The best-selling new Star Wars toys on Amazon and Walmart is a Droid Inventor Kit: kids create their own customized R2D2 and simultaneously learn how to be inventors. Thanks to Ayah Bdeir SM ’06 and her company littleBits, it’s flying off the shelves in time for The Last Jedi and the holidays.
Her path began when she was a graduate student at the Media Lab, where she co-founded the annual Open Hardware Summit. After joining the Computing Culture Group, she came up with the idea to bring electronics to the masses as a powerful creative tool. She realized her dream with littleBits in 2009; the company started out by creating and selling “Bits modules” as building blocks for artistic electronic creations.
Now, eight years later, the littleBits platform includes more than nine kits with millions of products sold in over 60 countries. Bdeir, an innovator in the maker movement, is helping kids stay interested in STEM/STEAM. The company has developed strategic partnerships with companies and educational programs, and they’re now one of the most recognizable brands for fun toys that don’t oversimplify engineering.
“The drop-off in in kids’ interest in STEM subjects begins in elementary school and hits girls especially hard, which is why littleBits is dedicated to successfully bridging the gender gap with its gender-neutral platform,” she says. “As a result, 30-40 percent of our kid inventors are girls!”
The partnership with Disney and LucasFilm was a long time in the making: as early as 2014, there was interest in a co-branded partnership, but littleBits wasn’t large enough at the time. In 2016, Kevin Mayer ’84, executive vice president of corporate strategy & business development at Disney, directed Bdeir to the Disney Accelerator program, which helps startups partner with Disney on products and experiences. As a member of the accelerator program, littleBits met with Lucasfilm.
“A project with them felt like a perfect match,” she says. “We could get more kids into STEM/STEAM using technology from the films, and we already had an active community of littleBits inventors who loved Star Warsand invented their own light sabers and droids with littleBits.”
In November, Lucasfilm hosted a Droidathon for companies like Facebook, Google, and FitBit to create their own littleBits droids using the kits along with 3D printing, craft material, soldering, and programming. The Droidathon also kicked off the littleBits Competition: Droid Inventor Kit for inventors and their families to share their own creations. Bdeir will judge the submissions in January 2018, along with Star Wars actors Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran and president of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy.
As if that doesn’t keep her busy enough, Bdeir’s been spreading the word about littleBits in Wired UK, Forbes, and Popular Science, among others. She was also a speaker at the 2017 Forbes Under 30 Summit, in partnership with the MIT Solve Initiative and held at the Media Lab.
“Undergraduate computer science degrees held by women have fallen from 36 percent in the ’80s to 18 percent today. 26 percent of computing jobs and just 5 percent of leadership positions are held by women in the technology industry. At the same time, only around 2 percent of VC funding goes to women entrepreneurs,” she says. “We discussed the issue of getting women into these fields, but also the fact that diversity—beyond gender—is so critical to success.”
Top photo: Getty Images for littleBits
UPDATE: Read the Reddit AMA that Ayah Bdeir conducted in December 2017 about littleBits, her partnership with Disney, and promoting STEAM in her work.