Monthly Archives: November 2020

News: Kahoot drops $50M on Drops to add language learning to its gamified education stable

After raising $215 million from SoftBank to double down on the surge of interest in online learning, Kahoot has made an acquisition to expand the scope of subjects that it covers. The popular startup, which lets people build and share educational games, has picked up Drops, a startup that helps people learn languages by way

After raising $215 million from SoftBank to double down on the surge of interest in online learning, Kahoot has made an acquisition to expand the scope of subjects that it covers. The popular startup, which lets people build and share educational games, has picked up Drops, a startup that helps people learn languages by way of short picture- and word-based games. The plan is to integrate more Kahoot features into Drops’ apps, and to bring some of Drops’ content into the main Kahoot platform.

Kahoot, which trades a part of its shares through Norway’s alternative exchange the Merkur Market and currently has a market cap of over $3 billion, said in an announcement that it would pay $31 million in cash, plus up to $19 million more in cash and shares, based on Drops meeting certain targets between now and 2022. The deal is expected to close this month.

Drops makes three main apps. First in an eponymous freemium app, with free and paid features, that helps adults learn new languages, currently some 42 in all, with a focus on vocabulary, built around five-minute, “snackable” sessions. A second app, Scripts, is aimed at learning to read, write and sign, and it covers four alphabets and four character-based writing systems. A third, Droplets, is aimed specifically at language learning for learners aged between eight and 17. Altogether Drops has clocked up 25 million users.

Notably, one reason it might be off TechCrunch’s (and the startup world’s) radar is that it appears to have been bootstrapped up to now. (We are confirming that detail and will update when/if we learn more.) But it’s had some notable accolades, getting named app of the year by Google in 2018, for one.

The startup was founded in Estonia and has 21 employees and has no “head office” as such, with the team spread across Estonia, US, UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia. This could be one reason why it’s kept costs low: in 2019 it reported gross revenues of $7.5 million (€6.3 million), with cash conversion of 40%.

For some more context, Kahoot says that in the last 12 months, more than 1 billion participating players in over 200 countries attended over 200 million Kahoot! sessions. That figure includes both educational users of its free services, as well as enterprises, which pay to build and use games (for example related to professional development or business compliance) on the platform.

“We are thrilled to welcome Drops to the expanding Kahoot! family as we advance towards our vision to become the leading learning platform in the world,” said Eilert Hanoa, the CEO of Kahoot, in a statement. “Drops’ offerings and innovative learning model are a perfect match to Kahoot!’s mission of making learning awesome through a simple, game-based approach. Drops and language learning becomes the latest addition to our growing offering of learning apps for learners of all ages and abilities. We will continue to expand in new areas to make Kahoot! the ultimate learning destination, at home, school or work, and to make learning awesome!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a bonanza for educational apps, which are collectively seeing a huge rush of usage in the last year.

For students, educators and parents, they have become a way of connecting and teaching at a time when physical schools are either closed, or drastically curtailed in what they can do, in order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Businesses and other organizations, on the other hand, are leaning on e-learning as a way of keeping connected with staff, engaging them, and training them at a time when many are working from home.

It might seem ironic that at a time when travel has been drastically limited, if not completely halted altogether, for many of us, that language learning has seen an especially big boom.

Maybe it’s about making hay — that is, using the moment to get yourself ready for a time in the future when you might actually get to use your newly acquired foreign language skills. Or maybe it’s just another option for distracting or occupying ourselves in a more constructive way. Whatever might be the motivation or cause, the effect is that language learning is on the up.

Most recently, Duolingo — which incidentally also uses game-based concepts, where you enter a leaderboard for your learning and your daily sessions become winning streaks — raised $35 million on a $2.4 billion valuation, a huge jump for the company.

Kahoot cites figures that predict that digital language learning will be an $8 billion+ market by 2025 as describes Drops as “one of the fastest-growing language platforms in the world.”

“The entire Drops team has spent the last five years building a new way to learn language, and we’re just getting started,” said Daniel Farkas, co-founder and CEO, Drops, in a statement. “We’ve introduced millions of users across the globe to our playful, dynamic approach to language learning. Kahoot! is doing the same for all types of learning. We’re excited to work with such a mission-aligned company to introduce the Drops platform to game-loving learners everywhere.”

News: Caura, the app for U.K. car owners, begins offering insurance

Caura, the U.K. startup that wants to take the hassle out of car ownership, is launching car insurance — unveiling its insurtech ambitions. Dubbed “Caura Protect,” the new insurance product claims to reduce the cost and time taken to insure a car, building on the app’s existing car management features. Launched earlier this year by

Caura, the U.K. startup that wants to take the hassle out of car ownership, is launching car insurance — unveiling its insurtech ambitions.

Dubbed “Caura Protect,” the new insurance product claims to reduce the cost and time taken to insure a car, building on the app’s existing car management features.

Launched earlier this year by Sai Lakshmi, who previously co-founded medication management service Echo, Caura is a mobile app designed to manage all of the vehicle-related admin that car owners endure.

