How TinyCircuits is shining a spotlight on accessibility and STEM education through all things mini
With each passing year that technology increases in speed, capability and functionality, it also continuously decreases in size. The hardware that powers everything from computers to televisions to video games has become sleeker, smaller and more accessible than ever. But what if that same technology shrunk even further, to the size of a quarter? What if you could code your own arcade game or watch TV on a screen smaller than your thumb? That’s the question answered by Akron startup TinyCircuits, a company that designs, develops and manufactures miniature electronic products that anyone can build.
“The way we started was making these small, modular sets of electronics, almost like little electronic Legos that let artists, students or even small companies create their own little projects,” said President and Founder Ken Burns. “The original platform we had was based on something called Arduino, which is a much larger platform. And we said, why don’t we shrink this down and create our own spin on it? We did, and made it a lot more usable for our customers.”
TinyCircuits’ core product, the TinyDuino, is a miniature open-source software platform composed of a TinyDuino processor board and TinyShields, which allow for more complex functions like GPS or WiFi. These components form the basis of the company’s DIY Kits, which can be used to build anything from a Tiny Arcade to a Tiny TV. More recently, the company has taken their technology to the field of education, using a small business grant to bring interactive exercise watches to public schools.
“We designed a kid’s Fitbit-type device that kids interact with,” Burns said. “You’ve got your little character on the device, which is a dust ball named Curzy, and you take care of that through different activities where you learn about healthcare and fitness. We’ve tied it in with seventh- and eighth-grade health curriculum and we’ve run the program now in three schools. We’re signed up in five Akron public schools and give it out to thirty kids. We really see a growth opportunity there for doing specialized education products.”
Looking forward, Burns envisions a crossover between the company’s commercial products and their focus on education. This past fall they launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Thumby, a tiny programmable video game on a keychain. Burns’ hope is that this product can be used to teach kids how to program.
“All the DIY stuff we’ve done in the past has had a heavy STEM education angle to it, learning engineering and programming,” he said. “With the Thumby, we’re looking to help use that to teach kids how to program. One of the unique things about it is that you can plug it into a computer and very easily create your own games.”
TinyCircuits began as a side project in Burns’ spare bedroom. His background in electrical engineering led him to pursue the field of hobby electronics and he launched the company on Kickstarter in 2012. As they have continued to grow, it was important for Burns to stay true to his Ohio roots and build the company in the state, with both their offices and manufacturing located in Akron, Ohio. But the Ohio headquarters isn’t just about comfort or familiarity — Burns said it’s been a key to the company’s growth.
“From a startup standpoint, we really wouldn’t be able to do what we do on the coast,” he said. “Things are affordable here in Ohio. We can have a large office space where we do manufacturing. We have great access to talented people. So when you have that, we can actually do manufacturing and be competitive without outsourcing to China, which is a huge, huge thing for us to be able to manufacture affordably and compete.”