Amid the garish, noisy gadgets, apps and electronic games designed and marketed to infants, tweens and teenagers, London-based Filippo Yacob spotted a gap for products that help very young children learn about tech without tethering them to a tablet.
Together with his friend, Matteo Loglio, who has a background in technology and design, in 2013 he saw an opportunity to develop a product for parents like himself who "want children to get into stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] but don't want children to be glued to the screen".
The result, after several iterations and crowdfunding campaigns (the latest in 2016 raised $1.6 million (€1.5 million)), is Cubetto, a toy for children as young as three.
The game itself is made of wood. Children put coloured shapes on a wooden board to direct a cuboid robot. The combined shapes represent strings of code, and the hope is that through play, children will become familiar with the basic logic behind programming.
Last year's sales were $4 million and the Cubetto is sold in 96 countries. Randi Zuckerberg, an investor in Primo Toys, the company behind Cubetto, and former chief marketing officer of Facebook, says: "We have to make [coding] accessible to all genders, languages, and cultures and it starts young."
Children are fearsome tech consumers. There are even smart watches made for them. Entrepreneurs are jostling to make money from parents keen to future-proof their children’s careers, just as coding has become part of the school curriculum in many countries. Many Irish schoolchildren access coding through Scratch (a programming language devised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as an afterschool activity, or through Coderdojo events at weekends.
Games such as Cubetto are “hot”, says Reyne Rice, a toy industry analyst. She says start-ups are leading the way in developing educational games that encourage tech savviness. By 2019, the global market for child-development toys will reach $39.5 billion, with stem constituting 76 per cent of overall sales, according to Euromonitor, the market researcher.
Alongside Mr Yacob's Primo, there is Sam Labs of the UK; Kubo in Denmark; Wonder Workshop, OzoBot and Little Bits - all based in the US. The more established Fisher-Price has Code-a-Pillar - a plastic toy designed to introduce infants to programming. Disney runs an accelerator programme to support small toy companies, with an eye to possibly acquiring them in the future.
Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, last year called for coding to be taught to children alongside languages such as French or Spanish. Microsoft has warned that without increased stem training in the US, "there is a growing probability that unfilled jobs will migrate over time to countries that graduate larger numbers of individuals with the stem backgrounds".
Against this backdrop, parents are under pressure to make sure their children get ahead. Liane Katz, co-founder of Mama.codes, a UK start-up that offers programming classes, admits: "There is a little bit of FOMO [fear of missing out]."
Mr Yacob is sanguine. "Whether it's fear or excitement about the future, it's essentially the same. The future is tech. As long as it's about fun and playing, it's OK. Tech is not about jobs, it's about creativity and fun."
Yet David Buckingham, an emeritus professor at Loughborough University, who researches children and media, is sceptical about the value of teaching today's five- or six-year-olds to code in the hope of securing high salaries and illustrious careers. In the future, much of the coding and programming they have learnt today will be automated via artificial intelligence. Turning offspring into "creative entrepreneurs" may be better than "programming drones" - as he puts it.
Alex Klein, co-founder of Kano, a start-up whose kit allows children to create a simple computer then program it, says toy companies should avoid the rhetoric of job-stealing robots to boost sales. His marketing pitch is to demystify technology as well as encouraging children to see coding as fun and creative. Success at coding can underpin achievement in other disciplines, such as art or journalism, which increasingly require digital skills.
Entrepreneurs who sell coding kits for kids argue their games can build transferable skills. But Prof Buckingham says there is no good evidence that teaching coding enables anyone to think in a more logical way in other aspects of life.
“If you learn coding, you will be good at solving problems in the context of coding, or in very similar [DISCIPLINES], like maths,” he says. “But there’s no evidence that you will be any better at solving problems in other areas, especially if they are more complicated than the extremely rule-bound, highly systematic context of writing computer code.”
Toys that encourage computer literacy are set to remain a growth market despite such doubts, although entrepreneurs who tap into it are not guaranteed an easy ride.
A major challenge some start-ups have encountered is who to market to: children, parents or teachers? Kano’s Mr Klein admits it is tough to appeal to all three. If the products become too worthy they will not appeal to children, he says. Though he adds that schools are an important and growing market for his company.
Parents and teachers are typically the purchasers, he says, because some kits can be expensive. Cubetto costs €199, while a Kano kit starts at about the same.
As the sector grows, smaller companies are likely to be bought by established players and products bashed out in bulk. However, prices could come down.
In the meantime, products must bridge the generation gap, says Bethany Koby, the founder of start-up Tech Will Save Us, which has created products such as The Mover, a watch-like device that it says eight-year olds can program. Her products cost between €23 and €149. She says marketing must reflect the fact that some parents are perplexed by technology.
Mr Buckingham is wary of the “edutainment” market, as he calls it, saying it targets parents’ anxieties about their child’s progress.
Yet he also predicts robust growth. “In an age where there’s so much competitiveness in education, and where everything teachers and children do is being measured and assessed, that market is bound to become more and more lucrative,” he says.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017