Toy Startup Roam And Wander Receives New Funding, Prepares To Expand Its U.S. Retail Presence

Roam & Wander, the Hong Kong and Taipei-based children’s entertainment startup that we profiled in June, is preparing to expand its retail operations into the U.S. just six months after its first plush toy, TuTu, was successfully funded on Kickstarter.

Roam & Wander is interesting not just because of its business model, which combines iOS games with real stickers that kids can get in the mail and interactive toys, but also because it’s an example of how Taiwan’s fledgling consumer mobile startup industry can partner with the country’s strong hardware manufacturing infrastructure to deliver unique products. Several programs have launched recently to help bridge between the gap between the two sectors, including hardware incubators from TMI, which Roam & Wander worked with, and Foxconn.

Roam & Wander founder Jason Warren tells me that the startup recently secured a new round of funding led by WI Harper, an existing investor, as well as new angel investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. He couldn’t disclose the exact amount, but says it brings the total investment Roam & Wander has raised so far to just under $1 million. (Taipei-based TMI is also one of the company’s early investors.) Members of Roam & Wander’s team are also preparing to head to the Bay Area to participate in an accelerator program.

All these things will help Roam & Wander expand its retail operations into the U.S. market. In Asia, Roam & Wander has already signed agreements with Toys R Us, FNAC, and Apple retailer Studio A to get its plush toys into their brick and mortar stores. Online, TuTu can be purchased on Amazon. The company is also negotiating terms with other major retail channels and attending the Hong Kong Game and Toy Fair next Monday. TuTu has already picked up the industry award for Best New Toy, which will be formally announced at the beginning of the event, one of the largest toy industry gatherings in the world. Warren says it will give his startup an opportunity to find more U.S. retail channels, marketing partners, and game companies for potential licensing deals.

TuTu was designed to give children growing up in the digital age a more engaging and tactile way of interacting with mobile devices. The bunny’s face is powered by an iPhone or iPod Touch screen and kids can play with her using a set of plastic toys with touch-enabled sensors.

Roam & Wander’s retail expansion is well-timed because the release of the latest iPhone and iPad models means that there are a lot of secondhand iOS devices within families, which might give parents an incentive to buy toys like TuTu for their kids.

Since I last wrote about Roam & Wander, the company has grown to 16 employees and started working on a larger version of the pink bunny that is one-meter tall and powered by a full-size iPad.

Roam and Wander“The iPad speaker can go louder. When you feed her milk, it’s more impactful. When you tell her a story, it’s more fun and seems more real. We authored the game so it’s super high resolution, and having a three-foot tall rabbit is pretty cool,” says Warren. (The photo above shows the bigger version of TuTu sitting with one of Roam & Wander’s developers. The toy is about the size of a toddler and reminds me of an updated, cuter version of the My Buddy and Kid Sister toys that were sold in the late 1980s, when I was a kid). Roam & Wander is also working on another plush toy, DiDi, a teddy bear that will be powered by an iPad Mini.

Roam & Wander’s strategy combines its app, Sticker Games, which introduces kids to both of its characters and lets them earn real stickers that they receive in the mail, and its interactive plush toys. The startup released the second version of Sticker Games on Dec. 23 and Warren says the updated app, which is now available in the U.S., Canada, China and Japan in addition to its initial markets Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, has seen strong traction so far, with 7,000 downloads and 400 sticker-filled envelopes shipped in the first week.

“We’re hoping that kids will encounter TuTu first through Sticker Games. Then after they play games and win stickers, they will be more interested in taking care of TuTu,” says Warren, referring to the set of touch-enabled toys that come with the plush rabbit and lets them feed her milk and apples or brush her teeth.

Warren was a general manager at HTC in Taiwan before founding his startup and he also worked in product management for Motorola. Despite his hardware experience, Warren says TMI Ventures played a key role in helping him locate the right hardware manufacturers to prototype and produce TuTu and her accessories. TMI launched its hardware accelerator program earlier this year, and TuTu’s development is a good example of how the incubator program will work with startups that want to take advantage of Taiwan’s resources.

Warren says TMI CEO Lucas Wang helped Roam & Wander find and vet toy and hardware makers and guided the startup through the Taiwanese government’s certification process.

“There are probably about nine different companies that we ended up doing business with along the path from concept to getting TuTu into stores. We worked with them for tooling, manufacturing, import and logistics, all of that and every single one of them the TMI guys helped us find,” says Warren.