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Innovation & Startups

A sense of play: Two Pittsburgh toy startups draw attention at national convention

It’s not easy to make a splash amid the more than 1,000 exhibitors at the American International Toy Fair, the giant trade show that ran earlier this month in New York City.
 
But two Pittsburgh startups, both launching highly innovative products marrying technology with play -- and both with connections to Carnegie Mellon and the AlphaLab accelerator -- drew a lot of buzz.

"This is definitely a David and Goliath story of startups grabbing attention from Hasbro, Disney, Leap Frog, etc.," says Terri Glueck of Pittsburgh's Innovation Works
 
PieceMaker Technologies is developing self-service, 3-D printing kiosks for toy stores. The "factory in a store" allows customers to personalize about 100 designs for toys, jewelry and other small gifts. Once they’ve designed their item, an employee produces it at the 3-D printing station in about 20 minutes. Suggested retail will range from $5 to $10.
 
Founded in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon engineering graduate students Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar, Piecemaker is getting ready to test the concept at two Pittsburgh locations of S.W. Randall Toyes & Giftes this spring and plans an expanded, 10-store pilot for the holiday season.
 
The prototype on display at the toy fair drew press, including stories on CNBC and in Make magazine, "tons of signups" and interest from Disney for Disneyland locations, reports Rosenfeld.
 
Rosenfeld and Sklar build the kiosks in their quarters at AlphaLab Gear; they are among the first cohort of companies at the hardware and robotics accelerator.
 
Meanwhile, Digital Dream Labs has developed a system that allows children to control videogames by rearranging puzzle pieces. They are ramping up to start production this summer.
 
As grad students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, Peter Kinney, Justin Sabo and Matt Stewart collaborated on an interactive exhibit for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The dreamTableTop is still in use in Pittsburgh, and the company has since produced three more for other children’s museums.
 
When they launched their company in 2012 and pitched to AlphaLab, the advice they received was that they needed to broaden their market. Drawing on the museum exhibit, Digital Dream Labs created its Ludos system -- a plastic tray that connects to a computer or device, 22 toy blocks and game software.
 
When Ludos starts shipping in late summer, it will be bundled with "Cork the Volcano," a game aimed at children six-and-older that teaches logic and sequencing. Other games for kids as young as four are in development.
 
Stewart says the company has a healthy number of pre-orders and several promising large contracts thanks to the toy show. The company currently employs four people (the three co-founders and artist Aaron Clark, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh) and Stewart says the goal is to quadruple in-house staff by the end of 2015. Digital Dream Labs has outgrown its digs at AlphaLab and is looking for expanded space in Pittsburgh.

This piece originally appeared in our sister publication, Keystone Edge on Feb. 27.
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