Fresh Capital

LittleBits Raises a $3.65M. Series A to Build Toys That Aren’t Cheap Trash

Open source comes to education.
screen shot 2012 07 17 at 10 59 35 pm LittleBits Raises a $3.65M. Series A to Build Toys That Arent Cheap Trash

Too cute. (Via: Littlebits.com)

Local maker-minded startup LittleBits just announced a $3.65 million Series A, led by True Ventures. Also participating were Khosla Ventures, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and Lerer Ventures.

Founder (and MIT Media Lab alum, and TED speaker) Ayah Bdeir told Betabeat that the round will help the company to–pardon the expression–kick it up a notch. “The first phase was really sort of a proof of concept,” she said. The response did not disappoint: LittleBits sold better than expected, “so that we actually now know it’s time to press the peddle.”

The company describes itself as “an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnants for prototyping and play.” And what does that mean, precisely? Think wired Erector Sets.

The namesake “little bits” are small modules that snap together to create larger projects, like this car that goes when hit with a light or this “fire-breathing” Komodo dragon. The projects do not require a PhD in electrical engineering and are simple enough that a kid can assemble one without driving herself (or her parents) to distraction.

And those kids are exactly where LittleBits sees its biggest opportunity. While “open source” and “electronic modules” might trigger visions of enthusiastic geeks, Ms. Bdeir said that 60 to 70 percent of their sales are individuals who are “outside the circle.”  “They’re not hobbyists. They’re not geeks. They’re not engineers,” she told us. Hence she’s looking to education and educational toys as their largest potential market, and she’s already pushing hard on why LittleBits is better than whatever throwaway tchotchke becomes this year’s must-have:

“The toy market is a very large market, but the toy market unfortunately has been really sort of dominated by companies that are more interested in selling plastic toys that break than things that are of value.”

That’s where the open-source aspect comes in. Ms. Bdeir explained the approach is rooted in a desire to “make the very individual bricks of electronics available, accessible and allow them to be creative tools,” with the aim of creating a relationship to technology that’s “very symbiotic and very creative.”Considering it’s practically impossible to so much as change a carburetor any more, that goal seems both noble and much easier said than done.

And then there’s the matter of scaling. Asked about how the company’s growth changes the open source element, Ms. Bdeir told us, “It changes in a good way.” Without elaborating, however, she shifted gears into the challenges such an approach presents.

“When you say you’re open source, the number of investors that are interested starts to shrink.” But the VCs that ultimately signed on “got involved because they believe in the mission. It wasn’t an afterthought,” she added.

It sounds like the number of orders really did catch the team by surprise. Ms. Bdeir also emphasized that LittleBits is “ramping up our production to really meet demand, demand which we really didn’t expect so fast.” To that end, company is handing over production to supply chain management company PCH International, while the LittleBits team will be focus on product design, marketing, and so forth.

With a Series A in the bank, Ms. Bdeir told us, the company can begin building out its product line, with new modules and kits already in the works. LittleBits will also be expanding its “really small” team of eight people with hires in education, sales and distribution, engineering–”really every facet,” Ms. Bdeir said.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com