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.
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. Although LittleBits patented the design each individual block, everything created with the tools can be made public on their online galleries and forums.
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.’”
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. In 2017 LittleBits closed bitLab because of resource constraints, but its open forums remain. Additionally, company continues to recognize and monetize the community’s projects with the introduction of Hall of Fame kits inspired by open source ideas.
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. 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. 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:
- 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.
- 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?
 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/
 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
 “LittleBits, A Favorite Tool of Hardware Hackers, Is Now Cloud Enabled”
 “Everyone Can Become an Electronics Wiz Thanks to LittleBits”
 “The bitLab is Closed”, LittleBits, https://littlebits.com/blog/the-bitlab-is-closed/
 “Hall of Fame Kits Announcement”, LittleBits, https://wp.littlebits.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Hall-of-Fame-Kits-Announcement-FINAL.pdf
 Heater, Brian, “LittleBits Acquires Kids Educational Community DIY Co”, TechCrunch, (2018), https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/14/littlebits-acquires-kids-educational-community-diy-co/
 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
 “LittleBits Image,” https://www.pcmag.com/review/355844/littlebits-code-kit