Teknikio, founded by Sibel Deren Guler, creates educational electronics toolsets for building and activating toys, gadgets, and wearables. The kits can help all ages reimagine and invent the world they live in by making technology tangible and fun.
Each kit provides an open ended opportunity to create with fun fabrics, papers, electronic components, and instructions to put it all together into a fully functional gizmo! Clever Tech Digest sat down with Deren Guler to pick her brain about starting a small business, computer science education, gender neutral toys, and tactile play! Read on to learn more about how Teknikio turns electronic engineering and crafts to create approachable and lovable learning experiences!
What inspired you to begin Teknikio?
I was doing a lot of larger scale projects around electronics and design. When I decided to break it down myself, I discovered a lot of the concepts were very simple. I started to teach workshops to all ages from children to university students. More and more, i found that I didn’t like the tools available for teaching these concepts at a lower level.
For example light up shoes are not that difficult to prototype. It's not something I want to rock as a 25 year old, although some do, and that's also awesome. I thought to myself, when I was 8 I would have loved to create my own light-up shoes.
Going off of ideas like that I started to imagine different tool sets for teaching electronics and engineering and Teknikio emerged from there.
So many people fear technology and feel that they have to be a “super smart” person to work with it. Part of the beauty of Teknikio is that the kits make technology approachable by turning the tech into crafts.
My background is actually in physics. I faced a lot of people asking “what do you do?” and then I would get dismissed as if “Oh, [science is] magic.” A lot of the large-scale electronics design projects I worked on were geared towards breaking down and exposing this magic.
I wanted to make electronics and physical computing a more interactive experience for people, so they didn’t feel as intimidated by it.
Technology is a platform that facilitates magical realism. So much of the products coming out look like shiny plastic sci-fi objects. Teknikio introduces a craft element to tech play, which is so much more familiar, soft, and touchable than circuits, sensors, and actuators. It opens a lot of doorways for kids.
What important skills do you think craft-oriented play with technology builds for children, and why do you think it is so important for children to be exposed to tactile learning in this digital age?
There are so many people in the world, and everyone learns a different way. I am not preaching that hands-on play is for absolutely everyone. I think the motor skills and the action of doing something allow people to feel ownership and an intimate bond, in a way that doing something digitally or remotely does not. I think that ownership is key to feeling empowered like, “I get this. I built this.”
Our kits say age 8 to 108. I strongly believe that Teknikio’s technique works for all ages. What makes Teknikio unique is this combination of electronics with everyday materials. When you work with familiar materials like paper or fabric, it exposes all of the different tools you have at your disposal in the world. You don’t need to go and have access to a fancy shiny fablab. You can make stuff out of really basic materials in your house.
There are a lot of papers and books about constructionism that I would recommend to anyone interested in this hands-on play. Seymour Papert is the grandfather of constructionism, and his books would be a great place to start learning more.
So much of making is tinkering and play. Do you feel that Teknikio Kits open the door for people to experiment on their own?
That’s the mission. With our current kits, I see each one as a little ingredient pack for your bigger personal tool box. Maybe you have a lot of fabric scraps, and you love to sew. If you picked up one of our sewing kits, and you wanted to try something different, it's not a huge investment. It's only 20 bucks. Then you can just mix and match with your own style. That’s part of the underlying mission to empower people to start playing and make it their own.
What is setting Teknikio apart from companies like Little Bits, and what are some other aspirational companies to you?
From a technical standpoint, the main difference is a proprietary connector. Little Bits uses a magnet connector which leads to a very different user experience than Teknikio. Circuit stickers is another really awesome project that provides little conductive sticker circuit boards. I love all of it and think that it should all exist.
One of the bigger decisions [that] I made early on is to not create this proprietary connector, making [the kit] accessible with all different kinds of materials.
It's very difficult to embed Little Bits, Legos, or Snap Circuits into soft materials. That's something I really wanted to overcome because I’ve seen that cause frustration with kids, especially if they want to make something and it keeps coming apart.
There’s a balance between being easy-to-make and being reusable. Things like Snap Circuits and Little Bits are extremely reusable. It's very obvious that they have this reusable value.
That's something that is difficult to communicate with Teknikio, even though the pieces are reusable. When you attach electronic components with things like thread or tape, you don’t want to take it apart. You want to leave it together.
I think it's important to have as many of these different toys available as we can. If LIttle Bits or Snaps Circuit didn’t work, maybe Teknikio will work and vice versa.
