littleBits raises $3.65M to become the Legos of a new era

A bunch of hot new startups want to teach people how to build software, but littleBits wants people to get even more hands on with technology – by letting them have the chance to build hardware.

Launched last September, the New York-based startup has developed a system of tiny, electronic modules that snap together to make simple electronics projects. The company on Wednesday announced that it has raised $3.65 million in new funding and forged a critical partnership with supply management company PCH International, which will start producing littleBits in August. The Series A financing round was led by True Ventures (see disclosure below) and included Khosla Ventures, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and Lerer Ventures.

So far, the company has mostly sold to individuals through its website, but founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir said the new partnership with PCH International will let the company quickly ramp up production to fill individual web orders, as well as distribute to schools and toy stores.

“We really want to get kids thinking differently about electronics and engineering and technology very early on,” she said. “But I also think we have the opportunity to change the way the toy business operates. Instead of toys being very limited and restricted in what they can do, we can really bring back this idea… of science kits.”

As of now, the company sells 28 individual bits and two kits, which include a selection of different bits. Each bit falls into one of four categories (power, input, output and wire) and serves a unique function, from generating power and sensing surrounding light to buzzing and flashing a light. With those bits, people can exercise their inner inventors and assemble (along with other basic materials) all kinds of things, from an interactive piggy banks to a light up Halloween pumpkin to a sound-triggered bubble maker.

The prices range from $10 for one bit (although bit prices vary depending on their function) to $89 for a kit, which seems a tad steep. But Bdeir said the company wants to make littleBits affordable, so it’s possible they could explore other payment models that make the price more appealing to an average consumer.

With the new funding, Bdeir said they plan to expand the product line with more bits and kits, including specialty kits that can be more mechanical or sensor-based or better suited for younger kids. The company also intends to add as many as 20 new hires in New York by the end of the year.

As the company takes on the toy market, Bdeir, who is an alum of the MIT Media Lab, said her inspiration is Lego.

“[They’ve] really been able to enter every household at a very young age and continue to be something you play with as you get older,” she said. “You have a long lifetime for the product or toy and it’s actually providing value at a very real level.”

Disclosure: True Ventures is an investor in littleBits and the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.