Drivers are on-boarded by entering their vehicle registration number and can manage parking, tolls, MOT, road tax, congestion charges, and now insurance — a “one-stop shop” app in a similar vein to Echo. The idea is that Caura minimises car ownership admin and helps to mitigate associated penalty fines.

Caura is FCA approved to undergo various insurance activities and enables drivers to compare insurers and manage their policy within the app. The startup also says it has redesigned the signup and verification process to significantly reduce the time needed to find the best insurance policy.

“Caura instantly verifies users against official sources like the DVLA, simplifying the experience, and reducing the risk of insurance fraud,” says the company.

The idea is to offer a much more user-friendly insurance search and buying process than is typical of price comparison websites that ask for a multiple page questionnaire to be filled out before sending you — the “prospect” — to the insurer to complete your purchase. Instead, Caura claims that users can research options, select a quote, pay, and be covered to drive in around a minute (if you navigate the app really fast, I’m assuming).

The insurance cover itself is provided by six of the leading U.K. insurers, including Aviva and Markerstudy. In early 2021, Caura users will be able to pay for insurance in monthly instalments.

Asked why no one seems to have made shopping around for car insurance quite so straightforward, Lakshmi tells TechCrunch: “Startups in insurtech have been so busy finding niches that they’ve forgotten to innovate for the mainstream consumer”.

News: Google-backed Chinese truck-hailing firm Manbang raises $1.7 billion

The Chinese Uber for trucks Manbang announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.7 billion in its latest funding round, two years after it hauled in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Group and Alphabet Inc’s venture capital fund CapitalG. The news came fresh off a Wall Street Journal report two weeks ago that Manbang was

The Chinese Uber for trucks Manbang announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.7 billion in its latest funding round, two years after it hauled in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Group and Alphabet Inc’s venture capital fund CapitalG.

The news came fresh off a Wall Street Journal report two weeks ago that Manbang was seeking $1 billion ahead of an initial public offering next year. The company declined to comment on the matter, though its CEO Zhang Hui said in May 2019 that the firm was “not in a rush” to go public.

Manbang said it achieved profitability this year. Its valuation was reportedly on course to reach $10 billion in 2018.

The company, which runs an app matching truck drivers and merchants transporting cargo and provides financial services to truckers, was formed from a merger between rivals Yunmanman and Huochebang in 2017. It was a time when China’s “sharing economy” craze began to see consolidation and shakeup.

The latest financing again attracted high-profile backers, including returning investors SoftBank Vision Fund and Sequoia Capital China, Permira and Fidelity, a consortium that co-led the round. Other participants were Hillhouse Capital, GGV Capital, Lightspeed China Partners, Tencent, Jack Ma’s YF Capital and more.

The company has other Alibaba ties. Its CEO Zhang, who founded Yunmanman, hailed from Alibaba’s famed B2B department where Manbang chairman Wang Gang also worked before he went on to fund ride-hailing giant Didi’s angel round.

Manbang claims its platform has over 10 million verified drivers and 5 million cargo owners. The latest funding will allow it to further invest in research and development, upgrade its matching system, and expand its service capacity to functions like door-to-door transportation.

Sequoia is quite bullish about truck-hailing as it made its sixth investment in Manbang. For Permira, a European private equity fund, the Manbang investment marked the China debut of its Growth Opportunities Fund.

News: N26 launches mid-tier subscription plan for €4.90 per month

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package. In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package.

In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs €9.90 per month and comes with higher limits, such as five free ATM withdrawals instead of three and free withdrawals in foreign currencies.

With an N26 You account, you can create sub-accounts (N26 Spaces), share them with other N26 users or use them to save money. As an N26 You subscriber, you also get a travel insurance package with medical travel insurance, trip and flight insurance and more. You can also access some partner offers.

N26 Metal is the most expensive plan and costs €16.90 per month. In addition to everything in N26 You, you get car rental insurance when you’re abroad and phone insurance. As the name suggests, you also get a metal card.

The new N26 Smart subscription costs €4.90 and works well for people who don’t need travel insurance. With an N26 Smart subscription, you can create up to ten sub-accounts. You get five free ATM withdrawals per month. You can also call N26 support directly in addition to in-app support chat.

N26 is launching a new round-up feature for N26 Smart users. It lets you round each purchase up to the nearest Europe and save it in a separate sub-account. N26 Smart account also access colorful debit cards — the same colors as N26 You.

This is just a first step as N26 plans to revamp its subscription products altogether. In the near future, N26 You will become N26 International. There will be more features focused on borderless banking. N26 Metal will become N26 Unlimited.

As for the free N26 Standard account, the company wants to focus on digital cards. Some users are going to switch to the N26 Smart plan to keep some of the features that they’ve been using with a free account. That move should help the company’s bottom line.

Image Credits: N26

News: Biden-Harris team finally get their transition .gov domain

Finally. It only took almost three weeks, but the Biden-Harris transition has officially begun. On Monday, the General Services Administration gave the green light for the Biden-Harris team to transition from political campaign to government administration, allowing the team to receive government resources like office space, but also classified briefings and secure computers. And, with

Finally. It only took almost three weeks, but the Biden-Harris transition has officially begun.

