Bethany Koby

‘Every time you reach a milestone there’s another one ahead’: Bethany Koby, Tech Will Save Us

Image credit: Nick Smith

Winner of the IET’s 2020 Innovation Award in the ‘Leader of the Year’ category, co-founder of Tech Will Save Us, entrepreneur and industrial designer Bethany Koby explains the impact peer recognition can have on an organisation that makes DIY gadget toys.

“As an entrepreneur, sometimes you’re so involved and so driven by what you are doing, I don’t think you ever look at the problem you are addressing and say: ‘it’s solved’. That’s the excitement of the mission,” says Bethany Koby, CEO of technology education toy company Tech Will Save Us. In a way, she says, “the problem maybe shouldn’t be solvable in its entirety because the mission you have is so big. Every time you reach a milestone there’s another one ahead.”

The road for the entrepreneur bringing a product to market is long and hard, and there are times when getting some sort of recognition for what you are doing can recharge the batteries, restore confidence and boost any flagging energy levels. For Koby, after almost a decade of designing and manufacturing tech-based, hands-on learning toys for children, such a shot in the arm came in the form of an IET Innovation Award from the 2020 series, held under the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 lockdown. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been great at pausing to celebrate what Tech Will Save Us has achieved,” she says, “but I do believe in self-reflection. That’s something I’ve had to learn. Sometimes you’re so driven to get to the next thing that you forget to look at what you’ve done so far.” She says that to be given the award in the leadership category, “is wonderful, because it helps to punctuate the journey”. Not only was it a “total surprise” to be acknowledged in that way, but it also provided a strategic moment of pause and reflection.

Tech Will Save Us was founded in 2012 as a “mission-driven business” to introduce children to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). It had some notable successes, but, in a note on the company’s website, Koby says “it has been hard to navigate all the challenges in the market”, and the firm has just announced that it is joining forces with MEL Science, a move that will broaden the product portfolio from coding toys to include virtual reality. “We impacted the lives of over 1.5 million kids with STEAM experiences in ways that will unfold for these kids, will continue and live on in the world. We were part of creating a category in one of the most established markets – toys. Businesses like Lego, Disney, Hasbro and others followed suit and committed to this category.”

Assessing today’s position of Tech Will Save Us, Koby notes proudly that her products sit in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, the London Design Museum, the Children’s Museum and the Mexican Museum of Modern Art, “as examples of iconic, transformational products for education and kids”.

All Koby wanted to do when she started the company, she says, was “to lift the bonnet of technology and to show kids what was underneath through hands-on learning. Its mission was always to help all kids to realise that they can reshape the world around them. This is the basis of 21st-century skills – STEAM skills, with a real emphasis on the  arts and mathematics. It’s an important mix. What we created is what we call a ‘play-led home-learning system’ that’s all about exposing kids to their world through creativity, science and technology.”

Koby goes on to explain that Tech Will Save Us achieved this “across age groups from four to ten years old. This was important because your world view and your confidence gets shaped much earlier in your life than just getting an apprenticeship at the age of 18 and then figuring out what you’re going to do next. It was important to us to expose kids – and quite frankly their parents – to these unbelievably important skills and experiences because they are so crucial for their future.”

Koby’s commitment to bringing engineering to children originates in her conviction that, “the education system is broken. I don’t think this will come as news to anyone. It’s fully, fundamentally not fit for purpose. That’s where we are now.” She elaborates by saying what we have today is the vestigial remains of a system that was designed during the Industrial Revolution with the purpose of “preparing people to work in factories. It has evolved, of course, but not dramatically. And so, when it comes to 21st-century skills, while there is a lot of theoretical progress in pedagogy and the curriculum, it takes so long to change education because it is guided by governments who are notoriously slow at making decisions. In some countries, education is an ungrateful place... and yet this is the foundation for not only the next generation, but the ‘now’ generation. There are so many factors in play.”

When it comes to engineering, Koby feels not all is lost because “there is a new vocabulary emerging about how to articulate those skills. It’s been called the Four ‘C’s: communication, creative problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration. Anyone who’s an engineer knows these are the skills we are using all the time. You might specialise in mechanical or electronic engineering, but actually most of the skills you are using are communicating, collaborating, being creative and thinking critically about problems in most probably a lateral kind of way.

“The real problem is: how do you train thousands of teachers to do this?” This, especially, when one of the factors present in the equation is that there is no curriculum subject under the banner ‘engineering’. While she accepts that there aren’t specific school subjects related to disciplines such as economics, law and psychology either, when it comes to the STEAM field, she feels passionately that preparation needs to start early – so much so that she devoted her career to designing the tools and toys to do just that. “Growing up is really hard – not just emotionally but learning the skills you need too.”

