LittleBits: Open Innovation Fueled by Open Imagination

LittleBits, the maker of magnetic electronic building blocks, utilizes open innovation to share inventions, troubleshoot problems, generate excitement for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in schools, and make hardware design accessible to everyone.

A LittleBackground

LittleBits, the New York based startup founded in 2011, has the goal of “empowering kids with technology.”  Just 7 years after its launch, LittleBits is working with 20,000 schools, has partnerships with companies like Disney and Pearson, and has raised over $65 million in funding.  It is the source of over 1 million inventions, and 40% of the makers using LittleBits are girls, four times the industry average for this type of toy.[1]

LittleBits are electronic building blocks that magnetically connect circuit components so that users can create their own electronic hardware inventions.  Similar to Legos, LittleBits are sold both as specific kits and as standalone sets.  Unlike Lego, LittleBits has an open source online platform where users can publish their inventions for others to replicate/innovate on.  Even further, LittleBits has the cloudBit component which enables creations to connect to the internet.[2]  Although LittleBits patented the design each individual block, everything created with the tools can be made public on their online galleries and forums.[3][4]

LittleBits and Open Innovation Imagination

Using open innovation is core to the mission at LittleBits.  Ayah Bdeir, LittleBits founder and CEO, identified LittleBits and its online community as a way to keep large tech players innovating.  Previously, to design hardware one needed electrical engineering experience and access to expensive circuit components.  With LittleBits however, Bdeir claims users can “’make [their] own Nest or Jawbone without having to write a line of code’” which means that ‘”the next billion-dollar idea isn’t going to come from Apple; it’s going to come from designers and artists and parents.’”[5]

Open innovation at LittleBits has also helped them design new kits for resale.  Initially, LittleBits created a hardware app store called bitLab where inventors could post their creations, initiating the process for potential replication.  Once an idea was posted on bitLab, other users could vote on the utility of the project and those passing the voting threshold of 1,000 votes would remain on the platform for resale.  If a project was selected, the designer would be eligible for 10% of any future sales of his/her kit.[6]  In 2017 LittleBits closed bitLab because of resource constraints, but its open forums remain.[7]  Additionally, company continues to recognize and monetize the community’s projects with the introduction of Hall of Fame kits inspired by open source ideas.[8]

Finally, open innovation allows LittleBits users to troubleshoot for and teach each other.  This provides an opportunity for students to apply what they’ve learned by helping others and alleviates the need for excess customer service staff.  The LittleBits community helps each other work through challenges, thereby decreasing the necessary staff at the company and simultaneously strengthening the community.

Next Steps for LittleBits

In August, LittleBits made its first strategic acquisition when it purchased DIY Co, an educational online network for kids.[9]  This signals LittleBits’s continued commitment to open source education for its customers and will allow it to more seamlessly integrate its competency in hardware with the possibilities of including software.  The merged company will serve as an online education platform as well as a social network where users can more formally and seamlessly teach one another.  With the acquisition, LittleBits is evolving from an open source project library to an open source education platform.

In her TED talk, Ayah Bdeir says she was inspired to create the “building block of our generation” to make innovation more accessible.[10]  The world seems to agree it is necessary to enable children, parents, teachers, designers and inventors to create electronic prototypes.  However, the power of Bdeir’s idea comes not only from the blocks themselves, but from the community that supports, teaches, and shares the possibilities the blocks represent.

I believe that LittleBits plus many brains will help create the most innovative future, but skeptics have the following questions:

  1. Are open innovation and open imagination at odds? Some challenge the idea that allowing children to build on the ideas of others results in more copycats than creators.
  2. What is next for LittleBits? Will it continue to be a tool just for students/educators or will LittleBits be adopted by the masses to bring hardware ideas to life?  Can growth be fueled by open innovation?

(799 words)

[1] “About,” LittleBits, https://littlebits.com/about/

[2] Kuang, Cliff,  “LittleBits, A Favorite Tool of Hardware Hackers, Is Now Cloud Enabled,” Wired, (2014), https://www.wired.com/2014/07/little-bits-the-favorite-toy-of-hardware-hackers-is-now-cloud-enabled/

[3] Zipkin, Nina, “LittleBits: Balancing Open Source Innovation and Competitive Edge,” Entrepreneur, (2015), https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/252120

[4] Zareva, Teodora, “Everyone Can Become an Electronics Wiz Thanks to LittleBits,” BigThink.com, (2014), https://bigthink.com/design-for-good/everyone-can-become-an-electronics-wiz-thanks-to-littlebits

[5] “LittleBits, A Favorite Tool of Hardware Hackers, Is Now Cloud Enabled”

[6] “Everyone Can Become an Electronics Wiz Thanks to LittleBits”

[7] “The bitLab is Closed”, LittleBits, https://littlebits.com/blog/the-bitlab-is-closed/

[8] “Hall of Fame Kits Announcement”, LittleBits, https://wp.littlebits.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Hall-of-Fame-Kits-Announcement-FINAL.pdf

[9] Heater, Brian, “LittleBits Acquires Kids Educational Community DIY Co”, TechCrunch, (2018), https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/14/littlebits-acquires-kids-educational-community-diy-co/

[10] Bdeir, Ayah, “Building Blocks that Blink Beep and Teach”, TED, (2012), https://www.ted.com/talks/ayah_bdeir_building_blocks_that_blink_beep_and_teach?language=en

[11] “LittleBits Image,” https://www.pcmag.com/review/355844/littlebits-code-kit

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11 thoughts on “LittleBits: Open Innovation Fueled by Open Imagination

  1. I like the LittleBits concept a lot, and I am not particularly worried about replicating others designs. I’m sure there will be quite a few copycats, but with limited opportunity for monetization by individuals, I think the main motivation of those using the kits will be to create new and interesting things.