On Monday, the General Services Administration gave the green light for the Biden-Harris team to transition from political campaign to government administration, allowing the team to receive government resources like office space, but also classified briefings and secure computers. And, with it, comes a shiny new .gov domain.

Transitioning is an obscure part of the law that’s rarely discussed, in large part because outgoing governments and incoming administrations largely get on and try to maintain continuity of government through a peaceful transition of power. The process is formally triggered by the General Services Administration, the lesser-known federal agency tasked with the basic functioning of government, and allows the incoming administration to receive funds, tools, and resources to prepare for entering government.

But this time around, the agency’s head Emily Murphy had been reluctant to trigger the formal transition period after the Trump campaign filed a number of lawsuits challenging the election.

Murphy finally approved the transition on Monday after Michigan certified its election results.

Up until now, the Biden-Harris team buildbackbetter.com to host its transition website. Now it’s hosted at buildbackbetter.gov, a departure from the ptt.gov domain used by the incoming Obama-Biden administration in 2008.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that until now the Biden-Harris team was using a Google Workspace for email and collaboration, secured with hardware security keys that staff need to log into their accounts. That setup might suffice for an enterprise, but had security experts worried that the lack of government cybersecurity support could make the camp more vulnerable to attacks.

As for the domain, which you might not think much about, the shift to a .gov domain marks a significant step forwards in the camp’s cybersecurity efforts. Government domains, hosted on the .gov domain, are toughened to prevent against domain hijacking or spoofing. In simple terms, they’re far more resilient than your regular web hosting services.

Biden tweeted out the domain marking the change.

News: Recycling robotics company AMP Robotics could raise up to $70M

AMP Robotics, the recycling robotics technology developer backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is close to closing on as much as $70 million in new financing, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans. The new financing speaks to AMP Robotics’ continued success in pilot projects and with new

AMP Robotics, the recycling robotics technology developer backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is close to closing on as much as $70 million in new financing, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans.

The new financing speaks to AMP Robotics’ continued success in pilot projects and with new partnerships that are exponentially expanding the company’s deployments.

Earlier this month the company announced a new deal that represented its largest purchase order for its trash sorting and recycling robots.

That order, for 24 machine learning-enabled robotic recycling systems with the waste handling company Waste Connections, was a showcase for the efficacy of the company’s recycling technology.

That comes on the back of a pilot program earlier in the year with one Toronto apartment complex, where the complex’s tenants were able to opt into a program that would share recycling habits monitored by AMP Robotics with the building’s renters in an effort to improve their recycling behavior.

The potential benefits of AMP Robotic’s machine learning enabled robots are undeniable. The company’s technology can sort waste streams in ways that traditional systems never could and at a cost that’s far lower than most waste handling facilities.

As TechCrunch reported earlier the tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.

AMP’s robots already have been deployed in North America, Asia and Europe, with recent installations in Spain and across the U.S. in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

At the beginning of the year, AMP Robotics  worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that provided residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits. Sidewalk Labs is transporting the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash is sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics.

Once the waste is categorized, sorted and recorded, Sidewalk communicates with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

It was only last November that the Denver-based AMP Robotics raised a $16 million round from Sequoia Capital and others to finance the early commercialization of its technology.

 

As TechCrunch reported at the time, recycling businesses used to be able to rely on China to buy up any waste stream (no matter the quality of the material). However, about two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries.

The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively. At the time, unemployment rates put the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where trash was sorted. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on those recycling and waste handling facilities, despite their identification as “essential workers”.

Given the economic reality, recyclers are turning to AMP’s technology — a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotic automation to improve efficiencies at their facilities.

And, the power of AMP’s technology to identify waste products in a stream has other benefits, according to chief executive Matanya Horowitz.

“We can identify… whether it’s a Coke or Pepsi can or a Starbucks cup,” Horowitz told TechCrunch last year. “So that people can help design their product for circularity… we’re building out our reporting capabilities and that, to them, is something that is of high interest.”

AMP Robotics declined to comment for this article.

 

News: YC-backed Cashfree raises $35.3 million for its payments platform

Cashfree, an Indian startup that offers a wide-range of payments services to businesses, has raised $35.3 million in a new financing round as the profitable firm looks to broaden its offering. The Bangalore-based startup’s Series B was led by London-headquartered private equity firm Apis Partners (which invested through its Growth Fund II), with participation from

Cashfree, an Indian startup that offers a wide-range of payments services to businesses, has raised $35.3 million in a new financing round as the profitable firm looks to broaden its offering.

The Bangalore-based startup’s Series B was led by London-headquartered private equity firm Apis Partners (which invested through its Growth Fund II), with participation from existing investors Y Combinator and Smilegate Investments. The new round brings the startup’s to-date raise to $42 million.

Cashfree kickstarted its journey in 2015 as a solution for restaurants in Bangalore that needed an efficient way for their delivery personnel to collect cash from customers.

