As an MIT graduate student with a background in electrical engineering, Ayah Bdeir found herself increasingly concerned that her field had become inaccessible to the average person. “For so long,” she says, “we’ve been hiding the complexity of technology in beautiful closed cases, making it niche when it actually affects all of our lives every day.” Her solution was littleBits, the modular electronic building blocks that launched in 2011 and have fast become the Tinkertoys of the tech era.
Sold in sets, the Lego-like circuits snap together with magnets and can be mixed, matched and combined to create an infinite variety of inventions that do things like whir and spin with motors or light up with a buzz. The bits range in function from basic switches and buttons to an ever-expanding library of more advanced widgets, including light sensors, sound triggers and temperature monitors. The popular Smart Home Kit, for example, gives aspiring Rube Goldbergs the tools to turn everyday objects into Wi-Fi-enabled devices. (You could, say, hard-wire your washing machine so that it sends you a text message when your laundry is done.)
Bdeir says her intention is to allow “everyone to unleash their inner inventor—without having to be an engineer.” In a few short years, she’s watched as the littleBits “Maker” community has grown exponentially. “Everyday I’m amazed by the projects posted,” she says. “Most recently, I saw someone create a remote-controlled dusting robot. I’ve seen everything from wearable electronic instruments to a vending machine backpack invented by a 14-year-old.”
Kits are offered in a range of skill-levels that appeal to everyone from elementary school children to professional product designers brainstorming their next hit. But Bdeir’s biggest inroads have been in the education sector. With her littleBits now in more than 2,200 schools in 100 countries, helping teach subjects like physics, programming, and even grammar and music, it’s easy to see them becoming as integral to future classrooms as flashcards or Play-Doh. “In the 21st century,” Bdeir predicts, “understanding technology will be a form of literacy.” And Wall Street seems willing to back that bet. This summer, in addition to opening its first retail store in New York’s SoHo, the company raised $44.2 million in capital.