As an engineering student at the American University in Beirut in 2001, Ayah Bdeir found herself so bored with the monotony of the course that she begged her parents for permission to change her major. They told her not to give up, because she was good at math and science. She obediently stuck to engineering, but yearned for ways to make the application of science creative.
The result today is littleBits Electronics, a startup that sits at the intersection of fun and science. It has spawned a following among the do-it-yourself crowdtinkerers, designers and engineers who largely believe, like Bdeir, that collaboration and openness make better products.
LittleBits makes LEGO-like plastic modules embedded with electronic circuits that snap together with magnetsa feat of elegant engineering. Even the science-challenged can pose as engineers, thanks to the color-coded blocks. Power modules are blue; output modules are green; input is pink. They activate light, sound and motion. The company exhorts peopleyoung and oldto invent anything with its library of 67-and-counting open source modules.
My mission is to democratize hardware, says Bdeir, whos 32.
LittleBits inventions range from the practical to the whimsical. Kids can make towers that shoot bubbles, and anyone can fashion an alarm clock or a garage door opener. Teachers have adopted them as interactive learning tools in more than 2,200 schools and universities in 60 countries to explain anything from grammar to math, and concoct inventions. It feels like a game, but its serious engineering, says Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which sells littleBits.
But the potential applications of littleBits beyond education are what attracted investors such as Brad Feld of the Foundry Group, a well-respected early stage venture capital firm in Boulder, Colorado. It is providing the building blocks for creating anything electronic, connecting it to the Internet, building software around it, and facilitating the creation of any connected device, says Feld.
In other words, littleBits could become a cog in the emerging field of the Internet of Things, whereby so-called smart objects relay information to the Internet and each other. As a first step, littleBits introduced last summer a module that connects to the Internet. A smart doorbell, for example, alerts a homeowner that someone just pressed the button on the doorbell by sending her a text message.
Although Bdeir wont disclose revenues, she says theyre growing three to fourfold annually. Her four-year-old startup has sold hundreds of kits in more than 100 countries (a base kit goes for $99 on its website; the deluxe kit costs $199). U.S. bookstore chain Barnes & Noble recently announced plans to roll out littleBits kits in its stores. And in July, littleBits opened a pop-up store in New Yorks Soho district that doubles as a workshop.
Investors are impressed. In June, the New York-based startup raised $44.2 million in a series B round, bringing total funding to $60 million since its inception in 2011. Investors include Lebanese telecom billionaire and family friend Taha Mikati, Fadi Ghandours Wamda Capital, MENA Venture Investors, and Hutham Olayan, who heads her familys investment operations in the U.S.
With a TED fellowship under her belther TED talk Building blocks that blink, beep and teach has garnered more than 1 million views, and a stint mentoring the next generation of science and technology innovators in design on the Doha-based TV show Stars of Science, Bdeir serves as a role model for girls. Theres a dearth of women around the world in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-old students reading, mathematics, and science literacy in 65 countries, 4.7% of girls said they expect to be engineers or computer scientists, versus 18% of boys.
But heres the surprising part. Girls felt helpless doing math problems in all countries except three: Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE, where boys reported being more uncomfortable than girls at math. With that kind of data, parents and teachers should encourage young women to pursue scientific careers in the Arab world.
After graduating from AUB with a degree in computer engineering in 2004, Bdeir was accepted at MIT in Boston, where she completed a Masters in 2006 in computer culture at the MIT Media Lab. The program, which married engineering with design, fit her aesthetic sensibilities. It was both art and innovation, she says.
While at MIT, she began tinkering with boxy yellow electronic modulesprecursors to littleBits, with the intention of demystifying electronic circuits, and making them accessible and educational for children and adults alike. I wanted them to be inviting like candy, and most importantly, gender neutral, says Bdeir, who didnt plan initially on forming a startup, and viewed her creations as primarily intellectual and artistic pursuits.
The art world embraced her. MoMas Antonelli first became familiar with her prototype in 2007 when Bdeir was a fellow at Eyebeam, a center for new technologies and media arts in New York. She considers Bdeir a trailblazer in melding art and tech, and sees Bdeirs emphasis on design as being central to the products success. Design isnt about making it pretty, its about being attuned to human beings, says Antonelli.
The combination of design and technology certainly made the products of another innovator iconicSteve Jobs. He was neither an engineer nor a computer scientist, but made computers that were beautifully designed and accessible to non-techies.
The MoMa went on to feature Bdeirs inventions in two exhibits that explored the relationship between science and design, and made them part of its permanent collection, bestowing prestige on littleBits.
Eager to provide a creative outlet for makers in Lebanon and the Arab world, Bdeir founded Karaj (the Arabic pronunciation for garage) in 2009. Housed in an old Lebanese house in the hip Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhail, the workshop sought to stimulate innovations in technology, art and architecture, and connect Arabs with the broader maker movementa network of independent tinkerers, designers and techies, who stage maker faires around the world to showcase their homemade creations.
Although Bdeir closed down Karaj four years later as littleBits gained traction, her affinity with the maker movement led her to co-found the Open Hardware Summit in the U.S. in 2010. The event attracted more than 300 attendees, surpassing expectations, and led to the creation of the Open Source Hardware Association.
By then, Bdeir had published pictures of her kits online, which generated tons of emails from around the world from people asking to buy the modules. After she sold her first kit at the maker faire in New York in 2011, she decided to form littleBits.
Like the older open source software movement, littleBits believes in sharing inventions with anyone for freea concept which is anathema to businesses that believe hogging intellectual property is paramount for market dominance.
But having a business model that embraces open source doesnt mean a company forsakes profits. Individuals can freely reproduce littleBits circuit designswhich are published online for anyone to re-use, but the company guards intellectual property rights on certain design elements, such as the color-coded modules, and the magnetic system. You want to protect your work, but not block progress, says Bdeir.
Outside tinkerers can help improve products by submitting a new design. If it gets more than 1,000 votes on littleBits website, the company will consider selling it, and gives the developer a percentage of sales in return.
When platforms are open, people contribute from all over the world, such that the added value far exceeds what might be stolen from you, says Nicholas Negroponte, the legendary founder of the MIT Media Lab, and an investor in littleBits. Open source software is not just free, but better. Negroponte points as an example the reason why U.S. intelligence uses the open source software Linux, and not Microsofts Windows.
With her new $44 million stash, Bdeir, who remains CEO, has staffed her company with seasoned executives from LEGO and MakerBot, a manufacturer of 3D printers. Shes also teamed up with enterprise software giants SAP and Salesforce, which are exploring ways to incorporate littleBits modules into their day-to-day business. Its all still very early, but the premise of littleBits is staked on pushing the boundaries of creativity.
One thing is certain; Bdeir will stay true to her grassroots. Littlebits has set up Global Chapters by partnering with communities, such as after school programs, public libraries, and tech clubs in more than 100 countries, including the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt. The chapters run workshops and events where people are encouraged to experiment and innovate.
Says Bdeir: The goal is to bring this idea to every home, business, and creative space. The electronics industry is big and completely embedded in our lives. Lets disrupt it. Spoken like a true entrepreneur.