Akash Sinha and Reeju Datta, the founders of Cashfree, did not have any prior experience with payments. When their merchants asked if they could build a service to accept payments online, the founders quickly realized that Cashfree could serve a wider purpose.

In the early days, Cashfree also struggled to court investors, many of whom did not think a payments processing firm could grow big — and do so fast enough. But the startup’s fate changed after Y Combinator accepted its application, even though the founders had missed the deadline and couldn’t arrive to join the batch on time. Y Combinator later financed Cashfree’s seed round.

Fast-forward five years, Cashfree today offers more than a dozen products and services and helps over 55,000 businesses disburse salary to employees, accept payments online, set up recurring payments and settle marketplace commissions.

Some of its customers include financial services startup Cred, online grocer BigBasket, food delivery platform Zomato, insurers HDFC Ergo and Acko and travel ticketing service provider Ixigo. The startup works with several banks and also offers integrations with platforms such as Shopify, PayPal and Amazon Pay.

Based on its offerings, Cashfree today competes with scores of startups, but it has an edge — if not many. Cashfree has been profitable for the past three years, Sinha, who serves as the startup’s chief executive, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Cashfree has maintained a leadership position in this space and is now going through a period of rapid growth fuelled by the development of unique and innovative products that serve the needs of its customers,” Udayan Goyal, co-founder and a managing partner at Apis, said in a statement.

The startup processed over $12 billion in payments volumes in the financial year that ended in March. Sinha said part of the fresh fund will be deployed in R&D so that Cashfree can scale its technology stack and build more services, including those that can digitize more offline payments for its clients.

Cashfree is also working on building cross-border payments solutions to explore opportunities in emerging markets, he said.

“We still see payments as an evolving industry with its own challenges and we would be investing in next-gen payments as well as banking tech to make payments processing easier and more reliable. With the solid foundation of in-house technologies, tech-driven processes and in-depth industry knowledge, we are confident of growing Cashfree to be the leader in the payments space in India and internationally,” he said.

News: AliveCor, which helps its users manage their heart health, scores another FDA approval

Last week, AliveCor, a nine-year-old, 92-person company whose small, personal electrocardiogram devices help users detect atrial fibrillation, bradycardia, and tachycardia from heart rate readings taken from their own kitchen tables, raised $65 million from investors. Today, it’s clearer why investors — who’ve now provided the Mountain View, Ca., company with $169 million altogether —  are

Last week, AliveCor, a nine-year-old, 92-person company whose small, personal electrocardiogram devices help users detect atrial fibrillation, bradycardia, and tachycardia from heart rate readings taken from their own kitchen tables, raised $65 million from investors.

Today, it’s clearer why investors — who’ve now provided the Mountain View, Ca., company with $169 million altogether —  are excited about its prospects. AliveCor just received its newest FDA clearance under the agency’s software as a medical device designation for an upgrade that generates enough detail and fidelity that AliveCor says its cardiological services can now serve as stand-in for the vast majority of cases when cardiac patients are not in front of their doctor.

Specifically, the company says the FDA-cleared update can detect premature atrial contractions, premature ventricular contractions, sinus rhythm with wide QRS.

In a world where the pandemic continues to rage and people remain hesitant to visit a hospital, these little steps add up. In fact, CEO Priya Abani, along with AliveCor founder and chief medical officer David Albert, formerly the chief clinical scientist of cardiology at GE, say AliveCor’s “Kardia” devices have been used to record nearly 15 million EKG recordings since March of this year, which is up over 70% year-over-year.

They also claim a 25% increase year-over-year in what they call physician-patient connections, meaning doctors specifically asking their patients to use the device, either at their medical office or at the patient’s home. Indeed, the pair says that while the company has focused historically on consumer sales, so much new business is coming through doctor referrals that roughly one out of every two of its devices is now sold through these recommendations.

Patients still need to pay out of pocket for AliveCor’s personal EKG devices, one of which currently sells for $89 while a more sophisticated model sells for $139.

The company also more recently rolled out a subscription product for $99 per year that “unlocks” additional features, including monthly summaries of a customer’s heart data, and hopefully soon, says Abani, access to cardiologists who will be able to answer questions in lieu of one’s own cardiologist.

Abani — who joined AliveCor last year from Amazon, where she was a general manager and director of Alexa — says other offerings are also in the works that should help customers measure their hypertension and blood pressure. She adds that the company more broadly sees itself as becoming a way for people to manage chronic conditions from home and that, if things go AliveCor’s way, employers will begin offering the service to employees as a way for them to take better care of their own heart health.

In the meantime, AliveCor’s bigger push into the enterprise appears tied not only to COVID and its ripple effects but also to competition on the consumer front from Apple Watch, which also now enables wearers to records the electrical pulses that make one’s heart beat and to determine whether the upper and lower chambers are their heart are in rhythm.

Though the company has sung Apple’s praises for raising awareness around heart health, last year, owing to shrinking sales, AliveCor stopped making an earlier product called the KardiaBand that was an FDA-cleared ECG wristband designed for use with Apple Watches.

