We’ve all heard the stats that the percentage of women that go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields could be better. Luckily a new class of toys are aiming to bridge the gap by introducing more girls to programming and technology at a young age.
Linkitz, a Toronto-based startup, makes code-able friendship bracelets as a way to teach girls the joys of coding. The bracelets are made out of wearable links that can be snapped together in different formations to make unique wearable toys. A simple graphical programming language is used to program the links to let kids do things like greet their friends with custom lights and sounds when they are within range, and send secret coded messages. The links include different types of sensors, inputs, and outputs, like accelerometers, microphones, speakers, and LEDs.
The company launched their product on Kickstarter last month, and since then have surpassed their goal with still a couple days to spare!
I recently had the opportunity to ask Lyssa Neel, the Founder of Linkitz, about the motivation for the toy, and her adventures during the electronic design and manufacturing process.
What was your motivation for creating Linkitz?
Lyssa: Technology plays an ever-increasing role in our lives and girls should have the opportunity be full participants in creating the world they will live in. But right now, even though elementary school-age girls report liking math and science as much as boys do, many girls “drop out” of math and science when they enter middle school. Why does this happen? Studies show that one reason is that girls aren’t given toys that encourage them to think of themselves as creators of technology — toys like that are primarily marketed to boys. Playing with Linkitz gives girls a chance to try being a creator of tech; they can see how rewarding it is and share that feeling with their friends. Getting over that mental barrier of ‘this field isn’t for me’ will encourage girls to stick with STEM subject through middle and high school, and into university.
What was the design & manufacturing process like?
Lyssa: We used Eagle 7.2 to design a set of boards. We were able to outsource fabrication fairly easily, but assembly was done in house for the first couple of each rev. We outsourced assembly when we were making batches of 10 units or more.
We’re not manufacturing at scale yet. Manufacturing our prototypes has involved some really impressive model makers/3d printers/short run board fabrication etc. It was all found by going to China and asking people we trust for help. HAX (our accelerator) has done a really good job of helping us to make our models and do small runs in way that eases the transition real manufacturing.
What were some of your lessons learned along the way?
Lyssa: We learned that it is important to read Mandarin! A lot of the data sheets for Taiwanese components that we wanted to use to cost down our product are not offered in English. We were able to identify a few companies who we can trust to do a high-quality job on the different parts of the process we’re going to need. And you want to find out who NOT to work with early — you don’t want to have to learn that the hard way when you go to scale.
For sourcing electronics in China, our biggest challenge is the language barrier. We were using Google Translate to translate everything: product descriptions on Taobao, emails to/from suppliers, shopping lists for taking over to the electronics mart. But once we left the office and didn’t have our VPN, we were out of luck. We had to anticipate everything we might want to say, translate it with Google, screenshot it, and then show the screenshot to whomever we wanted to communicate with!
What is your vision for the Internet of Things for Kids?
Lyssa: The coolest thing about Linkitz is that it’s modular – you can swap components in and out to introduce new capabilities or to take advantage of new technology. Our philosophy is that kids should have the opportunity (in a safe way) to explore the world they live in and that includes tech. Linkitz will be able to interact with the connected home – for example, a child could program it to turn the lights off when they leave the room, and it could be a game with their friends — who has the “greenest” house? Also, it doesn’t have to be wrist-worn. We have some designs in the pipeline for interactive entertainment that is worn elsewhere.
Right now we are focusing on marketing to girls because there is a gap in the market for a tech toy for girls and a tremendous interest from parents and teachers in increasing the number of girls in STEM. The toy itself is fun for boys and girls — our testing showed that.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Lyssa: Yes! We’re on Kickstarter for 2 more days. Take a look and please back us if you are interested in seeing a really cool and different tech toy come to market!