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LittleBits: On a Mission to Make Electrical Engineering Fun

Ayah Bdeir was an accomplished engineer and artist when she created something irresistible. It's been called the Legos of the 21st century--only it's not strictly a toy.
Ayah Bdeir is an interactive artist who was educated as an engineer before founding LittleBits, the modular-electronics company she now runs in New York City.

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It takes a truly outstanding opportunity to make a natural jack-of-all-trades focus on it and it alone.

Ayah Bdeir was an accomplished electronic artist armed with a degree in computer engineering and a master's degree from the MIT Media Lab when, in 2011, she packed up and moved to New York City from Beirut, where she founded and ran a maker space. The moment of truth came in the form of a set of click-together electrical components that Bdeir had designed as her future company's first prototype

She opened the box housing the prototype, assembled the pieces, and showed her boyfriend. "He said, 'You have to quit everything else you are doing and just work on this!'" Bdeir explains. "That's when it became real."

The now 31-year-old incorporated LittleBits later that year and has since grown her venture to 41 employees in an office near New York City's Union Square. Collectively, they dream up, design, and sell dozens of roughly domino-size electrical modules that snap together magnetically.

Popular among artists, designers, and hobbyists--or anyone interested in experimentation and rapid prototyping of electrical inventions--LittleBits kits can be purchased from the company's website. The company also sells individual components, which include power sources, connectors, and tools such as a dimmer switch, a motion sensor, and a synth speaker, ranging from $8 to $36 apiece.

And though these tiny snap-together modules are brightly colored, they're anything but playthings. Teachers are using LittleBits to aid instruction of circuits, design, and creativity in more than 2,000 schools. Once assembled, devices could easily make a home security system, a musical instrument, or even a technicolor dreamcoat.

Most recently, a partnership with NASA allowed the company to release a package with everything needed to build a mini Mars rover. Unlike with Legos, once assembled, the device, which costs $189, actually roves. 

"What we've done is taken really complex technology and turned it on its head," Bdeir says.

The transformation from independent artist to entrepreneur and CEO has been a significant one for Bdeir, who frequently consults with mentors, investors, and coaches. Brad Feld, an investor in LittleBits who is managing director of the Foundry Group in Boulder, Colorado, says she's a natural leader suited for the job due to her passion, as well as her skills. 

"One of the things we look for early is an entrepreneur who is totally obsessed with their product. I've seen that," Feld says. "On top of that, she's been a great strategic thinker."

The company does not disclose sales figures or profitability measures. But it did raise $15.6 million in venture capital funding to fuel its growth.

Despite this largess, the company had growing pains in its early months, selling out its first product in two weeks and repeatedly struggling to meet demand for its modules.

"The first eight months of the company, I was really heads-down, because we were getting attacked by demand, and it was just continuous working to build up the team and the products," says Bdeir, who says she wasn't comparing herself or LittleBits with any other company or thinking of the issues as "founder problems." "I'm a problem solver," she says. "I'm a maker, and if there's a problem, I will get my hands dirty and fix it."

Bdeir's long-term vision for the company goes far beyond selling teaching and tinkering tools that let people play with creating circuits to emit light, sound, and motion. LittleBits is out to democratize electrical engineering.

"Printing has been democratized--anyone can do it," Bdeir says. "Software has been democratized. But hardware is still only reserved for experts and is not a creative tool. I want to make electronics accessible to everyone."

Get to Know LittleBits

IMAGE: Jeff Minton
Last updated: Jun 24, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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