AliveCor’s products are currently sold in 12 countries, including India, South Korea, and Germany, and it has clearance to sell in more than 37 altogether.

In addition to selling directly to customers through its site, its devices are available to buy through Best Buy, CVS, and Walgreens.

Very worth noting: Neither Apple nor AliveCor can detect actual heart attacks. While both can detect atrial fibrillation, acute heart attacks are not associated with atrial fibrillation.

News: Trump didn’t concede, but he will move Biden’s transition forward

With an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, election results took a bit longer this year than usual. But if Americans were expecting an election week, November stretched on into a month of election drama, with President Trump mounting an unprecedented effort to undermine election results and stall the transition process, even as states certified Biden’s

With an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, election results took a bit longer this year than usual. But if Americans were expecting an election week, November stretched on into a month of election drama, with President Trump mounting an unprecedented effort to undermine election results and stall the transition process, even as states certified Biden’s win.

President Trump at last appeared to accept the election results Monday, but not in so many words. It certainly wasn’t a concession speech, but it was probably the closest thing yet.

“… In the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same,” Trump tweeted, seeming to contradict a fresh claim made by GSA Administrator Emily Murphy that the White House did not influence her decision to block the transition. The General Services Administration (GSA) plays a role in making election results official and moving the transition forward on the federal level.

…fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2020

President-elect Biden’s transition work proceeded in spite of the roadblocks, with the incoming leader introducing aspects of his plan to get COVID-19 under control and working out the names of officials he plans to appoint. But with the head of the GSA refusing to release $6.3 million in federal funds for the transition, Biden’s hands were tied in some important ways. Murphy’s extremely unusual refusal to recognize the election results also blocked the president-elect’s ability to access secure government devices and receive briefings from federal agencies, including those involved in the pandemic response.

Apart from getting Biden’s transition on track, Trump’s words and GSA’s belated cooperation could help the nation move on in another important way. For weeks, election conspiracies have roiled the internet, inspiring a number of Trump supporters to denounce mainstream social networks, which reminded users of the election results and cracked down on some forms of misinformation. Those conspiracy theories were often spread right from the top, with President Trump promoting baseless claims of fraud involving mail-in ballots and voting machines as he refused to concede.

The president’s online supporters may not move on from the election quickly, but they’re likely to follow his lead — and for now at least, it looks like Trump will signal defeat.

News: Gift Guide: 22 STEM toy gift ideas for every little builder

In 2020, parents and guardians are super spoilt for choice in the STEM toys gift department — which is great news in the midst of a pandemic that’s supercharging homeschooling needs. The category has matured to offer an interesting range of options for children across a wide span of ages, shedding some of its earlier

In 2020, parents and guardians are super spoilt for choice in the STEM toys gift department — which is great news in the midst of a pandemic that’s supercharging homeschooling needs. The category has matured to offer an interesting range of options for children across a wide span of ages, shedding some of its earlier reliance on Disney IP in favor of more original ideas. Below, we’ve rounded up 20+ gift ideas to get the (robotic) ball rolling.

It’s still true the educational value of ‘learn to code’ gizmos remains hard to quantify. And some price-tags can seem tricky to justify. But there’s no doubt a lot of thought has gone on creating child-friendly product design and into chunking and structuring the learning. The short story is there’s plenty to intrigue and inspire developing minds, even if there’s no guarantee you’ll have a future Googler on your hands. (But that’s okay; maybe your kid will invent the next paradigm shifting platform?)

It’s also good to see attention continuing to be paid to encouraging children to explore art & design, not just get their heads around engineering & science concepts. Maybe in the coming years we’ll get a little STEM ethics thrown into the mix — to further round-out the learning potential. While there’s clear value in kids understanding how digital tools work under the hood, helping the next generation appreciate that connectivity can change people’s behavior and reshape the world around them looks no less important a lesson to learn.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Arcade Coder

Arcade Coder targets budding game designers (Image credit: Tech Will Save Us)

UK startup Tech Will Save Us’ Arcade Coder is a STEM toy designed for budding game designers. It takes the form of interactive gaming ‘tablet’ with an array of LED-lit buttons rather than a touchscreen — preloaded with a few retro games. But hook it up to its companion iPad app and kids get guidance on how to tweak gameplay and design their own games via a drag-and-drop learn-to-code interface.

Age: 6-10
Price: $120 from Amazon
Made by: Tech Will Save Us

Boolean Box

The BooleanBox has Raspberry Pi inside (Image credit: Boolean Girl)

The Boolean Box is a build-it-yourself Raspberry Pi Model 3-based computer designed with the help of girls in coding camps and school programs run by its not-for-profit maker — though it’s designed for kids of any gender. The Pi-powered machine runs Raspbian OS and comes preloaded with STEM-friendly software, including Scratch, Python, and Minecraft, so little coders can get to grips with block-based and more sophisticated programming languages once the computer has been put together. The kit also includes a breadboard for building electronics projects. (NB: The basic box needs an HDMI-capable TV to act as a monitor for the computer, or there’s a $300 bundle that comes with a monitor.)

