Bethany Koby aims to solve the growing digital skills shortage by turning computer technology into child’s play.
By any measure, Bethany Koby is a success. The company which she co-founded five years ago, the playfully named Technology Will Save Us (TWSU), is on track to ship 100,000 do-it-yourself digital toy kits to 97 countries in 2016, tripling its year-on-year production.
Two years ago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art placed TWSU’s DIY Gamer Kit (a coding-for-kids console) in its permanent collection as part of the Humble Masterpieces series, alongside everyday design icons such as the Slinky and Post-it Note.
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“To be acknowledged in such a significant way was completely humbling and exciting at the same time,” says designer and entrepreneur Koby, who is also CEO of her company.
TWSU is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) educational company, teaching tech skills through play. The company manufactures half a dozen digital kits targeting young, inquiring minds.
“Every government in the world is talking about education and computer science.”
Koby’s lofty aim is to empower a generation. A parent herself, she started the company with her husband, Daniel Hirschmann, after realising that education wasn’t moving fast enough to keep up with the demands of technology.
“Now, every government in the world is talking about education and computer science,” she says, and TWSU is capitalising on what she calls “a big and chunky macro-trend”.
There are wider implications for Koby’s toys: the world is facing a digital skills shortage. In a 2015 Sweeney Research survey of 150 Australian businesses, 25 per cent were finding it difficult to source digital employees. In the same year, research commissioned by The Foundation for Young Australians revealed that 58 per cent of students are on a path to a career that won’t exist or will fundamentally change in the next 10 to 15 years.
“These problems can be solved by a generation of creative problem solvers,” maintains Koby. “Our products are related to what kids are already doing. We’re asking them to ‘hack’ screen-time behaviour and create.”
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American-born and UK-based, Koby’s multi-disciplined background was charged by a 10-year stint at London-based brand consultants Wolff Olins. She says she was raised by a “Montessori mom”, and her lifelong interest in education underpins the company’s ethos.
TWSU was originally bootstrapped, but raised US$1.8 million in 2015 from a range of investors, including SAATCHiNVEST. The funding boost paid immediate dividends. In partnership with the BBC, the company recently developed the micro:bit, a pocket-sized computer distributed free to a million 12-year-olds in the UK. In June last year, TWSU crowdfunded just under US$130,000 for a piece of wearable and programmable technology called the DIY Mover Kit.
“Kickstarter was the perfect platform for us to launch this product, with great feedback from a ready-made community,” says Koby.
Over the past year, her team has refined its product development and marketing strategies, created repeatable processes and shifted its manufacturing from London’s Hackney to China’s Shenzhen. There have been challenges, but Koby says that it’s never been cheaper, easier or more accessible to make hardware.
In 2017, TWSU is set to enter a new growth phase. “We’re in conversation with 10 governments around the world to utilise our products.”
One piece of advice
“It’s a bit clichéd, but starting and sustaining a business is a journey, not a destination.”