Spielwarenmesse: TinkerToys proves a hit in the schools segment with homeschooling offering during the COVID-19 crisis

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TinkerToys erobert Schulen mit Homeschooling-Programm in Corona-Zeiten
  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

TinkerToys proves a hit in the schools segment with homeschooling offering during the COVID-19 crisis

from Ulrich Texter

The TinkerToys 3D construction kit offers children a way to create customised toys that can then be printed. But the startup underestimated parent power. It has expanded its business model to include business customers and the education sector. Although this member of the Germany – Land of Ideas platform had planned to enter the digital teaching media business in a big way this year, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works. But necessity is the mother of invention. An interview with TinkerToys co-founder Dr Marko Jakob.

Dr Jakob, at the time of this interview, Germany has been largely brought to a state of paralysis. How is TinkerToys organising its work?

Dr. Marko Jakob, co-founder TinkerToys

Dr Marko Jakob: It hasn’t taken us much effort to adjust, because we were already making good use of the kinds of tools that are really hot right now, such as Zoom and Skype, even before the crisis. For example, I am located in Berlin, Software Development is based in Magdeburg and the Production team works in Leipzig. However, we have had to introduce a shift system within Production and forego our weekly in-person team meetings.

TinkerToys has now produced face shields for the workers’ welfare association AWO Potsdam as well. Were you, as an innovative startup, approached by German Health Minister Jens Spahn to help out?

M. J.: (laughs). No, life moves in mysterious ways. A former school friend of mine who now works with the AWO asked me one evening on the phone whether we might be able to use our 3D printers to print masks to protect caregivers in nursing homes. I was sceptical at first, but our production manager Jonas Willen was actually able to use our design program to create a shield that passed all of the tests. It’s really cool that we were able to help relatively quickly.

Is this going to be another business line for you now? After all, the government wants increased domestic production of "systemically relevant" products!

M. J.: No, there are more competent companies in this space. We have simply been able to make a small contribution to combating the crisis.

construction kit for the 3D printer

Let’s get down to core business. Is demand for customised, self-designed toys rising at the moment because everybody has cabin fever?

M. J.: Yes, that’s the case. We have actually received quite a lot of inquiries from parents who would like to use our digital construction kit for their children. The construction kit is a tool, a CAD program, that children can use to design their own creations on a computer or tablet and then print them out at home or have us print them for them. We have now developed from this an online homeschooling course in which children learn a bit about various topics such as plants, space and animals and also pick up media skills at the same time. Yes, the coronavirus is playing its part in keeping us relatively busy in the education area.

SMEs and startups usually don’t have large equity bases...

M. J.: That’s for sure!

...at the same time, the two business areas of innovative childcare and digital worlds of experience must be causing you concern. How is TinkerToys navigating the crisis? Have you made use of the support packages offered by the German government for promising innovative startups?

M. J.: Yes, we applied for support and were really surprised by how quickly the development bank for the state of Saxony-Anhalt paid out this emergency aid. Of course, we have cut costs where possible and applied for short-time work in some areas. However, there’s no denying that the entire event business has virtually collapsed overnight and that is a big source of sales for us. Because of this, we now want to strengthen and expand our business with customised toys and in the education area. Moreover, we are in a relatively comfortable position thanks to our shareholder base.

You are also offering TinkerSchool licences on a trial basis, free of charge, for longer terms now. What do the kids learn?

M. J.: The TinkerToys school licence is not aimed at end customers or children, but primarily at schools, at the teachers. This all started two years ago through close cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Education, the state education ministries as well as teachers and schools. This has resulted in teaching materials for various STEM subjects, art and digital product development. Topics such as virtual and augmented reality are also covered. Children learn through our tools to get comfortable with tablets and computers. They can do more than just watch videos or play games with such devices. We have tried to break down the elements in such a way that we give teachers, in particular, tools for teaching media skills. That’s probably the best way to describe it.

3D printer, Tinker Toys

You expanded the business model two years ago, adding the education segment and more. Was there no way to make a go of the business of producing customised toys using 3D printers?

M. J.: Yes and no. We had a great deal of success, but didn’t make any money from it.

Were your prices too low?

M. J.: No, it was worse than that. Children are very enthusiastic about our digital construction kit and return to it time and again. The product and target group are a good fit. The problem is simply that the parents have to pay for a super, self-created kite or rocket if the child wants to order the toy. This then costs maybe 15 to 20 euros depending on the design. The mum just sees something on the tablet that she is being asked to pay for, but forgets that her child has been kept amused with it for two or three hours. We underestimated this initially because we did not manage to convey the added value to parents. They often perceived it as just some kind of online game.

And that’s why you changed the business model two years ago?

M. J.: Yes, we moved away somewhat from the B2C business and more towards enablers, toy manufacturers and schools. TinkerToys cooperates with a relatively large number of leading toy manufacturers to whom we offer our services and products.

TinkerToys is hoping that the crisis will also accelerate the digitalisation of educational offerings. Where does this hope come from?

M. J.: Digitalisation has been part of the curriculum for many years now. But it simply hasn’t been brought to life. A school may acquire a whiteboard and 3D printer and have a teacher eager to play around with the material, but then the teacher leaves and the topic is dropped again. The need to homeschool children at this time may lend great impetus in this area. That is what we are seeing. I would even venture to suggest that the crisis may save us five years of information and development work. Essentially, it’s like being able to fast-forward in time, because schools, especially teachers, are realising just how useful digital tools can be to them. Physical presence is not always a must. Digital teaching complements the conventional classroom approach.

How many schools and educational institutions are you working with now?

M. J.: Approximately 35 at this time. We had actually intended to launch a larger range at the Didacta education fair in Stuttgart in February, but we’ve had to postpone that now.

[Translate to English:] Tinker Toys

Why are customised toys from a 3D printer an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional standard toys? The fact that they are printed from bioplastics is surely not enough in and of itself, as factors such as durability, play value and usability also matter, don’t they?

M. J.: It’s mainly about the logistics. TinkerToys manufactures in Germany, but we could set up a small production facility with 3D printers anywhere in the world and manufacture locally. Why customised? I think that’s obvious. With most toys, which normally come from the Far East, the play value is somewhat limited. We offer what Lego offers, but on the computer, nothing else. Our digital construction kit is an ideal complement for printing certain Lego connections, for example, or for toys that children dream up.

You have also been working together with Faller since 2019 to print customised model houses. Is there really significant demand for one-off Black Forest houses?

M. J.: Obviously, we had to work to find a common language initially. Faller is a traditional medium-sized company with clear processes and structures, while we are a startup with a more decentralised setup and digital focus. The cooperation is now very intensive and positive. It’s a great collaboration.

And demand?

M. J.: You are going to increasingly hear about innovations in this area. That alone should tell you how the offering is being received. I can use the Faller CREATE software to not only build Black Forest houses, but also a Texan ranch or a Swedish or Asian home. TinkerToys then prints the one-off piece.

Dr Jakob, thank you for speaking with us.

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