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A Harvard Startup Rides The Xmas Toy Craze

Twiggly co-founders

Tiggly co-founders Azi Jamalian (left), Bart Clareman (center), and Phyl Georgiou, (right)

Harvard Business School startup Tiggly, an interactive iPad app for toddlers, hit the shelves just in time for the Christmas holidays. Harvard MBA Phyl Georgiou conceived of the idea in 2012 with a team of five other first-year MBAs during FIELD 3, a required hands-on course where students launch microbusinesses. The idea no doubt reflected Georgiou’s interest in an apps and those of a teammate with a two-year-old toddler.

After the course ended, the other MBAs abandoned the project to pursue different paths, but Georgiou plowed ahead, building out the startup through the summer of 2012. He brought on fellow MBA Bart Clareman, who admits being impressed by the idea, which won Harvard’s New Venture Challenge. “My project got steamrolled by them as did as lot of others,” Clareman recalls.

The two moved to New York the Monday after their May 2013 graduation into a shared office space where Clareman’s father worked. “We didn’t get the free summer we watched our classmates Facebooking about,” Clarman says. They forged on and added Azi Jamalian, a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Teachers College who bought expertise in early childhood development.

The three relied on the three F’s (founders, friends, and family) for their first $200,000 in funding. Kae Capital of India kicked in another  $500,000, bringing their total investment to $700,000.

Tiggly combines phsyical play with Pad apps to create an interactive learning experience for toddlers

Tiggly combines phsyical play with Pad apps to create an interactive learning experience for toddlers

The Tiggly product combines rubberized cookie-cutter shapes with iPad apps; sounds and animations encourage toddlers to put the sensor-backed shapes on the screen. For Clareman, the combination of physical objects with a digital interfaces goes above and beyond the typical early childhood toy: It tackles a potential hurdle in early childhood development. “The world is getting more digital every year, and kids are incredibly fluent with this new technology, but there’s 70 years of academic research that says manipulating physical objects is essential to the way the young mind develops. We feel that it will be comprised in digital play,” Clareman says. The founders believe Tiggly can help change this. “It’s the difference in looking at a square or a triangle and being able to feel that a square has four sides, where a triangle has only three,” Clareman adds.

So far, parents are responding in the positive. Tiggly has shipped some 20,000 units to retailers ranging from Amazon and Apple to Nordstrom; another 30,000 are en route from Tiggly’s factory in China. The nine-person startup is also on the lookout for a chief technology officer to build out data collection and analytics capabilities so parents can track their children’s development. “We think that if we can really establish ourselves not just as a toy or an app company, but as a learning company, then there’s a very high ceiling for where we can go,” Clareman says.