Makerbloks gets into Techstars Retail

Montreal startup Makerbloks has been named to Techstars Retail’s inaugural cohort.

The accelerator, launched in partnership with Target, will see startups spend 12 weeks at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis beginning June 20. In Minnesota, they’ll receive mentorship from Target’s leadership as well as through the Techstars network.

Makerbloks created a toy that teaches 6 to 10 year-olds how to build tech hardware using lego-like blocks. The startup raised nearly $50,000 on Kickstarter in March, 2015.

Now founder Francois Poirier is ready to take his team through what is, in effect, Target’s first longterm entrepreneurship investment.

“We didn’t apply to this because we think Markerbloks will be on their shelves. That’s not the main goal of this,” Poirier told MTLinTECH. “It’s learning how to scale up our operations to be a global brand and learn more about the marketing and operations side of things. Target is really good at talking to parents and families, and that’s the sweet spot that we want to learn.”

Poirier created Makerbloks for his nieces, aged six and nine at the time. He couldn’t find much in the way of useful children’s learning toys that really helped his nieces learn how to build hardware. Poirier bought toy platforms like Snap Circuits, littleBits and more, but “they were all incredibly boring for me and for my nieces,” he said. He felt users needed to have at least some knowledge of electronics beforehand, or else learning would be more difficult.

After the successful Kickstarter, Makerbloks raised an angel round of funding worth $350,000. The team has 2,000 units in production that will be available at the end of the summer.

“We’re planning the next steps for Makerbloks and that’s why Techstars really hit the spot, especially in partnership with target,” said Poirier.

Target received applications from more than 500 companies in 32 states and 45 countries. Techstars staff held in-person meetings with more than 200 startups and a review panel picked 16 companies to pitch Target live, accelerator leader Ryan Broshar told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

Still, the decision wasn’t easy for Poirier and his team. While Techstars and Target undoubtedly offer a huge world of contacts, not to mention $20,000 in cash right off the bat, Makerbloks will be giving up six per cent of its company.

“We really thought about it for a while about what exactly we were going to get out of it,” said Poirier. “The thought behind it was always that ‘when I give a percentage of my company in exchange for something, is it the best thing I can do with that percentage?’ Because of the network that Techstars and target brought, we felt we wanted to go for it.”

Poirier and his team travel to Minneapolis next week to spend three months working at the Target headquarters. They’ll have access to 50 executives along with 100 more mentors from the Techstars network.

“We know our own talent, leadership, strengths and capabilities and where we have years of experience,” Casey Carl, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer, told FastCompany. “This is how we can serve these entrepreneurs. But also this program gives us the opportunity to learn from some of the best startups in the world who are innovating in the retail space.”

According to FastCompany, Techstars intentionally defined the concept of “retail” loosely. It considered startups that developed products that could be sold on shelves, ideas that could enhance supply chain and sourcing capabilities, data and analytics platforms, and marketing and customer communications.

For Poirier, who recently celebrated the birth of his first-born child just last Friday, the summer should be a fast-paced one. His team is expected to grow from four to seven, and they’ll soon make their first trip to China to source production and research and development opportunities.

Really though, it goes back to providing a better, more stimulating learning experience for kids.

“These kids are going to be the most tech-savvy generation ever, so I think toys should reflect that and not just give them the same thing over and over again,” said Poirier.

As per the Business Journal, the full list of companies selected are as follows:

– AddStructure, a developer of voice-based search technology that lets users (for instance) go on a retailer’s site and say “shirts” and then “men’s” to get to a selection of men’s shirts. The company has offices in Chicago and New York.

– Blueprint Registry, a Seattle-based company that lets people people create a virtual blueprint of their home and register for wedding gifts by room. Wedding guests can then buy those products directly from retailers.

– Branch Messenger, a Los Angeles-based company that makes software to manage the schedules of hourly workers.

– Inspectorio, a Hong Kong-based company that makes mobile applications for supply-chain inspectors. The technology walks staff through the inspection process and changes inspection requirements in response to quality problems.

– Itsbyu, a maker of kits consumers use to create flower arrangements for weddings. The company has offices in Philadelphia and New York.

– MakerBloks, A developer of electronic blocks and interactive games that teach kids about science, technology, engineering and math.

– MakersKit, a Los Angeles-based company that sells kits for do-it-yourself projects like creating a terrarium.

– Nexosis, a Westerville, Ohio-based company that uses machine learning and data such as weather forecasts and to help companies make supply-chain decisions.

– Revolar, a Denver-based startup that makes a wearable device designed to prevent sexual assault.

– Spruce, a Denver-based company that provides style-consulting and barber services to men.

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