Feature Story

Innovation in the UK – Funding Products to Encourage the Next Generation of Digital Creators

by Sue Tabbitt

Crowdfunding's latest success stories in the UK include technology innovations that aim to give IT skills to children as young as four.

The accessibility of growing levels of crowdfunding is giving rise to some outstanding technology innovation. This is particularly the case in the UK where the investment-seeking practice has become widespread as a means of turning bold ideas into marketable products.

Crowdfunding is a means by which large numbers of individuals are invited to invest small amounts of their own personal funds directly in new and upcoming ventures, usually coordinated through dedicated web sites. Kickstarter, one of the world’s largest crowdfunding platforms which recently passed a milestone $1 billion in pledges and is one of the few platforms authorized by the UK’s financial sector regulator, the FCA, has supported all sorts of weird and wonderful innovations since launching five years ago.

Kano’s build-your-own computer kit for kids

A recent hotbed of crowdfunding activity has been investments in creative computing tools for very young children. London, UK-based Kano hit the headlines last November with its Lego-like computer construction kit which promises to make assembling a computer as easy as stacking plastic bricks. Within just a day of introducing the venture to Kickstarter, Kano had attracted pledges worth $100,000 - double what it needed. At the last count the company’s founders, Alex and Saul Klein (cousins) and Yonatan Raz-Fridman, had raised a staggering $1.5 million from 13,000 backers in over 50 countries, making it the most crowd-funded learning invention ever and one of the UK’s hottest startups.

The Kano kit is based on Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of promoting the teaching of basic computer science in schools. Kano is billed as ‘a computer anyone can make’. It was inspired by the request of a seven-year-old child, who asked the founders to take the Raspberry Pi and make building a computer “as simple and fun as Lego”.

Primo brings programming to the recently potty-trained

But Kano is not the only aspiring innovation in its category. Primo, based not too far from Kano in London, is targeting children’s programming potential. Last year it launched its own fundraising campaign on Kickstarter for a physical play set that would teach very young children the basics of computer coding.

The kit, aimed at children aged four to eight, comprises a robot called Cubetto which is controlled by a series of colored blocks – children have to put these in the correct sequence in a wooden pallet. If anything is amiss in the code sequence, the robot won’t respond to commands so the kids have to work out what’s wrong (debug the program) and fix it, before retesting to see if they’ve been successful.

Like Kano, Primo has combined imagination with tools that have been designed to make the rudimentary elements of computing more accessible to non-specialists. Primo’s invention is based on an ‘Arduino’ – an open source, single-board microcontroller that can be used to create interactive objects.

The company’s Kickstarter target was just under $60,000 – the amount needed to start manufacturing the product. But it soon exceeded this figure, achieving pledges worth 162% of the original target. Primo has also received orders from around the world, and requests for help from teachers and educators, so some of the funding will be ploughed into training workshops for teachers, in addition to further research and the onward development of the product.

Crowdfunding safeguards social objectives

Crowdfunding was the perfect route for Primo, according to Filippo Yacob, the company’s managing director and one of the two co-founders. The open source nature of the project had proved hard to sell to more traditional investors, he explains. “Also, we wanted to present the product without interference – ie based on our research and our vision, rather than turning it into a big commercial thing – but the people we’d spoken to all had different ideas. We like the idea of building a community too, which the crowdfunding route has allowed us to do,” he adds.

Primo’s founders had also been inspired by the ethos of encouraging and equipping children to become creators rather than just consumers in the digital age, and this is what is driving the company’s ambitions.

“At a more conceptual level, Cubetto is based on the premise that you create a much more powerful connection with something you can touch,” Yacob says.”Programming, which is the language we use to speak to machines and to control things digitally, is very abstract and is complex to grasp even as an adult. With our product, literacy is not required so age is not a barrier to getting started. It builds on children’s logic skills at a very early stage, and using something familiar to them – toys. It’s ideal for children with special needs or learning difficulties too, or for multi-cultural environments where language might be a barrier. It encourages collaborative problem-solving without requiring any particular skills.”

Next on Primo’s agenda is a broader range of solutions that take children on from the play approach to programming - to real coding - but in a gradual and accessible way. Says Yacob, “That’s the overall vision of the company, but it’s important to get the foundations right and that’s where Cubetto comes in.”

Without crowdfunding, the journey to realize such dreams could have been a much longer and more arduous one - if indeed these ideas had ever got off the ground at all.

It is yet another example of how the Internet is transforming the way the world works.


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