Kiwi educational games company Junior Learning is making a play in the highly competitive US toy market, aiming to become the "next Fisher-Price" for children aged three to seven.
As US schools move increasingly towards teaching children via digital media (the LA school district recently purchased iPads for every student), the Auckland company's husband and wife team, Anna Kirschberg and Dr Duncan Milne, have plans to dominate the emerging educational tech market.
While there is a plethora of teaching apps on the market, Junior Learning is carving itself a niche with Touchtronic Letters, a game that blends technology with traditional tactile reading and writing learning letters.
"These days children expect to play with digital media but our Touchtronic technology takes it a step further, giving children physical engagement as well," Kirschberg said. "The toy market is very crowded and there are some big players in the US education area, but we feel like we are creating our own specialty."
Founded in 2009, Junior Learning began making traditional educational toys, such as its popular Spelligator animal game, but began exploring digital products 18 months ago when it observed a shift in the toy market.
Developed with the help of Callaghan Innovation funding, Touchtronic Letters uses special letter shapes containing sensors designed for children to pick up and place on top of an iPad tablet running an interactive spelling app. The game provides children with immediate feedback and sound effects as they place the letters correctly on the iPad.
"Children don't learn as naturally in a 2D world. The manipulation of real letters for instance is important to teach children letter orientation and visual recognition," Kirschberg said.
Milne, who has a PhD in education specialising in cognitive neuroscience, says that education research shows that children learn best when visual, auditory and tactile components are combined.
Launched in April, Touchtronic Letters is now being distributed by online giant Amazon and leading US educational toy chain Lakeshore Learning.
Junior Learning has also had firm commitments from a UK school supplier, which may see the product in British classrooms.
Aware of the difficulties of entering the US toy market, dominated by large multinationals, Kirschberg and Milne originally chose to found Junior Learning in California rather than New Zealand.
"We wanted to reach the mass market in the US with our products. We knew that to be taken seriously in the US we needed to be an American-based business and make those trade connections," Kirschberg said.
Junior Learning has had success with its physical toys such as Smart Tray, a self correcting tray system for teaching spelling, reading and maths, which is sold through major retailer Toys "R" Us. Other product lines have been popular in the UK.
But Kirschberg said making in-roads in the retail toy market and educational sectors was slow work due to the industry's one-year buyer cycles. Although sales have grown, the company did not make any money until its third year.
The couple persevered, selling their products through school supply catalogues, distributing free sample products to "mummy" bloggers and appearing at industry tradeshows to maintain their presence in the market.
"We go to several trade shows every year in the US, as well as the New York and Nuremberg toy fairs.
"When retailers see you there year after year they know your company isn't just going to disappear."
Parents to a six-month-old baby boy, Kirschberg and Milne moved back to New Zealand in 2012 for lifestyle reasons and set up Junior Learning in Auckland. The company now uses third party logistics companies to maintain distribution in the US and the UK.
Fuelled by the momentum from its Touchtronic technology, Junior Learning is in growth mode. The company plans to launch a numeracy version of the Touchtronic Letters game in the near future, and a Korean distribution company has recently launched a Korean Junior Learning website, with plans to roll out Japanese and Chinese versions of the numeracy game in the next two to three years.
"We are very scalable internationally and we would like to grow to a multimillion-dollar company in the next five to 10 years," Kirschberg said.
"Right now there is an ed-tech bubble emerging in the USA where VCs [venture capitalists] are investing in software startups and spinoffs from universities such as Harvard and Stanford.
"We have a strategic advantage over these [startups] as we have already built our track record with our physical products and we have growing distribution channels into the toy/parent market and the traditional education market.
"In our view, Fisher-Price owns the baby and toddler learning and electronic toy market around the world. We would love to become the ‘go-to' brand for the next age up, the three-to-seven year-old market," she added.
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