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SAM Labs raises $4.5M to turn kids into IoT-mavens

TechCrunch TechCrunch 1/05/2016 Haje Jan Kamps

London-based SAM Labs just announced that it raised £3.2M ($4.5M) from a group of investors led by Imperial Ventures. In addition to the institutional investor specializing in commercial spin-outs from academic institutions, the round was padded out with smart money from a number of angels specializing in high growth education technology.

The investment will help the company continue its mission to introduce the Internet of Things to kids, to further develop the product, and to get a little bit closer to Sam Labs’ goal of making every child aged seven or older excited about technology. 

Sparked into life in 2014 with a successful Kickstarter campaign bringing the company its first 800 or so customers (yours sincerely included), SAM Labs are continuing to create tools and software to help kids involved with IoT programming projects. The company’s route to market has traditionally been via parents to children, with the kits being available via the company’s own website, or in London’s Science Museum. In the case of the latter, the company made a £99 ($145) special Science Museum edition of its inventor kit, which the company’s founder, Joachim Horn, says tremendously increased their exposure and number of sales.

SAM Labs says more than 1,000 schools are already using the IoT learning kits as part of their learning- or after-school programs. With the new funding round, the company is setting its sights higher both in the UK and in a more international context, aiming to start marketing and selling to STEM-oriented schools around the world.

Embracing the tenet of play-based learning, the kits come with a series of projects for kids to play with, including things like learning Morse code, making electronic songs, or creating a proximity-based alarm system.

The SAM kits are simple, small, battery powered building blocks that talk to each other wirelessly via Bluetooth. They can then be programmed to interact using the SAM App drag-and-drop application, which makes it very easy indeed to get the various blocks to talk to interact; a button can turn on a light, send a Tweet, or start more advanced sequences of processes.

Modules include buttons, LED lights, servos, sliders, tilt sensors, heat sensors, light sensors, and DC motors, buzzers and much more, which can be configured to do a stunning number of fun things, as witnessed by the company’s creations gallery. In addition to the sensors, the virtual ‘cloud’ module can be used to use the computer’s camera to take photos, or to send messages out on social media.

To me, the big epiphany I had around the company’s kits, is that whenever I try them out, I’m finding myself truly sad that they weren’t around when I was a kid: I can’t even imagine how I would have contained my excitement twenty years ago.

SAM Labs’ kits are not entirely unlike LittleBits‘ offerings in this space, but the addition of the computer-based programming and the freedom of Bluetooth wireless means that SAM Labs kits are particularly well suitable as starting points for children who have a curiosity for electronics, engineering and technology. Let’s put it this way: I know what the 7-10 year olds in my life are getting for Christmas…

Also worth noting for parents hovering over the buy-now button, is that, there’s a another thing that wasn’t around when I was a kid: Logical directions to ‘graduate’ out of SAM Lab’s ecosystem and into more elaborate hardware programming experiments on more advanced platforms like Sparkfun’s bite-sized projectsAdafruit’s learning kits, or Arduino-based projects.

If you want to know more about the why and how, check out Joachim’s TED talk below.

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