All Work and All Play for Imperial-backed SAM Labs

On the back of a $4.5 million Seed financing round in 2015, SAM Labs – dubbed “the Lego of the internet generation” – has ramped up its mission to take its child-friendly electronic engineering toys from the playroom to the classroom. The three-year-old start-up is now winning recognition for its educational impact, including a 2017 Future Planet Award. FPB recently caught up with CEO Joachim Horn. 

Joachim Horn, CEO of SAM Labs

With the dawn of the ‘IoT’ age – that’s ‘Internet of Things,’ for the uninitiated – teachers, schooling bodies and policymakers are seeking to meet a new educational challenge.

“We spend a lot of time with teachers who want to teach things like programming and its applications in everything (history, politics, maths, science, design, arts, etc.) at an early age,” says Horn. “They recognise how important these skills are for the next generation, even if they want to go into creative rather than scientific careers. But they don’t have the skills or tools to do it. That’s where SAM can help.”

SAM Labs’ initial commercialisation phase, including a $200k Kickstarter campaign in late 2014, primarily involved selling the firm’s innovative educational toys directly to the public. Aspirational parents keen to give their offspring an early edge in STEM have been able to pick up SAM’s kits in major UK and US department stores for more than two years.

“Parents are increasingly aware that the toys their children play with really do matter,” says Horn. “Educational research shows that the toys children use when they’re aged five-to-eight have a direct link to their hobbies aged 12, which have a direct correlation to their future careers.”

Yet the focus has now firmly shifted towards schools, educational bodies and even governments. “We’ve had 84% quarter-on-quarter growth in our education stream,” Horn explains. “We’re working with schools in the UK and Europe but also Australia, China, Hong Kong, Kenya, South Africa, Alaska, to name a few. In many cases we work directly with schools; in other cases we are working with governments. In Helsinki, Finland, for example we’re working with 20 schools in a very unusual pilot program for innovation. In Italy we’re working through a more conventional framework, but also with a government relationship.”

Meanwhile, the firm has developed a more tailored educational programme that supports areas of the wider curriculum, including biology and maths, with specific projects and lesson plans.

This blend of entertainment and scholastic business streams is natural, in many ways, for a concept that has always sought to straddle the gap between playing and learning – a gap that has long intrigued Horn. “Education and working with children has always fascinated me,” he reminisces. “I have fantastic memories of attending youth groups myself since the age of six and tutoring since I was a teenager.”

“But it was really my time in Tokyo [a research exchange with the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2013] that showed me how much games and toys could influence the next generation, could make it easier for them to discover and understand technology. That’s where the idea for SAM started – that’s where I started prototyping.”

When it comes to Horn himself, it’s equally hard to tell where the work ends and the entertainment begins. “Spare time? To be honest I spend a lot of my spare time doing things that are related to this... I’m always going to school events, games events, tech events. I love it.”

All this fun is serious business, however. The firm’s Seed financing round in 2015 included the likes of Imperial Innovations - the university venture fund connected with Horn’s own alma mater - alongside Microsoft Ventures Accelerator and a handful of angel investors specialising in education technology.

“We are really very lucky with our investors,” Horn says warmly. “I wasn’t expecting to have so much support from them. They’ve given introductions to distributors, feedback on the products, market analysis; they’ve looked at our forecasts and refined them; they really rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.”

For the judges of the 2017 Future Planet Awards, who named the firm as winner of the “Education” category, SAM Labs impressed not just with their innovative educational technology and solid business plan but with their ethos: a strong belief in democratising new technology and handing the power for technological invention to everyone, not just those with technical training. The core skills of the internet age surely should be child’s play.