Age: 8+
Price: $150 from Amazon
Made by: Boolean Girl

Botley 2.0 Coding Robot Activity Set

The battery-powered coding robot, Botley 2.0 (Image credit: Learning Resources)

For parents looking for screen-free STEM toys Botley 2.0 is worth a look. The battery-powered rolling-and-sensing programmable robot comes with a remote control for coding directional sequences (of up to 150 steps) via simple button pressing. There’s also a loops button to introduce the code coding principle of recycling a previous sequence.

Botley’s maker, Learning Resources, has updated the robot for 2020 with new interactions, color-changing eyes and night vision so it can carry on line-sensing in the dark. There are also new programming sequences for kids to discover that transform the bot into fresh characters — such as a train, police car, ghost and frog — expressed via different sounds and movements. The kit also includes a 78-piece activity set so kids can devise obstacle courses for Botley to navigate.

Age: 5-10
Price: Around $70 from Amazon
Made by: Learning Resources

Botzees Go! – Dino Set & Color Sensor Kit add-on pack

The Color Sensor Kit add-on pack for the Botzees Go! — Dino Set (Image Credit: Pai Technology)

Pai Technology has been selling robotics kits with an augmented reality twist for a few years now. Newer offerings from the STEM toy maker are aimed at younger kids — offering a first taste of block-based construction plus a companion app to offer build instructions and simple visualization of the finished creation. The Botzees Go! – Dino Set extends the basic construction element by adding movement and a physical remote control so kids can bring the dino-bots to life. So a very soft introduction to STEM learning. An optional Color Sensor Kit further extends capabilities by enabling the bots to track lines and respond to different colors.

Age: 3+
Price: $80 ($40 apiece for the Dino Set and Sensor Kit)
Made by: Pai Technology

Circuit Explorer

Circuit Explorer space themed STEM playsets (Image credit: Educational Insights)

Circuit Explorer is a simple STEM toy that fuses Lego-style block building with snap-together electronic circuits for a range of space-themed toys — including a rocket, rover and Deluxe Base Station. Kids get to light up their creations with battery-powered LED lights and synthesized sound effects.

Age: 6+
Price: From $30 on Amazon
Made by: Educational Insights

Disney Codeillusion

Disney Codeillusion gamifies teaching kids coding (Image credit: Life is Tech!)

Edtech company Life is Tech! has licensed Disney IP to inject the latter’s branding magic into a gamified and interactive learning environment that’s geared towards encouraging kids to acquire coding skills by building their own games, websites and movies featuring some of their favorite Disney characters. The online educational game — called Disney Codeillusion — is billed as teaching four coding languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Processing), with a focus on visual arts thanks to the inclusion of Disney’s animated movie characters. The content features the usual cartoon suspects — from Queen Elsa and Aladdin to Mickey Mouse.

The web-based course is definitely not a cheap option — and requires an Internet connection via a desktop computer (not a mobile device) to work — costing $500 for a package that excludes any physical merch and also strips out some other digital elements (such as an RPG game). While the package with all the bells & whistles (aka the ‘Enchanted’ edition) weighs in at $900. But with 125 lessons (averaging 30 minutes a pop) kids should at least be kept busy working on their code creations for some time — which might be magic enough for parents stuck homeschooling during a pandemic.

There is also a free seven-day trial to get a taster of lesson content before committing to shell out.

Age: 8+
Price: From $500
Made by: Life is Tech!

Electro Explorers Club

The crafty Electro Explorer Club subscription box (Image credit: Tech Will Save Us)

Monthly activity kits have become a well established STEM toy niche that looks set to be supercharged as more parents take on homeschooling because of the coronavirus pandemic. UK STEAM toy maker Tech Will Save Us has been playing in this space for several years now. One of its most recent offerings to keep kids entertained and engaged is the Electro Explorers Club: A cutesy craft and electronics projects subscription box with a focus on story led learning. Expect plenty of squishy electro dough for character-building.

Each box covers a range of tech, science and design concepts — such as simple robotics and programs, electronic circuits, multi-line algorithms with conditions, character design and physics. As the months progress kids also build up a toolset of components to keep expanding their learning. Each box costs $20 a month via a recurring cancel-at-any-time subscription.

Age: 4-6
Price: $20 per month
Made by: Tech Will Save Us

Evo for Home and Homeschooled

Droid-based learning with Ozobot’s Evo (Image credit: Ozobot)

Ozobot’s programmable droid Evo can be paired with its block-based coding interface or used screen-free with the included color code markers as the sensing robots responds to different colors like a set of instructions in a program. The K-12 focused STEAM learning company sells plenty of kit direct to schools — and isn’t solely focused on teaching computer programming but rather it touts its tech as a teaching assistant for all STEAM subjects — but the Evo starter package is aimed at home learners, encouraging kids to use the bot to pick up coding by creating and playing with games and tricks.

