STEM subjects represent about one-third of the country's bachelor's degrees and females represent less than a third of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation. Early in my career at Bell Labs, at an annual affirmative action workshop, we were encouraged to give boys dolls and girls boys' toys, like electronics kits and chemistry sets. Girls who learn spatial skills early in life are more likely to choose STEM fields, noted the American Association of University Women in their 2010 report, "Why So Few?"
Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks have created a company, Maykah, to help girls, age 4 and up, learn spatial skills and engineering. Each grew up with older brothers and, like me, didn't like playing with dolls. This fueled their interest in STEM at an early age. Bettina studied electrical and electronics engineering at Caltech, then came to Stanford where she met Alice, an MIT graduate in mechanical engineering. They joined StartX, a Palo Alto-based accelerator that has helped 170 Stanford entrepreneurs and 60 companies get started. Professor Steve Blank's hands-on Lean LaunchPad course, provided invaluable advice and contacts. Stanford connections found them a manufacturer in China and a lawyer.
I found them busy packing their first product into Priority Mail boxes in the Dymond Industrial Park near Hacker Dojo. The first 2,000 units sold out quickly and they are shipping their next batch. The Original Roominate kit, at $59, provides a battery pack, motor, switch, dry-erase room panels for walls or floors, connectors and furniture building pieces. A Chateau de Roominate kit consists of 4 Original kits. The kits enable children to exercise design, artistic and construction skills by building rooms and then more elaborate creations. Bettina and Alice built a Christmas tree from a kit, using the motor to rotate a decoration.
Reenu Lodha, a recent MBA, from the University of Florida, has joined Maykah to handle marketing. Reenu notes that Florida has professors with great connections, and the fast-moving Stanford environment enables companies to launch quickly.
Maykah is sharing warehouse space with E&M Labs, another Kickstarter-funded startup making construction kits for small children. Founder Evan Murphy and his partner Mike, started 18 months ago by making a trebuchet on a laser cutter at Tech Shop in Menlo Park, funding it with Kickstarter. Trebuchets are weapons of mediaeval warfare used to hurl rocks at fortifications. "The Trebuchette" offered by E&M Labs is designed to catapult small foam balls. A friend then had the idea for semi-circular wooden clips that could hold cards together.
With more Kickstarter funding, Evan and Mike designed Skallops, triple-ply birch wood semicircles that look like half a daisy. There are long slits every 30 degrees and in between are shorter slits. Evan was kind enough to give me a Junior Pack of Skallops, which lists for $19.95. It contains a pack of playing cards and 52 clips. I had terrific fun building a Christmas tree with the kit. It was quite challenging to balance the tree, calculate angles and select appropriate slits for each card. Future Skallops kits will contain axles to enable construction of moving creations.
Maykah raised $85,964 on crowd-funding website Kickstarter.com from 1,154 backers. They also have angel investors. E&M Labs started with $350,000 in funding and is now going for a larger angel round. Both companies sell from their own websites (roominate.com and em-labs.com). It's now feasible to make and ship toys with very little capital.
Angela Hey advises technology companies on marketing and business development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.