Tenka Labs co-founder John Schuster is no stranger to walking friends through building gadgets using Arduino, an open-source hardware controller — except they might be great software engineers, but not understand the actual circuitry.
But Tenka Labs, which builds simple kits that help young students create small gadgets with the use of motors and other bits that connect to legos, is looking to be an even more basic starting point to understanding engineering. Instead of jumping straight into designing a circuit, Tenka Labs makes what are called Circuit Cubes — kits that include lights or motors — that plug into Legos to teach the true basics of engineering. The company said that it has raised an additional $2 million in seed funding, and is also launching in several retailers for the holiday season.
“Before they go onto designing circuits, we need to get them to understand the basics,” co-founder Nate MacDonald said. “When they can see and understand it, they’re more comfortable to invent. They understand that the wires are making that motor go, and then they can create things like an electric toothbrush. The stores recognize parents are looking for an educational toy. You can see it online, and there’s a wave happening where schools are starting to have maker spaces. They’re changing woodworking shops into engineering labs.”
Because the company is essentially producing a toy, getting into retailers is ahead of the holiday season is going to be key. That’s especially true for toys like Circuit Cubes, which are primed to be potential gifts from parents or relatives looking to get kids interested in engineering. That can then kick off the virtuous cycle: kids enjoy it; the parents, teachers, and friends notice it; and then more and more families start buying it.
Starting off from such a very basic point is one way to get those kids excited about engineering, and get them up to speed, Schuster says. The blocks plug and play: you stick Legos on top of it to build anything from a fully operational medieval castle, which Schuster saw at a camp over the summer, to a part of a doll house. “There’s electronic, physical, mechanical, but they don’t even now that — they just know they’ve made their tank or their ceiling light,” Schuster said.
“There are electronic, physical, and mechanical parts, but they don’t even realize that — they just know they’ve made their tank or their ceiling light,” Schuster said.
Tenka Labs, which says it is launching in Target, Micro Center, Barnes & Noble (which still exists, apparently), Amazon, and MoMA stores, will certainly face uphill battles. It’s going to have to continue engaging kids and parents, hopefully tapping that same desire that would encourage them to go to Radio Shack and pick up a proto board and motor. It can do that by adding new blocks down the line, but also at some point contend with the idea that the students may be more attracted to littleBits (or graduate into them).
The key question for the company — and one that it naturally got from many investors — is whether it will actually be able to spin up the kind of manufacturing it needs in order to get those toys into stores. Schuster spent more than a month abroad to try to figure out the manufacturing, and the company also soft launched it with a program called Steve & Kate’s Summer Camp to gauge demand. One of the children there actually created a sort of pinwheel with the light kit that displayed a stop-motion video of a running horse, which emboldened Schuster and MacDonald even more as they looked to pique the curiosity of kids.
“We know there were good products but there was nothing fun and playful,” Schuster said. “That’s why we’re here, we’re filling a niche that had a need. These were the three favorite things they wanted to do. They wanted to make flashlights, battle their cars together and make this weird artwork. You can imagine your mom saying, grab me the flashlight, the kid says I’ll make you one. They go on the adventure, we’re not gonna script what they build and create.”