Big things are coming for littleBits — the New York-based startup that makes lego-style electronics kits. The company, originally conceived by founder Ayah Bdeir in the MIT Media Lab (and backed in part by its head, Joi Ito), has already picked up traction for its first product: kits for children and hobbyists to create fun objects at home (see more in the video below). Today, it is announcing a Series B of $11.1 million to take that concept to the next level: building out a B2B platform for hardware innovation.
There are a number of science and tech partners already working with littleBits and its platform, although Bdeir says it will not be disclosing the names until next year, when the first products come out.
This latest round is being led by True Ventures and new investor Foundry Group, and it also includes new investors Two Sigma Ventures and Vegas Tech Fund (Zappos’ Tony Hseih’s fund); as well as Khosla Ventures, Mena Ventures, Neoteny Labs, O’Reilly AlphaTech, Lerer Ventures and other angel investors. Brad Feld of Foundry is also joining littleBits’ board. This brings the total raised by littleBits to over $15 million, including a $3.65 million Series A round; and $850,000 in seed funding. During the Series A announcement in June 2012, littleBits also struck a manufacturing and supply chain management deal with PCH International.
Moving to a B2B model from one targeting consumers was always on the cards, says Bdeir. “It was a part of the strategy ever since I raised the seed round.” It was a two step strategy: step one was inventing kits for kids/education “to lower the barrier for entry to make it easier to start with electronics as possible, and the platform is step two. It’s about raising the ceiling and putting the power in the hands of designers.”
That is because at its heart, Bdeir says littleBits “is a tool and platform for others to invent.” Focusing on B2B will help littleBits position itself as “a leading hardware innovation platform in the world that others can use to invent and make their products and designs.”
Interestingly, this is actually a part of a bigger trend we’re seeing in the hardware movement, to create products and platforms that help others realise their hardware visions. There is of course NYC neighbor Makerbot, and over in the UK, design agency Berg has launched Berg Cloud, a platform for those making connected devices — interestingly also a progression from a hardware product.
(In Berg’s case, it was their Little Printer project that inspired CEO Matt Webb and others at Berg to pivot the company. It’s also picked up a $1.3 million seed round from Connect Ventures, Initial Capital, and Index Ventures to realise their ambition of making it as easy to develop connected hardware as it is to develop for the web.)
LittleBits is not revealing any figures for how the electronics kids have sold (we have noted before that they are wonderful but are priced at a premium, with starter kits today costing just under $100). But Bdeir tells us that sales have quadrupled in the last year. In fact, part of the funding will be used to help make sure that the company can keep up with the demand its getting for the products — effectively that means more business development and sales people to close retail deals, and developers to continue making more things to add to the modular library to expand that offering. “The number of SKUs that we have is close to 80 and we have hundreds more on the way,” she says.
Back to the platform vision, the idea will be for new prototypes, and perhaps even products, to sit alongside those that are coming from littleBits itself. LittleBits will take a revenue share as part its business model. “We definitely want to support other businesses who want to start their own product lines,” she says. “A lot of game changers start in the hands of large companies these days, and then concepts get democratized and put in the hands of everyday people. But that is changing in areas like game development and manufacturing with the likes of Makerbot. We’re doing the same with electronics. It remains a very top down industry, but now we are bringing it into the hands of everyone.”
Below, a video of how littleBits’ kit works, and below that, a link to the company’s latest Synth Kit collaboration with Korg, which points to how third parties could work with the ‘platform.’