Age: 5+
Price: $100
Made by: Ozobot

imagiCharm

Code your own tamagotchi? (Image credit: ImagiLabs)

Swedish startup imagiLabs is on a mission to get girls coding. The STEM toy they’ve devised for this inspirational task is a programmable Bluetooth charm — a sort of personalizable keychain/code-your-own tamagotchi. The connected gizmo works in conjunction with a companion mobile app that uses gamified tutorials to encourage tweens and teens to tinker with Python to change the look/function of the 8×8 matrix of colored LED lights. There’s also a social element to the app as girls can share their projects and check out what others have made.

Age: 9-15
Price: From $85 on Amazon
Made by: ImagiLabs

Kano PC

Not a Microsoft Surface — a kid-friendly Windows-based Kano PC (Image credit: Kano)

As we noted in last year’s gift guide, UK STEM learning startup Kano has pivoted from selling Raspberry Pi-powered build-it-yourself computer kits to a more convention ‘my child’s first PC’ proposition. The Windows-based plug-in-the-bits-and-play Kano PC is aimed at parents who want to set their child on the path to STEM learning in a more mainstream computing environment. At $300 the laptop-slash-tablet is hardly a ‘toy’ but the advantage of shelling out for a fully fledged computer is increased utility — and, hopefully, longevity. Kano touts the PC as capable of running “thousands” of applications.

Of most relevance to the STEM side, it comes preloaded with Kano’s Software Studio package: A set of learning tools geared towards teaching kids design, science, coding, and creativity “in simple and fun ways”, as it puts it.

Age: K-12 (from 4+ to 19)
From: $300
Made by: Kano

Kumiita

Even very young children can engage with coding concepts by playing with Kumiita (Image Credit: Icon Corp)

For very young kids point your peepers at Kumiita. The educational toy for kids who haven’t even reached their first birthday began as a Kickstarter side-project. Now its Japanese maker is selling the gizmo globally, via Amazon. The idea is to teach foundational programming concepts via screen-free (and Internet-free), tile-based floor play.

A battery-powered robot — Kumiita — responds to pictorial instructions on the tiles. Kids choose which tiles to place to ‘program’ the robot — getting immediate feedback on their sequence as the bot twirls, changes colour, plays animal sounds or moves off in a new direction. If the bot falls off the pathway there’s obviously a problem and kids have to set about ‘debugging’ by changing their choice of tiles. That in turn encourages problem solving and sequential thinking. Tiles in some of the packs also introduce conditional coding concepts.

Age: 7 months+
Price: From $200
Made by: Icon Corp

littleBits At Home Learning Starter Kit

littleBits kits offer guided electronics projects to spark young minds (Image credit: Sphero)

Sphero-owned littleBits makes introductory circuit kits with magnetic snap-together connectors to help children get to grips with basic electronics through interactive learning. This home starter kit promises to get children brainstorming ideas and tinkering to bring a variety of projects to life — with five guided inventions in the bundle. The learning activity can be entirely screen free as introductory paper guides are included in the pack. Additional learning resources are also available online via the littleBits Classroom platform.

Age: 8+
Price: $65
Made by: Sphero

MakeCode Arcade & a codable console to run retro gaming creations

Inspire kids with the help of a dinky codable games console (Image credit: Adafruit)

Budding game designers can have fun coding their own retro games in Microsoft’s arcade game editor, MakeCode Arcade — based on its open source learn-to-code platform. The free online project builder includes tutorials to create simple games using either a block-based coding interface, JavaScript or Python — building up to more complex types of gameplay. You can then turn this free STEM resource into a gift by adding a codable console that supports MakeCode Arcade projects. Such as KittenBot’s GameBoy-esque Meowbit ($40); or the Adafruit PyBadge ($35) which can also run CircuitPython and Arduino — both of which are stocked by Adafruit. The maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand stocks a range of MakeCode compatible hardware and plenty more besides.

Age: It depends
Price: From $35
Made by: Adafruit, others

MindLabs: Energy and Circuits

Kids learn about electronics circuits via augmented reality (Image credit: Explore Interactive)

This STEM toy lets kids learn about electronics circuits virtually. This means no fiddling with actual wires, batteries or components thanks to augmented reality. Instead, the MindLabs: Energy and Circuits pack has kids play with a set of physical cards — viewing them through the screen of a tablet where they get to build out circuits that are brought to life digitally via the companion app. The kit offers 20+ interactive lessons with step-by-step instructions on basic circuit concepts. (NB: Children will need access to a tablet.)

The approach offers a relatively affordable way for kids to learn about electronics components and concepts through (virtual) trial and error — though clearly if it’s a screen-free toy you’re after this isn’t it. An added advantage is children are able to collaborate remotely with friends for group learning opportunities.

Age: 8+
Price: $25
Made by: Explore Interactive

NextMaker Box

NextMaker Box is a new monthly subscription box stuffed with STEM projects (Image credit: Makeblock)

Chinese firm Makeblock is getting in on the the monthly STEM activity kit action this year with its NextMaker Box. At the time of writing the subscription product is up for pre-order via Kickstarter with an earliest estimated shipping date of December 2020 — so the usual ‘risk of shipping delay’ caveats apply.

