Changing Landscape in the toy industry
Kids today are no longer satisfied with simple dolls and action figures. Unlike the many of us that did not have our own PC until high school, children today are immersed with smartphone and tablets at a very young age. This has led many to observe that kids are indeed growing older more quickly. As a result of that, sales of traditional toys – even iconic brands such as Barbies – had been declining in recent years. Besides video games, children (age 8 and older) are turning their attention toward toys that can offer more engaging and customizable playing experience. This is exactly what Bay Area based startup Dash Robotics hopes to bring with its Kamigami robot.
Inspired by the Japanese art of origami, each set comes with chassis, motors and electronic components that even children can assemble. This gives children the additional joy of construction along with hands-on technology building experience. Once assembled, the robots can be connected to smartphone and tablet through a companion app via Bluetooth.
In addition to built-in motion control, Kamigami can also be programmed remotely through the app. Through drag and drop interface, children can teach robots more elaborate routines – for instance, dancing or interacting with other robots once sensor detects their presence. Though the programming interface is still relatively simple, it already creates many possibilities for children to come up with their own playing experience – whether it’s racing through obstacles, or tussling with other Kamigami robots. The excellent playing experience, along with the learning benefit of introducing young children to programming, makes Kamigami robots a popular choice among parents.
Today, through partnership with Mattel, Kamigami robots are available for $49 at both big box retailers like Target and online on Amazon.
From Lab to Retail
Dash was started in the UC Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab. The founders, Paul Birkmeyer, Andrew Gillies and Nick Kohut – at the time still PhD students, focused on biomimicry – systems and materials that model elements of nature such as insect locomotion and gecko-inspired adhesives. It was there that the founders first developed the underlying technology that allows high-speed movement with minimal actuation.
In 2012, encouraged by other robot-themed projects on Kickstarter, the founders decided to start a company and launched the beta version of the kits to robotic enthusiasts via crowdfunding. With little funding to begin with, they resolved to build as many robots themselves as possible – often manually. The effort was tremendous – imagine 3D printing every transmission housing, laser cutting all the chassis, manually assembling every set and even personally packing and bringing the kits to post office for delivery. However, it was successful. Dash raised over $75,000 and delivered over 1000 robots to all of their crowdfunding backers.
“The list of successful hardware campaigns are short, and the list of hardware projects that successfully deliver is even shorter. We are proud that we have done that twice.” Andrew Gillies, Co-Founder & CPO of Dash Robotics
After raising a $1.6 M seed round (and later, a $2.7 M Series A), Dash grew its team and aligned contract manufacturers to expand production throughput further. Recognizing that many of the customers are parents buying for their children, the team created the animal-themed Kamigami brand and launched a second Kickstarter campaign, this time geared toward the children’s toy market. The second version incorporated the user feedback from the first campaign and simplified the assembly process as the user base shifted from enthusiasts to the less tech-savvy general population. In addition to Kickstarter, Dash also started selling Kamigami robots online through its website, on Amazon and through other specialty retailers. Thus far, the product has been well received, with more than 60% of the users giving it 5-star reviews on Amazon.
Through these experiences Dash was able to further refine its development and marketing operations. Recognizing that its core strength is in product and technology development (not manufacturing and distribution), Dash pivoted towards building partnerships with major toy manufacturers such as Mattel. With expertise in marketing and distribution and also the scale to drive down manufacture cost quickly, these established players partnered well with Dash’s expertise in technology and product development. Hence, in 2017, Dash licensed the Kamigami brand to Mattel to leverage their production and distribution network and doubled down on the company’s focus on developing new products.
“We want to build the backbone of connected toys,” said Andrew. Indeed the connected toy market will continue to take over market shares over traditional pre-configured, immovable toys. In addition to Dash, there are also products such as Cozmo robot made by Anki and Sphero that can both provide more enjoyable play experience and help children learn about technology and develop programming skills. With the cost of manufacturing and robotics development coming down further, programmable robotic toys will become more context-aware as sensing and actuation technologies improve.
Dash Robotics Toy from EW.com
In the near term, Dash is working alongside partners to expand its lineup of products. The new Jurassic World themed dinosaur robots will be released this Spring ahead of the release of Jurassic World 2 in June. Overall, there will be many opportunities to extend the engaging playing and learning experience to other cartoon/movie themes by leveraging the technologies developed in Kamigami.
Long-term, Dash wants to continue transforming the toy experience by bringing more cutting-edge technologies to the products, and then work with partners to bring them to market. In November 2017, Dash acquired Austin-based Bots Alive, which uses machine learning and computer vision to control mobile robots with better environmental awareness. Soon, users may not even need to manually define complex sequences of actions for the robots to learn – it might just be able to teach itself following behavioral demonstration. Combined with Dash’s strength in robotic hardware platforms, this partnership is expected to further enhance the playing experience.
While the partnerships with big manufactures introduces some platform risk, it also allows Dash to focus on its strength rather than areas where it does not ad much value (e.g. distribution). Considering its deep technical and product expertise, Dash is well-positioned to create the smarter, more mobile, programmable toys of the tomorrow. One could only imagine the exciting possibilities for children in the foreseeable future.