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Tenka Labs

461C Coloma St., Sausalito

415.728.8244

Employees: Six–12 consultants

Founded; 2015

www.tenkalabs.com

Elementary and middle school teachers are always seeking new tools to help them introduce children — ages eight to 12 and up — to opportunities available through a knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). One trend catching on is through innovative toys that are fun to use as well as educational as kids engage in creative STEM-related play activities.

“When instructors try to explain circuitry principles, or conduct experiments in class, students are initially interested, but often become disengaged,” said Nate MacDonald. He and co-founder John Schuster formed Tenka Labs to fill a need for a compelling and challenging approach to teaching circuitry and STEM topics to children. The company closed a $2.1 million seed round of funding in February.

“We have observed what happens when basic electronic materials are put in front of kid to see what they do with them. When teaching aids are intuitive enough for them to figure out, they start by tinkering, remain focused and invent unique things as they hand-assemble functioning systems with moving parts on their own.”

The goal is to make STEM education more accessible. Based on this premise, these two Marin County educators displayed an early design model at the Maker Faire Bay Area in 2014, the same year they launched their startup. Initially called IgnitED, the company name was changed to Tenka Labs in 2015. “Tenka” is a Japanese word that means “ignited.”

CEO MacDonald, a mechanical engineer, previously taught math, science and robotics at the Whitehall Middle School in Fairfax. Chief Design Officer Schuster was part of the IT department in the Ross Valley School District where he hosted “lunch and learn” events to teach kids circuitry. Both left their jobs to pursue their dream of finding the best ed-tech toys for understanding circuitry and how they work. The founders are also STEM educators and FIRST LEGO coaches.

“We studied existing electronic kits but felt that no product could engage young learners and teach basic electronics literacy in a way that would be embraced by students, hold their interest and bring their creations to life, so we decided to make our own,” MacDonald said.

Inspired in part by simple circuit blocks at the San Francisco Exploratorium, they designed a prototype that was five times larger using a laser cutter and 3-D printing technology. After making 50 revisions, MacDonald and Schuster refined their crude model into what they call Circuit Cubes.

MacDonald said that today’s “transformer age,” kids are fascinated when one thing can be turned into another. Circuit Cube electronic building blocks have a small form factor and can be integrated with Lego-style blocks or any materials that kids can imagine, from vintage toys to recycled milk cartons.

The transparent Circuit Cube design enables kids to see the connections they make when they light an LED, power a motor, or activate a switch. Cubes can be used vertically, horizontally or diagonally to accommodate any design.

With only six employees, supported by 12 consultants, Tenka Lab’s founders are now in the process of launching three new Circuit Cube-based products scheduled to ship in August. They include a Whacky Wheels Kit, Bright Lights Kit, and a Smart Art Kit, each available for $59.95. In future, a la carte extra parts will also be sold through the firm’s website (www.tenkalabs.com).

Tenka Labs

461C Coloma St., Sausalito

415.728.8244

Employees: Six–12 consultants

Founded; 2015

www.tenkalabs.com

Orders are taken by phone, through Amazon or at three retail outlets to be announced this fall. Future kits in development will include components that integrate art and programmable microcontrollers.

“We found that the age bracket for these toys can be as low as five and up to high school level,” MacDonald said. “We are also developing curriculum for teachers that will align what we have with their public school common core and next-generation standards.”

MacDonald said the team is also working closely with Sonoma State University professors in the Maker Certificate Program that prepares educators to teach basic circuitry.

Two leading summer camps for kids already use Tenka Lab’s products. Steve and Kate’s Camps, started 20 years ago in Sausalito, have introduced them to some 250 children. This organization now conducts 40 camps nationwide. Another group, Tech Know How, has hosted 3,000 campers featuring Lego-based creations made using Circuit Cubes.

“It never ceases to amaze me about what kids will come up with,” MacDonald said. “My 7-year-old took two Circuit Cubes, attached them to a toothbrush and made a vibrating electronic brush. An 11-year-old hooked up a battery and a Circuit Cube to make a butterfly with flapping wings. We’re changing the way kids learn and create.”