|Ayah Bedeir Playing with her kit Photo courtesy of Zack DeZon|
After an accomplished educational background in computer engineering in her native Lebanon, Ayah Bdeir felt she was on the wrong track. “My parents and teachers always encouraged me to take more and more science because I was good at it, but I really didn’t enjoy it. It seemed too abstract for me; too many equations and formulas.” But then she was accepted in the US as a graduate student in the Media Lab at M.I.T.where she had a light bulb moment: she discovered a world where she could combine her technology skills with the creativity she feels she had suppressed for so long.
But immediately after completing her M.I.T. Master’s Degree in 2004, real life intervened. Ayah had to get a job to support herself-- her “first job in the real world after 21 years of studying.” Ironically, she became a software consultant for a finance company where her creativity was limited to designing software packages for investment instruments for hedge funds, banks and venture capitalists. After two years, she won one of four fellowships offered by Manhattan-based Eyebeam, an arts and technology incubator that provides a fertile context and state-of-the-art tools for digital research and experimentation for fellows “to address major issues and concerns of our time”. Besides workspace, the fellowship provided Ayah with a stipend, which she supplemented with freelance work, so she could devote herself to her own projects.
For the next two years, Ayah experimented with an idea that had long challenged her: to make science more tangible, more understandable, and more exciting both for children and adults. She wanted to make something, a product she could touch and see, growing out of her experience at M.I.T. where her research group was part of a community focused on small scale manufacturing.
The result is littleBits, a company 29-year old Ayah founded last September. The company offers a variety of kits made up of modules, about the size of Lego bricks, for prototyping or for playing. The modules, which can be snapped together by means of small magnets to make larger circuits, have unique functions, such as light, sound, sensors, buttons, motors. No soldering, no wiring, no programming on computers is required to make the tiny circuit boards work; just snap and play and make things happen. Ayah likes to call her little circuits similar to the “popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners we used to use for crafts.” By this past Christmas, Ayah had found two parts manufacturers, one in China, the other in California, and managed to assemble 3000 starter kits priced at $89.
Among her first investors was Joi Ito, through his fund Neoteny Labs, who is executive director of the Media Lab at M.I.T. which first sparked Ayah’s creative quest, and Nicholas Negroponte, a pioneer of computer-aided design, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab and also founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child association. She also has attracted the interest of some telecom pioneers in the Arab world, such Taha Mikati and Fadi Ghandour, CEO of Aramex, the first Arab company to go public in the US, though she maintains majority ownership of her company.
About a month after she introduced littleBits, Ayah got word that the Museum of Modern Art had added littleBits to its permanent collection, “snuggled,” Ayah fantasizes, “between Picasso and the innovative Post Its.”
Ayah has positioned littleBits as an interactive educational toy for children and adults who may want to make a prototype or simply understand more about how things they use in the everyday work. Ayah notes that studies show consumers, often including children, spend over 7 hours a day on technological devices, but don’t know how they work or how to make any of them solve particular problems. The goal of littleBits, says Ayah, “is to convert passive consumers with very little technology know-how into thinkers and problems solvers”. What can you create with these little circuits? Examples include a solar powered desk lamp; a pulsing bike light; a temperature controlled desk fan that goes on and off depending on the temperature. And to delight kids, “a parent’s alarm” or sensor which rings a bell to alert them when an adult is about to enter their room! It’s even possible to create an environmental sensor to go off in the presence of carbon monoxide as a kind of prototype, though of course the kit sensor is a miniature version of what is required to protect your home.
Currently, Ayah is herself installed in COLLAB, a tech incubator in lower Manhattan; in the last two months she has added six to her staff, including electronic, industrial and production managers. Her goal is to develop some 30 additional modules and to expand her manufacturing capability. Her marketing strategy is to target educational institutions so she can bring littleBits to schools, after-school program and universities to teach electricity or physics, and other hard to visualize concepts. “These tool kits," Ayah says, “bridge the gap between the electronic devices everyone uses and the abstract science they learn in school. I think this approach will encourage more students, and especially girls who often shy away from science subjects though they are major consumers of electronics. My littleBits blurs the boundary between a toy and a tool kit with practical."