  2. To your second question, I wonder if companies could use these kits as a team building exercise and to spur internal innovation as well. It might be a way to get engineering teams out of their day-to-day so they can practice working well together as a team. Perhaps there’s a way they could sell or partner with corporations?

  3. LittleBits seems like a great product/platform and is something that I wish was around when I was a kid. What’s interesting to me is that in addition to crowdsourcing design ideas through the online community, LittleBits also crowdsourced idea selection by allowing users to vote on design kits that they found useful and would want to purchase.

    In response to your first question, I don’t think that open innovation and open imagination have to be at odds, especially with LittleBits. It appears that a lot of the value of LittleBits comes from lowering the barriers to entry into STEM and making STEM attractive and accessible to a broader population. While this may allow for copycats in the beginning, it could also ignite some sparks that lead to true innovation and advancement over time. I’m excited to see where LittleBits goes in the future, and I’m curious if the company has plans to reinstate bitLab as it grows.

  4. Fun LittleRead! I personally am not too worried about the technology generating more copycats than innovators. An easy comparison that comes to mind are LEGOs – despite the fact that LEGO sets come with pre-drawn designs and specifications, it hasn’t stopped people everywhere from building their own creations. From our experiences in FIELD, we have seen how innovation is much more likely to occur by taking thoughts from a group rather than through individual brainstorming, allowing the creative value of LittleBits and open imagination to far outweigh any worries of rote mimicry.

    I do think that there is additional value beyond that of a training/educational tool. Given its flexibility, I see it playing the same role as software code has played for the slew of app designers and programmers we have seen rise up over the past decade – LittleBits eliminates the friction points that used to make iterating through physical product prototypes time-consuming and difficult.

  5. I enjoyed reading this great essay on a topic near and dear to my heart! Your narrative voice is articulate and clear and comes through recognizably in your writing. We learned first-hand how breadboards can be hard to use, and it’s important to have more intuitive stepping stones for younger children. I also agree with some commenters that open innovation and open imagination work well together and are not at odds — copying great work is often a great way to train your brain for novel invention. Your question about whether this can come to the masses is a good one, though. Perhaps their current education market is large enough for their long-term ambitions, or maybe they have their eyes set on more commercial use cases.

  6. The mission of LittleBits resonates with me and I do believe that children should be able to learn these skills in a low-stakes and fun environment. However, my biggest concern is that LittleBits open innovation doesn’t truly teach students that it is okay to fail. LittleBits puts too much emphasis on having projects that work or that are valued by the community and commercially viable. In reality, students should be encouraged to try ideas and feel just as successful failing as when their idea is voted to the top. LittleBits should make categories that allow students to portray ideas that were out of the box but didn’t work as expected. This type of community and innovation would actually be more beneficial as others could expand on a failed idea and help each other improve.

  7. This is really cool! I think the use of open source here is a really interesting one, and I wonder how, given the age and gender of the end users, this model affects social behavior. I think the gender component is especially interesting, and I’m curious to understand how social values like sharing that are often emphasized more to young girls than to young boys might be impacting how kids play with the toys and/or choose to share their designs. Going forward, I’m curious to see how LittleBits kids interact with and understand the open source model in comparison with their peers and with older generations that did not grow up with open source toys. I would imagine that the outcomes are likely related to your question about creativity versus copycatting and their overall role in children’s development.

  8. Wish I’d had this product instead of the Tinkertoy Construction Set when I was a kid!

    In response to the author’s first question: I absolutely do not think that open innovation and open imagination are at odds. I believe replicating other’s LittleBits designs helps students develop base-level skills, thus empowering them to then go out and build their own creations. Additionally, I think it’s great for kids to learn how to build off someone’s idea or modifying it for their own situation — this can be as critical as skill as creativity in the working world!

    In terms of what’s next, I think that LittleBits should definitely market their product to the masses! The success Legos and GoldieBloks, a construction kit for girls, indicate that there is strong demand for products like LittleBits in the market.

  9. This is a great concept and I love the idea that it creates an interest in technology for kids, while also fostering creativity.
    I think your first question is very relevant and is almost a philosophical debate around aesthetics and utility. In the case of LittleBits, I would argue that the creation aspect of it is limited by the need to reach functionality. Because in the end, you are still trying to build something that “works” so you are building towards something.
    Another thing I am curious about is the “granularity” of the bits. There’ a delicate balance where you want your bits to be small (or basic) enough to let people assemble them the way they want, but sometimes big enough that you don’t have to assemble hundreds of parts to assemble a basic function (like get a LED to blink). This choice could also have a large impact on what you can achieve with the blocks and what you aim for: education for kids or innovation for adults.
    Fascinating initiative in any case, will definitely follow them.

  10. Really interesting article! I think I would have loved this as a kid. I am intrigued by the second question you posed. LittleBits seems to have all the elements that make for an effective collaborative community – users are driven by an intrinsic motivation to learn and can build / iterate off of others’ designs. However, I am not sure if this will be enough to support growth from a tool for students to a widely commercial application – will they need to devise some type of value sharing arrangement for external innovators? The acquisition you mentioned suggests that they wish to stay in a model motivated by education rather than financial incentives.

  11. Great article Allie!

    I love LittleBits – I have been following this company for the past few years and I think it has tremendous potential!

    On the other hand, I think that the main inhibition for LittleBits to become a proper tool to teach electronic building to kids is the fact that it does not map to any specific technical skill (i.e. programing in a specific language, etc.). I strongly believe that as the company matures and navigates growth opportunities it will need to define what it is: 1) An entertainment for kids to play with, 2) An educational tool or 3) a prototyping product for young inventors.

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