Ayah Bdeir talks a lot about building blocks. Give people concrete blocks, they’ll make buildings. Give them LEGOs, they’ll make artful toys. So how about the building blocks of modular electronics? What will people make from those?
That’s the big idea behind littleBits, the New York start-up Bdeir, 31, founded in September 2011: an open-source library of pre-engineered circuit-board components — with lights, sounds and sensors — that snap together via mini-magnets. Use them to build … well, whatever you might want to build, be it an interactive piggy bank, a unicorn bike helmet with a glowing horn, a servo-motor-powered DIY electric toothbrush or all manner of robo-gadget.
“My goal is not to make everybody an engineer,” Bdeir says. “It’s to give creative people access to the full power of engineering.” Bdeir’s littleBits modules, called “LEGOs for the iPad generation” by Bloomberg TV and recently added to the permanent collection at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, were initially conceived for product prototyping, for educational demonstrations and just for the hell of it, because yes, electronics can be fun.
Hence the company’s recent leap into the realm of music, with the KORG-partnered “Synth Kit,” of which a mesmerizing Reggie Watts demo has been making the rounds online. Wired called it “the world’s cutest synthesizer” — fair enough but maybe also reductive. Bdeir, while certainly attractive, doesn’t exude cuteness so much as focused fortitude. In conversation she sounds like someone who’s gotten good at talking to the media because she’s gotten the media’s attention. Being on Fast Company’s list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business and scoring $11 million in a second round of venture-capital funding will do that. Still it’s easy to find the spark of inspiration in Bdeir’s warm brown eyes and ready, dimpled smile, her attire tending toward business-casual with cool funky-futurist accents. She’s got the look of someone who’s always ready to get down on the floor and start making stuff.
My goal is to give creative people access to the full power of engineering.
For a while, she says, “I wanted to get into the real world, so I worked in finance. But I realized it had nothing to do with the real world. So I quit that.” A Canadian native with roots in Lebanon, Bdeir opened an experimental media lab or, as she calls it, a “hacker space,” in Beirut but recently shut it down to focus on her stateside start-up. Her initial intention, she says, was “to bring the maker movement to the Middle East. But really, the mechanism by which to do that is littleBits.”
Bdeir hadn’t necessarily dreamt of becoming a tech hardware supplier. “At first it wasn’t really an interest,” she admits. “I thought it’s kind of not the sexiest profession. I wanted to be an architect, but my oldest sister is an architect. We already had an architect in the family.” When she was 12 and many of her friends were getting Barbies, Bdeir once told CNN, she got programming lessons on a Commodore 64. Later she studied engineering at the American University of Beirut.
When she was 12 and many of her friends were getting Barbies, Bdeir got programming lessons on a Commodore 64.
“I started to like it,” she recalls, “but I didn’t like the way it was taught.” Even now, Bdeir thinks the academic approach to engineering too often skews didactic, artless, uninspired. Consequently, she says, “We absolutely are missing out.” But her broader vision was encouraged by the MIT Media Lab, from which she earned a master’s in computing culture, and further clarified through fellowships with TED and New York’s Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, where she made the littleBits prototype.
“This is gonna sound cheesy, and maybe at this point in time controversial,” she says, “but I really do believe in the American dream. I thought I would study for a few years and go back home. But so many opportunities come to you. Of course it’s true that you have to work.” In Bdeir’s case, work meant figuring out how to turn a concept into a product, and how to make it scalable. For that matter, how to make it at all. “It’s not like building an app, where you can code for six months and then say, ‘OK, I’m going to incorporate.’”
Does she consider herself a driven person? “Very much. You can’t be a CEO without being driven. There are always obstacles, questions, new territory, chances to give up. But I surround myself with driven people.”
She’s got the look of someone who’s always ready to get down on the floor and start making stuff.
“I don’t know if ‘coach’ is the right word,” says Paul Rothman, littleBits’ head of product development, “But she’s a motivator who can bring people in and bring out their strengths and always get them to go the extra mile. I think a big part of it is just the passion that this is something worth doing. It’s contagious.”
That’s good because ours is still a world with too few female engineers. “There is definitely a gender gap — and it is not a thing I think about,” Bdeir says. “I decided early on that it’s not something I give brain space to. We build gender-neutral products because of that. It could encourage girls to get into science and tech, but we don’t make a toy for girls.” Instead they provide a toolkit for inventors — of any gender and any age.
“Ayah is a brilliant designer and marketer,” says Make magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder, who recently joined her in a panel discussion called The Industrial Revolution Starts at Home. “And her creations are making a significant contribution to electronics education.”
Last month Bdeir married Seed magazine founder Adam Bly; as befits such a Maker-friendly couple, their wedding registry announced, “We are fortunate to have friends with such extraordinary talents and we would love anything made or chosen by you.”
Now, having found some musical success with the Synth Kit, Bdeir says littleBits will soon make its presence known in other creative arenas, but she won’t say exactly what’s in store. (It’s coming in early 2014.) “It is like LEGO,” she says. “It’s building, in the most artistic way. You can make a three-block tower, or you can make the Taj Mahal.”
Why you should care
Because shouldn’t the rise of the machines also be a creative human revolution?