The London-based American describes herself as “a designer by training. That’s my background. Industrial, graphic, brand. Design is so broad now and less specific.” A graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design , she crossed the Atlantic to do her master’s at the University of Bath in responsibility in business practice. If you combine these two approaches, she says, then you know what Tech Will Save Us is about. One of the reasons Koby is committed to the idea of practical learning is that she grew up in the Montessori school environment. For her, what is so unique about this education system is that “it is 100 per cent hands-on from the youngest of age groups. It’s all about how you build the physical, mental and developmental capacity of kids to understand the world around them. For me it is so obviously the right way to learn and is so beneficial to all children. It’s a great start in life, and accessibility for all kids is also really appealing to me. No matter what kind of child you are: kinaesthetic, auditory, visual… it doesn’t matter because the approach works.

“It’s not regimented in that everybody does things at the same time in the same way. It’s individual. That means it’s hard to scale, but it’s effective. It really influenced me. Then I became a designer by going to art school, and that’s where you make sense of the world through making things.”

It follows, she says, that strategists make sense of the world through thinking, while designers make sense of strategy through making. “They call it ‘agile’ today. But ‘agile’ is just making sense of something and putting it into the world.”

‘‘Agile’ is just making sense of something and putting it into the world’

Bethany Koby

Koby has no need of “philosophies and methodologies” regarding hands-on learning. “We innately know making stuff is good. But look how the education system is assessed, with no understanding or acknowledgement of that at all. Even if we know it, we’re not applying that knowledge. That’s why Tech Will Save Us focused on home learning. There are too many barriers to education with a capital ‘E’. We were doing this before Covid made home learning current.”

The way in which ‘kids make stuff’ with Tech Will Save Us toys is with kits. “Everything you need to build something with technology is in the box and there’s no barrier for entry to anyone. We looked at what we call universal trends: what lots of kids are already doing. The reason for that is when you are having fun, you’re learning in a deeper way. That’s good learning. When you’re memorising or being told what to do... sometimes it lands. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“So what are the big themes? Gaming. It crosses gender and economic background. We also know that programming and coding is a big area of interest for kids. However, we wanted to approach it in a different way because coding for coding’s sake isn’t helpful for anyone. But coding to do something that you care about is a different thing.”

At this point, Koby demonstrates the Arcade Coder toy, “which is really all about game mechanics, on which you can learn to design and code your own games”. The problem with gaming, she says is that parents have two objections to it. They worry about the amount of screen time involved, and they are concerned that it is isolating. “Arcade Coder is designed to be multi-player with 144 buttons that kids can program themselves. It provides a series of challenges, so you can design your own maze game for example, which is amazing for spatial awareness and critical thinking skills.”

Koby accepts that not everyone who wants to be an entrepreneur or product designer will get much further than running a few concepts through their mind over a cup of tea. That’s because “there are so many huge steps” involved in getting something from the imagination to the drawing board, from starting a company to manufacturing, from marketing to sales. While the product is an integral part of the story, it remains just that: part of the story.

To jump through these hoops, to absorb the knockbacks, to maintain a clear sight of the goal, “the first thing you need to be is passionate in your mission. This is because we’re not talking about a product at all. We’re talking about a mission.”

In Koby’s case the mission was nothing less than “the belief that the world needs to change because education is failing most kids”. Then you need optimism: “That’s driven everything I’ve done. As anyone who’s ever tried to build anything will know, it is so hard. So, unless it motivates you and it drives you... just don’t do it.” Then there are the conventional business issues, such as understanding of product and market. “Lots of people develop amazing products, but you need a product-market fit.” Koby refers to the management classic ‘The Hard Things About Hard Things,’ in which Ben Horowitz sets out to analyse how to build a business ‘when there are no easy answers.’ To be a successful entrepreneur “you need a product that satisfies a market that has a need for your product. You need a team that is capable of making that product.” You don’t just build stuff because you can, says Koby: “You shouldn’t go to your engineers and ask what they can make and then try to sell it, because that doesn’t factor in what people need.”

Then there’s having the courage to take on risk. When asked how she confirmed that there was a market for Tech Will Save Us, Koby’s answer is: “We didn’t. We built the market. Which, by the way, is very risky, very dangerous and very hard to do. Totally crazy. But we had confirmed there was a need that was not being fulfilled. It was also not quite here yet. It was a little bit in the future. That need was based on the idea that kids could not access the skills they needed to build the future that they were about to enter.”

Koby says that she has since discovered she was instinctively doing what futurists call ‘horizon scanning’ – “but at the time I didn’t know that there was a methodology for this or even that it had a name. For whatever reason, I tend to see things on the edge and I’m not afraid to take a risk and I also have an insatiable drive to see these things happen.”

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