In regards to thinking of electrical components as toys, removing the mask of physics and computing, and instead turning them into something for play, do you feel like not having the connectors makes it a more advanced form of play?
I’m not trying to make any grand claim about this, but my hope is that because Teknikio uses more familiar materials, tech will translate to play more easily. Craft makes playing with electrical components more accessible and familiar, but a lot of craft and design skills are also basic life skills.
I was shocked when I went into a high school to do a soft circuits workshops, and no one knew how to thread a needle. That’s something I learned in seventh grade, and even before that my mom and grandma were always sewing, so I didn’t even consider that home economics wasn’t being taught anymore.
You might not want to sew everything yourself. Maybe you’re just kind of sloppy, and you want to take it to a tailor and have it done right. At the end of the day, I think you should have the basic knowledge of “if my button fell off, I know how to put it back on.”
With these craft and design skills, Teknikio pushes you to think about things in a new way. For our projects, you might have been introduced to origami, but what happens when you think about origami that moves and lights up? What does that inspire? Taking familiar, everyday objects and reimagining them is the core of what Teknikio tries to get people to do; to make it their own and keep going with it.
I want to play with one these kits so badly! They sound like so much fun!
What was the biggest challenge in scaling Teknikio from a concept to an actual functioning business?
I personally still face those challenges. I come from more of a technical background. I studied some design in grad school but picked up a lot of it along the way. I had no idea how to think about packaging or consumer psychology, which I think is really hard. You realize at one point [that] if you put something in a cool enough looking box, it doesn’t matter what's in that box. The box is actually more important than what’s inside.
Learning how to communicate our mission to someone who is just going to look at it on Amazon or in a store for five seconds and decide if it's interesting, has been a big challenge. There’s a lot that goes with that problem.
There’s also a lot of logistical issues of “I know how to make 5 of these. I know how to make 5,000 of these. But I don’t know how to make 50,000 or half a million.”
As we scale, sometimes, we just have to start over, find new sources, and figure out how to best keep growing. A lot of the businesses that help you are set up for a specific niche. For example, Fulfillment Center might be set up to help you at an early stage when you don’t have much inventory. I wish we could just find one company that we could grow with, but it oftentimes happens that we have to stop working with one source and move on to another.
Many schools lack a budget to integrate computer science into their curriculum. How can we prevent computer illiteracy in underfunded school districts?
Its a very big bureaucratic problem. The schools have standards. The teachers have curriculum that meets those standards. Then I show up, and I’m like “try this thing!”
They say, “that looks cool,but I’m already really overwhelmed, and why should I do that?" They are a very tough customer to convince.
There are a lot of really great standards out there. The Next Generation Science Standards, for example, really focus on bringing a lot more of creative and interactive approaches back into schools.
Teknikio accepts that it's easier to get in through the backdoor for now; summer camps and after schools programs have less overhead demand. If that’s who is going to go for it, then that's who we need to focus on. We want to work with many schools as possible, but that presents a big challenge for us as a small company.
Problem solving using technology as a tool will be a foundational skill to getting a job in the future. You can’t be afraid of robots.
Children need to be prototyping in order for them to have opportunities in the future. How are we going to get important skills for the future economy taught in public schools?
This is why we need as many of these tools as possible. I’m glad that we are making an impact as well as little bits and circuit stickers. I’m glad we are all out there trying to solve this problem together. I always try take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the other 95% who have never heard of us or of any of our competitors and find a way to go more mainstream.
What question do you wish I had asked you?
A core,central part of our design is to make Teknikio feel gender neutral (but really girl centric). When I started this project, I was on a mission to empower girls. I used to go to Target, and there was a pink aisle and blue aisle.
I didn’t want to contribute to this problem. Making something specifically for one gender felt like contributing to that problem. We probably tried almost too much in the beginning to pick colors that are not stereotyped and to pick projects that are not gender specific. Gender is a really touchy subject, and it's hard to find balance.
We have a project where you sew a bow tie, but that can be a bow tie that you can wear in your hair or around your neck. We really try to keep it open. That goes hand in hand with the Teknikio creation and invention process anyways. Teknikio strives to push users to consider how they can make something more meaningful to themselves and personalize it. By design, our kits give people raw materials and a general prompt to freely create with, as opposed to trying to prescribe something that feels more in one direction or the other.
Even communicating about gender is sensitive. We’ve had times where the parent doesn’t want their son to have the sewing kit. It's hard to figure out your place in that. I think these toys and experiences have a really big impact on children growing up, and I’m hoping that with Teknikio we will be able to dilute and dissolve that issue a little bit.