Sphero has acquired LittleBits – gpgmail


Sphero and Little Bits have long been kindred spirits in the world of entertaining STEM toys, and soon they’ll be one and the same. Sphero this morning announced plans to buy the New York-based electronic building block company.

Founded in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Sphero (nee Orbotix) and Little Bits took separate approaches, but ultimately ended up in similar spaces. Sphero first brought to life a smartphone controlled 3D printed ball that debuted at CES in 2011. That same year, Ayah Bdeir’s electronics kit side project became a serious business under the LittleBits banner.

Both companies were alumni of Disney’s accelerator. Sphero leveraged that connection in the break out Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy, a remote control BB-8. Ultimately, however, it flew too close to the sun with its licensed products, creating an R2-D2, Lightning McQueen and talking Spider-Man toys. Early last year, the Colorado-based company ended the Disney deal, laid off dozen and announced that it was moving full time into educational toys.

After several of its own Marvel and Star Wars licensing deals under the Disney IP banner, LittleBits faced similar difficulties earlier this year. In a statement to gpgmail, the site noted that it, too, would be experiencing layoffs as it shifted its focus to K-12. “As you can imagine, the education market’s needs are vastly different than that of retail,” the company said at the time. Given this, we had to re-shape our internal structure, which ultimately led to a reduction in staff.”

Per Crunchbase, LittleBits and Sphero have raised $62.3 million and $120.3 million respectively. LittleBits notably made its own acquisition almost exactly a year ago, bringing DIY.org under its banner to add a subscription-based education element to the company’s offerings. Two months prior, Sphero purchased fellow Colorado startup, Specdrums and has since begun to offer the company’s music educational products under its banner.

“We’re thrilled to bring littleBits into the fold here at Sphero,” CEO Paul Berberian told gpgmail ahead of the acquisition. “Teachers need proven solutions that enhance learning for their students, and kids want technology that allows them to have epic experiences. Now, Sphero is better poised to introduce the best coding tools and hands-on STEAM tools like littleBits to even more classrooms around the world.”

The deal will help Sphero expand its office footprint into New York. Bdeir, however, will be moving on to other projects after nearly a decade at the helm of LittleBits.

“When I studied engineering, it was top down, test-based,” she said in a statement offered to the press. “I hated it and wanted to quit every semester. Then I got exposed to the pedagogy of learning through play and my life changed; no one could peel me away from learning, inventing, creating. Together, littleBits and Sphero are now bringing this experience to kids everywhere.”

No word on how many LittleBits employees will remain under the Sphero banner, though the aforementioned layoffs have certainly decreased the likelihood of redundancy between the two companies. With LittleBits under its wing, Sphero now holds 140 patents in the fields of robotics, electronics, software and IOT. It remains to be seen how or if the lines will work together, or whether they’ll remain independent under the Sphero banner much as Specdrums has thus far.

Between the two brands, however, there’s some solid classroom outreach and goodwill here. And both despite and because of its own struggles, Sphero makes sense as a home for the company. Both have experienced solid growth into beloved brands in a similar timeframe, even while getting ground through the sometimes unforgiving startup grind. Hardware is hard, and both Sphero and LittleBits have the war wounds to prove it.

The deal bodes well for the companies in terms of positioning. Sphero has made some serious headway into schools (a notoriously difficult market to crack) and LittleBits has been delivering a good and innovative product for a number of years that would fit well alongside it in a STEM curriculum. The combination could prove a solid one-two punch.

Terms for the deal have not been disclosed.


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Can robots find a home in the classroom? – gpgmail


A few years ago, investors heralded the arrival of a future with robots in the home. Robots like Jibo, Anki’s Cozmo and Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri attracted buzz and hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. All three companies have since shut down, prompting Kidtech expert Robin Raskin to recently ask, “Has the sheen worn off the tech toy world?”

With the demise of these robots and their makers, it’s fair to wonder if and when there will be a time when robots have a real place in our lives. But some robots are finding a home in a counterintuitive place: schools.

Because for robots to succeed, they need to find an application that integrates with human needs — solving real problems — and sustains their use. At home, the current wave of robots may provide children with a few hours of entertainment before they are tossed aside like any other new toy.

In schools, however, robots are proving that they can serve a purpose, bridging the divide between the digital and physical worlds in ways that bring to life concepts like coding. Savvy teachers are finding that robots can help to bring project-based learning alive in ways that supports development of valuable critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

It would not be the first time that K-12 schools paved the way as early adopters of technology. Forty years ago, the Apple II was widely adopted in schools first, before desktop computers colonized the home. Laptops famously gained early momentum in schools, where their light weight and portability were tightly aligned with the rise of in-class interventions and digital content. Schools were also early adopters of tablets, which, despite a few high-profile failures, are now seemingly ubiquitous in K-12 classrooms.

The rise of robotics in K-12 schools has been buoyed by not just intrigue with the potential of new gadgets, but an increased focus on computer science education. Just a decade ago, only a few states allowed computer science to count toward STEM course requirements. Today, nearly every state allows computer science courses to fulfill core graduation requirements, and 17 states require that every high school offer computer science.

The growing importance of computer science at the high school level has, in turn, trickled down to elementary and middle schools, where teachers are turning to robots as an effective way to introduce students to states’ new K-12 computer science standards. In California, the state’s board of education now suggests that schools use robots to satisfy five of its standards.

Educators are recognizing the potential of robots, not as toys, but as powerful tools for learning.

From a design level, classroom robots are fundamentally different than those at home. Learning necessitates that — instead of bite-sized, shallow experiences, robots must provide experiences that have the depth and variety needed to keep students engaged over months and years. To succeed in the classroom, they must be accompanied by thoughtful curricular content that teachers can incorporate into their instruction. Because robots are relatively expensive, teachers need robots they can reliably use for a long time.

It’s a trend that hasn’t been lost on companies like littleBits and Sphero, which are quickly pivoting to focus on a K-12 market dominated by legacy players like Lego. Wonder Workshop robots, which gained popularity through retail channels like the Apple Store and Amazon, are now being used in more than 20,000 schools across the world. Although they currently penetrate just a fraction of the K-5 classrooms in the U.S., their success is not only drawing increased interest from investors, but fueling innovations that could have implications for pernicious equity gaps that still plague STEM classrooms — and high-tech fields.

While the toy industry has long marketed its products differently to boys and girls in ways that actually reinforce stereotypes through product design and advertising, robots designed for the classroom must appeal to all students. Earlier versions of Wonder Workshop’s Dash robot, for example, rolled around on visible wheels.

During its initial user studies, the company learned students equated wheeled robots with cars and trucks. In other words, they viewed Dash as something meant for boys. So, Wonder Workshop covered up Dash’s wheels. It worked. Today, nearly 50% of participants in the company’s Wonder League Robotics Competition are girls, with many of the winning teams each year being all-girl teams.

So while the national narrative often imagines a dystopian future where robots come for our jobs, classroom robots are actually helping teachers meet the needs of increasingly diverse classrooms. They are helping students improve their executive function, creativity and ability to communicate with others.

Educators are recognizing the potential of robots, not as toys, but as powerful tools for learning. And children as young as kindergarten are using robots to better and more quickly understand mathematical concepts. Students who have the opportunity to learn from — and with — robots in the classroom today may develop a generation of robots that can play a role in our lives well into the future. They will grow up not merely as consumers of technology, but creators of it.


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