Building your understanding of computers, brick by brick

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In the center of east London, Alex Klein is doing his best to create a large computer brand with an original idea. He is inspired not by any of the current tech world leaders, but by…Lego. His idea is that people need to learn, have fun, and use computers at their most by having some building elements in their hands.

 

According to his message, the technologies from the inside are alien to most people. Even though we think we control these beautifully designed boxes with big screens, in fact we don’t even understand how they work. That’s why we may need some back control over the parts that make any device work.

Kano has already sold about 150,000 units of his main build-your-own computer project, and the export is being done to over 80 countries, which is already a good start. Funny thing is that Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of the great Apple, is one of the company’s clients.

The company was inspired by a simple request from Mr Klein’s six-year-old cousin for a computer that he could construct himself. Now Kano finds itself at the vanguard of an emerging group of companies and organisations that believe preparing young people for an increasingly digital future means encouraging a more tactile and informed relationship with technology.

“People are looking at the category with dollar signs in their eyes.” Indeed, Kano has secured $19 million in investment from backers including Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, Sir Martin Sorrell, boss of the advertising giant WPP, Lord O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management who recently resigned as Treasury minister, and Index Ventures, a venture capital firm.

Where its early kits have inspired a better understanding of computer components and taught rudimentary programming skills, now Kano is about to enter the so-called “internet of things”.

The company, which Mr Klein founded with his friend Yonatan Raz-Fridman in 2012, is using Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, to raise $500,000 to fund the manufacturing and launch of a range of Lego-like kits that can connect with its DIY computer (or any conventional PC) via wi-fi and Bluetooth. They include a five megapixel camera, a speaker and a light board containing 126 coloured LEDs. The devices can be easily programmed with the help of Kano Code, an online tool, to create everything from art and science projects to simple games.

Steve Wozniak was an early customer of Kano

Steve Wozniak was an early customer of Kano

The expansion was inspired by Kano customers, who used its computer kits to power projects including homemade weather stations and even a solar-powered cinema. Kano Code connects with live open data in areas including weather and sports, so, for example, the speaker kit can be programmed to tell you whether you need to take an umbrella out with you or not. Or the light board could be made to keep you up-to-date with football scores and tell you every time a goal goes in. The camera kit comes with a laser “trip wire” sensor, so people could build an automatic camera to capture wildlife in their garden.

“We want to be the Lego of computing and now we’re building our own Lego blocks. Tiny computers and sensors power the machines that surround us and yet only a fraction of us know how to do much more than swipe their surface screens. Our basic intent is to take you back into the real world and [program] there instead of just on a screen.

“It’s not only computers that have got smaller and cheaper over the last five years, it’s sensors, too. Things like temperature, humidity and gesture sensors are spilling out of the Chinese supply chain. We thought, let’s make them accessible.”

Despite the Lego comparisons, Kano’s approach to computing is not all child’s play. Customers for its computer kit included an octogenarian. “We are trying to strike a balance. We need to appeal to the curious instincts of a nine-year-old, but if you’re 25 and changing career and interested in photography, music or art, this could be an inroad into making things.”

Mr Klein, 26, a former journalist worked briefly as a reporter for The Daily Beast, the American politics and pop culture website, before starting Kano. He admits that his shift into technology entrepreneurship was an unusual one. “I’d never managed anyone, I’m not a techie. I’ve had to pick up a whole new tool set.”

With 50 staff on his team and the backing of those illustrious investors, he appears to be coping well enough. However, he admits that the greatest challenges for Kano lie ahead. The company is now planning expansion in the United States and Asia and hopes to break even within 18 months.

It’s not easy convincing a sceptical crowd
Kano’s attempt to raise $500,000 on Kickstarter marks its return to a crowdfunding site that has been a happy hunting ground for the company (James Hurley writes). In 2013, it became one of the platform’s most successful projects when it secured $1.5 million from more than 13,000 backers to finance the manufacturing of its first product, a computer kit.

While the London-based business immediately hit a chord with the users of Kickstarter, often ordinary consumers, convincing professional investors to back the business with a fresh round of funding earlier in the year was a taller order, Mr Klein says.

“Pitching was very hard. We wondered if we’d been drinking our own Kool-Aid by building a big, broad hardware-centred business. We said: ‘We’re trying to become a new computer brand of the 21st century, and by the way we sell hardware and we’ve got millions of dollars of [stock] sitting on our balance sheet.’ Some of the investors were: ‘Come back when you’ve got an app.’ ”

In a victory that will prove heartening for any founder struggling to convince a reluctant backer, perseverance paid off, with Kano securing $15 million in May in a round led by Silicon Valley investors.

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