Innovation

Toy robot Trobo introduces kids to STEM subjects

Part plush toy, part iPad app, Trobo blends cuddliness and science to answer the types of questions little kids think to ask.

trobo1.jpg
Image: Trobo

Jeremy Scheinberg and Chris Harden aren't necessarily trying to turn your 3-year-old into a particle physicist.

If it happened, that would be cool, but for the co-founders of Trobo, a educational toy aimed at introducing 2 to 7 year olds to STEM topics through stories, making that first connection is more so the point.

"One of the thing that STEM teaches, and I think it's one of the reasons it's so critical right now, is it teaches critical thinking," Scheinberg said.

Trobo basically works in two parts. There's a plush toy — a robot named Trobo, and then an iPad application featuring stories centered on STEM topics— but that sounds a bit more serious than it is. The first story Scheinberg and Harden developed focused on how honey is made. The overall idea is to cover some of the questions kids ask their parents that are rooted in science or engineering.

Scheinberg said these days, parents turn to places like Wikipedia to answer the types of questions only little kids think to ask— like what happens when they get sick, but sometimes those answers are too technical or unclear enough to benefit the kids.

Scheinberg and Harden knew each other previously from having worked in the theme park industry, but really began collaborating at a startup weekend in Orlando, Florida in November 2013.

The goal of the weekend was for a few teams to form around the strongest product ideas, and by Sunday, have produced a minimum viable product and figured out if there would be any interest in a real version. Trobo came in second place in the competition.

By January, Scheinberg left his job to work on Trobo full time, and Harden did the same in July.

Early on, they also put together a focus group of about 60 parents who have given them feedback on everything from the story topics to the application and plush toy.

One concern Scheinberg and Harden considered is the guilt parents, including themselves, can have sometimes sitting their kids in front of yet another screen.

"We work, both our spouses work, sometimes you have to cook dinner, so sometimes it's kind of inevitable," Scheinberg said.

Instead of spending that inevitable screen time on less educational apps, Scheinberg and Harden hope to provide some value with Trobo, and make the most out of that time.

"Instead of them getting exposed to applications that are almost purely entertainment-based, we have a chance to really take advantage of the fact that kids can learn a lot very quickly," Harden said.

As of September, they launched a Kickstarter campaign for Trobo to essentially take pre-orders. Though they reached their goal, the journey was a bit rocky. Both have MBAs but not much in the way of marketing backgrounds, so they realized later than they would have liked that launching a Kickstarter requires some ramping up before the project goes live.

"I think there's this myth that newbies believe that if I create a Kickstarter, people will back me and magically it will just work," Harden said. "There's a lot of marketing working — social networking, regular networking, press releases, PR in general, you name it, to make people aware. Also, there's education you have to do for people who don't even know what Kickstarter is."

Another challenge Harden said they faced was something that sounds simple— picking colors for Curie, the female robot. The image they've released is grey with pink and purple highlights, but there were eight or nine color schemes. The parental focus group narrowed it down to two (plus a third that was mistakenly made with the wrong colors) that they manufactured with the prototype developer. Still indecisive, they took the robots (grey, violet, and hot pink) to a local shopping area and did an informal survey.

"Being one of the designers, I really hated one of those colors — I won't reveal which one," Harden said.

After about 100 interviews, he was bummed to find out his favorite Trobo was not the crowd pleaser.

"Every time someone picked the Trobo that was not Chris' favorite, I think you could see him die a little bit inside," Scheinberg said.

Going forward, Scheinberg said it's all about executing — not only fulfilling the Kickstarter promise, but marketing the company, which will include an appearance at the Launch Pad section of the Toy Fair in New York in February. They'll be taking more orders (pre-orders are still available), leading up to the next holiday season when they'll be delivering the product to Kickstarter backers. And hopefully, they said, Trobo will be in stores by then too.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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