eventually moved to Kelowna.

  • A great strength of Club Penguin is its child-safe chat-filtering technology. The former chat technology specialists for the company started a new online chat-filtering business called Two Hat Security, also known in the industry as PottyMouth, to offer other global kid-focused businesses safe online chat technologies.

Accelerate Okanagan is one local organization that is advancing much of the startup activity in the region. Now in its third year, Accelerate is an incubator for fledgling businesses, and its only requirement is that companies pay a $200 per month assistance fee and monthly rent for office space. Once paid, a host of resources become available, including mentorship, legal advice, business advice, access to talent, and cross-collaboration with other Accelerate Okanagan businesses. The incubator also receives government funding. Currently, roughly 50% of the revenue needed to support incubator initiatives comes from government money, but it’s anticipated that this percentage will drop year over year. In the last two years, Accelerate Okanagan has raised more than $8 million from local businesses and entrepreneurs to advance startups, as well as help fund local area meetings and get-togethers. Unlike other incubators, Accelerate Okanagan does not ask for any equity, which is a rare opportunity—and one that is helping about eight kid-focused businesses right now. Accelerate Okanagan is also watching the growing community of startup successes in Boulder, and has similar plans to expand its own model throughout British Columbia, much in the same way that Techstars has throughout the US.


PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
DIY meets robotics thanks to Pittsburgh-based BirdBrain Technologies.

Believe it. The Pittsburgh community is playing its part in the startup scene—and it’s brilliant. Pittsburgh also happens to be home to renowned children’s television favorite, Mister Rogers, which is a great place to start the city’s story.

Every two years, a local event called FredForward honors the work and memory of Fred Rogers and brings together some of the greatest minds in children’s media, child development, kid-focused policy initiatives and kid media moguls.

In 2007, Gregg Behr, the executive director of The Grable Foundation, presented the idea for the Kids+Creativity Network, bringing together the region’s educators with technologists, gamers, and roboticists to re-imagining Pittsburgh as Kidsburgh. Since then, the notion has gained attention and support from local businesses, community leaders and foundations that include the Benedum, Hillman, McCune, Pittsburgh, and MacArthur foundations. The network has grown to nearly 2,000 strong—and kidtech and largely edtech-focused startups are starting to bloom.

While on a somewhat smaller venture investment scale than Boulder and Kelowna, though it has three times the population of both cities, Pittsburgh’s startups, nonprofits and schools can collectively receive grants and services from such intermediaries and accelerators as the Sprout Fund, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Innovation Works, and the Thrill Mill. The Sprout Fund, for instance, offers grants that range from $1,000 to $15,000 six times a year that help carry out the idea that will advance the interests of digital, maker, and STEAM learning.

Just one of many examples of this kind of grant/community collaboration in action, a for-profit startup called Zulama, working with the local educational non-profit Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) developed a program for 9th and 10th graders called the Game Design Boot Camp. Together they defined an unbelievable opportunity for high school students to explore game design. Working with game design experts, students learned how to develop their own original games and received high school credit for completing the program. AIU was the primary grant holder who promoted the opportunity to 42 different school districts. Zulama provided expertise, talent, content and curriculum to students. The grant offered scholarships for 20 students, though more than 75 teens applied.

For its part, Carnegie Mellon University encourages entrepreneurship through CMU faculty and students, making it easier for them to spinoff their own tech businesses. The university implemented a technology transfer program called “Five percent, and go in peace” that allows faculty and student spinoffs to use intellectual property owned by the school for a 5% stake in the startup’s future success. Looking around the Pittsburgh area, it’s an incredibly successful program that spawned a record 36 new companies in 2013 alone. Here are some notable newcomers to Kidsburgh:

  • BirdBrain Technologies sells electronics kits where kids combine arts & crafts materials to create their own programmable robots. BirdBrain is also a Carnegie Mellon spinoff. At press time, BirdBrain just launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new electronics kit, the Hummingbird Duo, and has exceeded it’s goal with 16 days left. (Photo above is of a BirdBrain crafting and robotics kit.)

  • Digital Dream Labs mixes programming and video game controls. Digital Dream Labs developed physical puzzle pieces that are placed strategically on a holding tray. Each puzzle piece contains instructions that are sent wirelessly to a tablet or mobile device to control a videogame. All three Digital Dream Labs founders are Carnegie Mellon graduates.

