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With EdTech set to explode in 2016, we caught up with Filippo, the co-founder of Primo Toys, to talk about Cubetto; the IoT toy to get kids coding away from screens.

With schools investing £900M a year in EdTech and the industry currently valued at £45 billion, 2016 is dubbed the year of the EdTech entrepreneur, so who better to kick off a new season of Maker Monday interviews than Filippo Yacob of Primo Toys. Since 2013, Filippo and his team have been busy encouraging children to explore the digital world through IoT and friendly technologies. We were lucky enough to get hands on with their first product at an IoT London meetup in City Hall and caught up with Filippo to find out about his inspirations and the future of play.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I’m a designer by trade, but my skill set and goals have always led me to work for myself. In 2009, I founded and published a food culture print magazine called Eat Me. I did that for three years, and in 2012 I opened a small chain of co-working spaces that I still operate to this day.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

A: In 2013, I decided I was going to make toys for a living, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Primo Toys, an educational toy company based in Haggerston on Regents Canal. We’re currently running a Crowdcube campaign so everyone can own a little piece of Primo.

Q: Tell us about what you’ve made with Primo Toys so far.

A: The Cubetto Playset is our first product. It’s a playful wooden robot that helps young children discover computer programming. You can use it even if you can’t read yet, and there’s no screen to stare at.

It’s made up three separate elements:

  1. Cubetto - a programmable robot that wants to be told where to go and how to get there. A smiley, wooden companion with all the necessary parts to motor his way through any adventure.
  2. Board - you can think of this as your keyboard, controller or blank piece of paper. Use it along with the colourful blocks to send instructions that set Cubetto on his journey.
  3. Coding blocks - these red, yellow, blue and green shapes, together with the board, determine sequences of direction and movement for Cubetto; your coding language if you like.
Primo Primo

Q: What inspired you to create it?

A: The Cubetto Playset was created to make computational thinking and programming logic truly accessible to children in preliterate years.

Much like playing with Cubetto, computational thinking is about breaking down tasks into a logical sequence of steps to reach an objective. In fact, computational thinking is something we do every day to solve all kinds of problems, big and small.

Programmes tell the gadgets and appliances around us what to do. Someone, somewhere started off by defining a sequence of logical steps to determine the gadget’s behaviour.

Thinking of the world around us in the same way we think in the world of Cubetto, is empowering. It gives us the confidence to try things out, break the rules, and shape our environment. Which is pretty amazing.

Playtime with Cubetto is collaborative, because you learn that complicated tasks are best tackled by more than one person. It encourages creativity by showing you there is no right or wrong way to reach your objectives and make the impossible possible.

Q: Can you explain the technology behind it?

A: It’s a simple piece of kit actually. The robot is connected to the interface via BLE, and both parts can connect to other devices. The technology powering Cubetto is open, and Arduino compatible, which makes it a flexible and customisable learning tool for those who want more out of a toy. Keeping a product connected and open gives it endless possibilities for expansion and user cases that we’ve not even thought of yet.

Q: Manufacturing is always a concern and a challenge in IoT products - tell us about your manufacturing process and any problems you came across.

A: Today we manufacture with PCH International. We have a streamlined supply chain and fulfilment system that connects directly with our sales platform. We can produce at scale, and on demand. Since PCH provides us with financial support for inventory, we don’t even have the usual problems hardware start-ups have, but in the early days things were different. 

We started producing everything in-house. All the wooden components of the Cubetto Playset were laser-cut on site, the plastic parts were printed in SLS from Belgium, and the PCB’s came from China. Everything would arrive at HQ, and we closed our office for a whole month to assemble no more than 500 units per run. It would take five people four weeks to do this. It was fun, but disruptive, and completely unscalable.

We got around inventory issues by only producing and shipping what we had already pre-sold, but we could never really plan ahead. Objectively, this setup wasn’t bad. Our PCB’s were manufactured in small batches, and we could fabricate the wood and SLS components on demand. Every time we pre-sold enough units, we would place a component’s order and repeat the process.

We eventually started getting much bigger orders, more than our little setup could cope with, and had to establish a supply chain that scaled, but what we did in the past is a testament to how digital fabrication can work for a small company that sells directly online and only produces on demand. We learned a lot making hardware that way.

Q: What does the future of play look like to you? Will all our toys be connected?

A: I think being connected or IoT will stop being a “thing” in the future. Everything will just be connected by default. What excites me most is how the objects around us will have the ability to learn from us, respond and adapt to our behaviour for better user experiences, be it entertainment, education or both. I really look forward to seeing what new play paradigms can develop from having all kinds of toys all over the world connected and interacting.

Q: Cubetto has visited several primary schools, how do the children respond?

A: They love him! It’s hard not to, he’s so cute. Giving him a face and turning him into a “creature” made him instantly relatable to children. There is an endless amount of command sequences that can be written for Cubetto. You can literally have a different experience with him every time you turn on your toy, which keeps things interesting and non-prescriptive.

What children learn and play with are curriculum-mapped programming concepts, but whether they get this or not is unimportant. What’s important is that with a toy like ours, we give them the language and the tools to understand technology at an early age. The idea of programming something, deciding its behaviour remotely, and triggering it at will, is powerful. It makes children confident in knowing how to control their environment.

Q: It’s hard to find investment in consumer IoT, how are you funding Cubetto?

A: It’s hard but not impossible. Hardware is expensive, risky and complex, but it’s also tangible and fairly “straight forward” to get. You have a unique enough product people want, you make it at x, sell it at y, to z many people. The proof really is in the pudding, there isn’t much room for unicorn level speculation, you have to deliver if you want attention.

We started with a successful Kickstarter campaign. This gave potential investors enough confidence in the fact we had a unique product people wanted.

Today we have some great investors and partners on board that share and support our vision, but we wouldn’t be here without early adopters from the crowd.

Q: What does the future hold for Primo Toys?

Right now, we’re raising finances on Crowdcube. We’re looking forward to launching an upgrade of the Cubetto Playset to the mass market in spring for the US and the UK, which will be a game changer for the company. After that we’ll see.

Own a little piece of Primo Toys by supporting them on Crowdcube

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