For parents willing to take a gamble on a gift not turning up in time for the festive season, the NextMaker Box is slated to deliver monthly hardware projects and coding courses designed to keep young minds engaged. The content focuses on robotics, coding and engineering concepts and design work. MakeBlock also says the boxes will follow a Computer Science Teachers Association standard-aligned coding curriculum.

Age: 6-12
Price: From $40
Made by: Makeblock

Piper Command Center

Screwdrivers at the ready for this Arduino project (Image credit: Piper)

The Piper Command Center is an Arduino project for teens to build and configure their own gaming controller — following instructions available via Piper’s online portal. The (beta) project offers a hand-held introduction to physical computing, hardware hacking and the maker movement. Requires access to a desktop computer with Arduino IDE installed for configuring the controller and troubleshooting the firmware.

Age: 13+
Price: $60
Made by: Piper

Raspberry Pi 400

The $100 Pi 400 bundle includes an official beginner’s guidebook (Image credit: Raspberry Pi Foundation)

The UK-based, STEM-learning focused not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation’s latest bit of kit — the Pi 400 — houses its top-of-the-range microprocessor (Pi 4) inside a sleek keyboard in a retro throwback to how home computing started. Add your own TV or monitor — et voila! A powerful STEM learning device in a very affordable package, given the keyboard-computer can be picked up for just $70. For children in need of guidance and all the various accessories to get going with Pi there’s a $100 kit bundle that includes the official beginner’s guide book too.

Kids can cut their teeth coding on the Pi 400 via block-based programming languages like Scratch or by tinkering with Python in Minecraft Pi (a version of the popular 3D mining game that comes preloaded on the Pi’s OS, Raspbian). So there’s plenty to recommend the Pi 400.

Age: It depends
Price: From $70
Made by: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Robo Wunderkind Explorer Kit

The Explorer Pro kit now features an LED block (Image credit: Robo Wunderkind)

Austrian STEM toy maker Robo Wunderkind has updated its programmable robotics kits for 2020 with new sensor modules, including an LED display block that can show designs or display scrolling text; a line-follower block so the bots can detect and follow lines; and an accelerometer block to give them spacial awareness.

For those not already familiar with the STEM toy, kids snap together the magnetic blocks to build sensor-laden robots and program them via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion app.

Blocks can be combined in multiple ways to build different sensing objects — from rolling robots to smart flashlights. The cheapest kit comes with six modules and ten guided projects, while the top-of-the-range Explorer Pro kit ($400) has 15 modules and 30 projects. The blocks are also compatible with Lego pieces so children can augment the design of their constructions with additional elements if they have a few bricks lying around.

Age: 5-14
Price: From $200
Made by: Robo Wunderkind

ScoreBot Kit

A programmable robot for soccer-mad kids (Image credit: Ubtech)

Get soccer-mad kids into STEM with Ubtech’s ScoreBot Kit — from its JIMU Programmable educational robot series. This build-it-yourself, code-controlled robot exhibits ball-dribbling skills that children can hone via the companion app’s block-based coding interface. A memory programming mode allows them to record and replay an action to try to gain a competitive edge when battling against other ScoreBots in a game of competitive floor football.

Age: 8+
Price: $120
Made by: Ubtech

Sphero Mini Golf

Sphero’s robotic ball has rolled onto the green (Image credit: Sphero)

Edtech player Sphero sells learning wares for schools and home focused on its spherical, remote-controlled robot. This version of its programmable gizmo takes the form of a mini golf ball — encouraging kids to devise their own mini golf courses to remote-control the bot around. They can also turn the connected orb into a gaming remote control, making use of the embedded gyroscope and accelerometer. The companion Sphero Edu app is where the coding gets done.

Age: 8+
Price: $50
Made by: Sphero

Spike Prime Set

Lego Education’s kits combine plastic bricks and electronics (Image credit: Lego Education)

Lego’s education division has made some of its classroom kits available to the home market to cater to students who are learning at home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — such as this Spike Prime Set. The STEAM learning kit is aimed at students in grades 6-8. The core piece is a programmable Bluetooth hub that can be used to power a variety of project builds — from robots to rovers — making use of the array of motors, sensors, components, bricks and pieces packed in the 528-piece kit. Programming the hub is done via a Scratch-based drag-and-drop interface or text-based coding with Python so kids will need access to a computer.

Age: 10+
Price: $330
Made by: Lego Education

Turing Tumble

Kids can learn logic concepts with the help of this mechanical computer (Image credit: Turing Tumble)

Build logical thinking into your child’s playtime with the help of a marble-based ‘computer’.

The Turing Tumble is a tilted boardgame plus an assortment of ‘logic’ gates for devising pathways to solve puzzles. The aim of the learning game is to guide colored marbles from top to bottom in the correct sequence. A cartoon puzzle book guides kids through the challenges, making this an entirely screen free way to approach STEM learning.

Age: 8 to adult
Price: $70
Made by: Turing Tumble

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