Kickstarting Innovation: St. Thomas Startup Reshapes STEM Education
For grade school teachers, building educational activities around a complex topic like circuitry can often be a brain-straining exercise. And when students are too young to operate soldering irons and prototyping boards, few hands-on learning alternatives remain. But one startup, spawned from the University of St. Thomas, has educators (and even the White House) buzzing.
Minneapolis-based Squishy Circuits, the brainchild of professor AnnMarie Thomas and several students, utilizes a battery, electrical components and two types of play dough—one being conductive (electricity flows through it) and the other insulative (electricity does not flow through it)—to teach the basics of electrical circuits. In 2011, a year after the idea’s inception, Thomas gave a TED Talk on the product, and subsequently propelled Squishy Circuits into the educative consciousness.
Since then, the company has sold more than 10,000 of its kits (priced at $25 plus shipping) without spending a dime on advertising. In April, however, Squishy Circuits turned to Kickstarter, a move CEO Matthew Schmidtbauer called a no-brainer.
“Our $30,000 goal kind of covers what we don’t have in capital,” he said. “This way we could accelerate the business a bit, get some pre-order sales and beat out having to advertise so much after the funding process.”
Within two weeks, the company hit its crowdfunding goal and is looking to finish with more than $40,000 from upwards of 570 backers.
It took the company about a year to be Kickstarter ready, Schmidtbauer admitted. Steps such as rebranding, child safety standards testing, and a website rebuild amounted to most of the workload. While the company’s website transition is ongoing, one of Schmidtbauer’s post-Kickstarter plans is to also transition the product onto retail shelves.
“As we’ve expanded, we’ve had a lot of interest from retailers and from museum stores,” he said. To date, the majority of Squishy Circuits buyers are schools, along with a sizeable portion of parents and libraries looking for an engaging summer activity. The product has shipped to all 50 states and 20 countries, according to Schmidbauer, including a large purchase by a Canadian school system.
“Up in Canada last year, one district ordered five kits for one class and they loved them,” he said. “A week later they said they wanted 390 more kits because they were putting them in all of their classes in the district. So alternatively, we’re starting to focus on curriculum. Our goal is to get written into certain districts or state curriculums and we’ve actually had some success with that.”
By also expanding its kit options from one to three (Lite, Standard and Deluxe), the company is aiming to create new entry points for prospective buyers. Its Lite version, Schmidtbauer said, is sure to become a favorite among birthday parties and summer camps where children are given take-home gifts.
While Squishy Circuits has maintained year-over-year profitability, the company plans to continue prioritizing the education industry. “A portion of what we do goes right back to St. Thomas’s Playful Learning Lab,” Schmidtbauer said of the university program where Squishy Circuits originated.
Meanwhile, educators from around the world are sending their praise. “So many teachers have given us feedback about how they struggle teaching circuits. But Squishy Circuits has opened a new entry point for them,” he said. “Now students are learning the information organically, retaining it and moving onto more advanced lessons, which is very rewarding to hear.”
VIDEO: AnnMarie Thomas gives a TED Talk on the invention of Squishy Circuits