  • Zulama is an online community for teens that helps teach design, programming and art creation for videogames. Zulama also develops many high-interest online courses in subjects teens are passionate and have great interest in.

  • GenevaMars develops story-based, character-driven learning apps that are fun and educational for kids. Its team is made up of artists, producers and educators from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.


GOING NATIVE

Any city that has a strong entrepreneurial environment will often host startup events throughout the year, offering insights and wisdom on how to fund your business. During one recent startup event in Silicon Valley called The Perfect Pitch: Connecting with Investors, about 120 entrepreneurs attended looking for a leg up on how to grow their businesses to the next level.

“If you are from outside the area I recommend that you ‘go native,’” says Bill Reichert, the Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures, a venture funding company co-founded by industry giant and evangelist Guy Kawasaki. “One of the great things about Silicon Valley is if you come here we will embrace you, we will love you, and we will smile, but if you are a visitor, we will not fund you. If you’re serious about wanting to plug in to Silicon Valley, that’s what I mean by saying ‘go native.’”

There is an element of truth to going native, at least in terms of securing seed funding or joining an incubator to get a kidtech idea off the ground. Going native is not an absolute, but it does appear to make a difference in getting started. Can an outsider succeed in one of these regions? Maybe, but digging down into who gets funded and who doesn’t, going native appears to be a very attractive component for investors. Investors like the idea of being connected, which can be a hard thing to do from afar.


NOTEWORTHY MENTIONS

There are a few businesses that don’t fall cleanly under the category of kidtech, or do not hail from one of the above mentioned cities, but they are kid-related businesses worth noting.

  • Washington, DC-based Zoobean launched in 2012 and is a parent-driven online recommendation service that curates apps and books for children. The company also recently made a big splash on the reality startup show Shark Tank. Zoobean landed $250,OOO from one of the show’s investors, Mark Cuban, bringing its current fundraising tally to $1.2 million.

  • Nix Hydra is a teen girl gaming company based in Los Angeles that has attracted a lot of attention with its first app release called Egg Baby which has been downloaded nine million times. The company just landed $5 million from the Foundry Group.

  • Another recently funded and very interesting startup is a company called Pley, founded in 2012. What’s Pley’s million dollar idea? (Or their $6.7 million venture backed idea?) Renting Lego kits. Yup. Think Netflix, but with Lego.

  • Fitwits is a non-tech kids company in Pittsburgh. Their specialty is selling card-based games that encourage kids through play to make healthy eating choices.

  • Another business with an active, high-profile Kickstarter campaign is from LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow fame. His L.A.-based eBook business, RR Kids, was looking to raise more than $1 million to expand its subscription-based children’s eBook offerings. At press time, RR Kids had exceeded its goal more than three times over.

  • And a noteworthy group of companies; First, you’re probably familiar with the much talked about girl-empowerment toy company GoldieBlox. They had a massive hit through Kickstarter, raising almost $289,000. GoldieBlox also won a national startup competition for a 30 second spot on the Superbowl. Well, there must be something going on just outside of San Francisco area where GoldieBlox is located. Two other local girl-powered, construction-based toy companies also launched around the same time, and also landed seed funding through Kickstarter. Roominate landed almost $86,000 and Build & Imagine captured $30,000.


LESSONS LEARNED

So what is it that’s needed for a kidtech business to grow and succeed? Tenacity, focus, business endurance in the face of incredible odds, leadership skills, creativity, a passion for kids. The answer includes all of that, but so much more.

While any kid business can succeed in any location on the planet, Boulder, Kelowna, and Pittsburgh, as well as the bigger funding locations like San Francisco and New York City, all of these areas provide invaluable support structures, which are a main ingredient needed for kidtech businesses to succeed. Venture funding, angel investment, foundation grants, friends and family fundraising, and even local and federal government supports (including tax incentives) are some very important ingredients as well. Access to other entrepreneurs that have an understanding of your industry’s needs, who can share experiences and toss about new ideas. Access to local colleges and universities, where not only talent and innovation can spur from, but also new business spinoffs as well. Ultimately, the invaluable support of an understanding community, both business and non-business alike, may be the most vital ingredient. Toss all of these items together in a large bowl, sprinkle with a wish, a prayer, some blood, sweat and tears, then serve. If the combination does not show early signs of success, start over, mix together again, but this time add a larger scoop of community.

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