There’s a start-up that's raised millions with a product that looks a lot like supercharged Legos. Instead of piles of plastic building blocks, imagine high-tech widgets that kids and adults can use to build inventive new electronic devices—from dog collars that light up when Fido barks to tricked out skateboards.
“We're breaking down barriers for people who are scared of electronics, for people who don't think they're interested in electronics, for people who feel uninspired by electronics,” said Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of littleBits.
CNBC gave Bdeir 60 seconds to convince the Power Pitch panel and you that littleBits are the next big thing. Can she pull it off? Click the video and judge for yourself.
Electronics can be fun
Bdeir, an M.I.T. Media Lab alum, wanted to find a way to make electronics fun and accessible to those who haven’t spent years studying it.
You don’t need to be a structural engineer to build things with Legos (DIS), and Bdeir wants people to have the same kind of freedom with electronics. That's where littleBits come in.
“All large technologies that have changed societies usually start in the hands of experts and then become accessible to everyday people,” she said.
How do they work?
LittleBits are individual, color-coded “blocks” that snap together—somewhat like Legos. The big difference is that each littleBits has a unique function, such as making a sound, turning on a light or detecting motion. Users can connect the blocks to create simple circuits held together by magnets. They require no soldering, wiring or knowledge of programming.
What someone can build with littleBits is limited to his or her imagination. Creative users can integrate their circuits into items like dog collars, skate boards and even clothing—from an animated holiday hat to a sound-activated bow-tie.
These creations and many others have inspired a littleBits community, where users and the company share projects and online how-tos.
Bdeir said the company's open source platform is critical to maintaining innovation, and allows littleBits users to effectively look under the hood and adventurous programmers to develop and build on it.
LittleBits are sold in kits ranging from $99 to $199. One kit, developed with the Japanese music and audio electronic maker Krog, includes the blocks needed to build a synthesizer. The company also sells individual blocks priced at $8 to $32.
The competition concern
Power Pitch panelist Jeremy Conrad, founder of Lemnos Labs, expressed concerns over littleBits’ open source platform and competitors looking to make cheaper electronics.
“That’s definitely a worry with open source in general, but … we have a balanced approach,” Bdeir said. “We trademark our name, and we still hold patents for the connector and the system in general.”
There are several products in the crowded toy market that compete with littleBits, including Lego Mindstorms, and open source e-platforms Arduino and Raspberry Pi.
When CNBC's Mandy Drury asked about revenue, Bdeir told the Power Pitch host those numbers would not be made public. She did say that 15 percent to 20 percent of her customers are in education and that she expects that sector to become a smaller share of littleBits’ business as the company enters larger distribution channels.
Launched in 2011, the company has raised $15.6 million in total funding. Investors include Foundry Group, Vegas Tech Fund, True Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Joanne Wilson.
See Ayah Bdeir Power Pitch her start-up to panelists Katherine Barr, a venture capitalist with Mohr Davidow Ventures; Jeremy Conrad, founder of Lemnos Labs; and CNBC host Mandy Drury.
--Additional Reporting by Ray Parisi and Joanna Weinstein
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