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Profiling Ayah Bdeir

Aired July 8, 2012 - 14:00   ET



AYAH BDEIR, FOUNDER, LITTLEBITS: The hope with littleBits is to get people to understand technology at a very simple level and really start to take part in this revolution.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Ayah Bdeir has invented the next generation of the Lego. It's called littleBits. They're small, colorful, electric components that snap together to build just about anything.


BDEIR: Each littleBit is pre-assembled, pre-engineered electronic module that has one specific function. It is to enable kids and adults even to play with lights, sounds and sensors without having any experience whatsoever and without any background in engineering.

My name is Ayah Bdeir. I am an engineer and I'm the founder of littleBits.


GUPTA: Ayah believes everyone is an innovator. As she tells CNN's Poppy Harlow, littleBits are breaking down the boundaries of technology to empower young and old alike, to simply create. I'm Sanjay Gupta. This is THE NEXT LIST.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is my first time with littleBits. How would I build something? How would I know what to make?

BDEIR: So the instructions are very simple. There are two instructions. First, the magnets are always right. So if the magnets don't allow to you connect two things, you just have to flip them.

And the second instruction is that to make a circuit you need a blue and a green.

HARLOW: Always.

BDEIR: Always. A minimum of one blue and one green, blue is power, green is output and pink and orange can come in between. So you put the pink in between and now you have a pressure center.

This is a variation of the sensor that you would find, for example, in an iPod. Much like you take different Lego bricks, you add different shaped pieces.

You add wheels. You can construct something by intuition. You're able to do that same thing with electronics and through that process are learning about the different building blocks of electronics.

HARLOW: Mine's vibrating, buzzing and lights up.

BDEIR: One of my favorite things is seeing the first time people interact with littleBits. They walk up. They take their two pieces. They snap the two pieces together, and then suddenly their face lights up.

Suddenly you feel like a whole world of imagination suddenly opened up to them and they feel like the limits, boundaries are no longer there and they are able to imagine what's possible.

HARLOW: So what's this?

BDEIR: So this is the starter kit. It is the first kit that we put together that we made available. And it's basically everything you need to get started.

You have power modules, input modules, output modules, batteries, screwdriver and it's sort of, you know, your get started quick guide.

HARLOW: These are for young kids and adults.

BDEIR: These are for -- I mean, initially when we starred they were for adults.

HARLOW: Really.

BDEIR: And then the first couple of demos I did and exhibits, kids started hovering around and really looking at them and starting to pick them up.

They would have so much fun that I realized that there's kind of a very big opportunity to change the way kids are taught science and technology and math. So that kind of became a big focus.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: This is a monkey that I made and if you press this, his tail turns around and around, and his eyes light up.

HARLOW: One thing that I notice is that the colors are very gender neutral, right? They're not all pink, they're not all blue. Is this aimed at boys and girls? Is it more aimed towards girls and getting girls more into the sciences? What is it?

BDEIR: There's a hidden agenda that I really believe that we have to work harder to get girls interested in science and technology. But I don't believe in producing products for girls or for boys. I think that the intention here was that littleBits were not going to be designed for boys. That was deliberate decision and automatically they became gender neutral.

MICHAEL THOMPSON, PARENT: It gives Jacob a chance to see how electronics can also be fun and how they can be part of play and part of art and how electronics don't have to be just by themselves. They can be part of art and play.

JACOB THOMPSON: I love electronics. I've been working with electronics for most of my life.

BDEIR: The target audience is primarily kids, but we've been doing actually very well with adults as well. Designers, artists, business people, you know, retired engineers.

One of my favorite projects actually is a project that we saw at a workshop we did at South by Southwest. We wanted to make a collaborative game so they put the end game and put two pressure sensors and fans.

And they had a foam ball kind of floating on top. It was a combination of a collaborative game and also kind of very -- it was very romantic to see sort of this ball that they drew a map of the world on it.

HARLOW: I've built something.

BDEIR: So this is the light wheels project. What light wheels does is it is a car that follows the light.

HARLOW: I love how they all say a little bit of geeky fun. It's sort of encouraging geekiness.

BDEIR: Exactly. There's no reason why being a geek should be something that you are ashamed of.

HARLOW: These littleBits will go inside the car.

BDEIR: Exactly. You start always with blue, with a battery.


BDEIR: And then the goal what we're trying to do is branch out to make the two motors go on the side.

HARLOW: Here we go. We did it.

BDEIR: You did it.

HARLOW: Not so difficult.

BDEIR: It teaches you kind of the concept of construction, how we made these teeth, how the teeth lock together, et cetera. But it is also teaching you about light sensing, how to respond to light and --

HARLOW: Could I attach anything to this? Could I give it headlights?

BDEIR: You could give it headlights, sure.

HARLOW: Here we go. What about a horn?

BDEIR: So let's see and there you have it.

The inspiration for littleBits came from Syrian panties, yes.




HARLOW: You're an engineer. You're a technologist. You're an artist in many ways. How would you define yourself, Ayah?

BDEIR: It is tricky. On my bio, on my web site, I used to have engineer/designer/artist. I kind of like jammed them all together. I guess, out of the different titles that I would be given, I think I would choose innovator as the closest word to describe me.

The birth of littleBits was when I was doing freelance with a design company in New York and my colleague there, Jeff Hufton, and I were starting to work on different ways to integrate electronics into the design prototyping process.

So the very first iteration was these cardboard pieces that had copper tape on top of them and some electronic components jammed into it and we wanted to kind of experiment how to make these blocks communicate with each other.

HARLOW: Getting here wasn't easy at all.

BDEIR: No, no. Getting here wasn't easy. It was a long process. It was over four years today. And the first 3 1/2 years I was sort of developing littleBits on the side.

Didn't have any funding so I was funding everything myself. But I also didn't have the courage to look for funding because I didn't know whether or not it was going to work, whether or not it was a worthwhile invention.

HARLOW: Were there moments when you were trying and trying to develop this part to make it all come together, make it all work when you thought, I can't do this, it's not going to happen.

BDEIR: Many times. I actually gave up on the project.

HARLOW: Totally.

BDEIR: I gave up on it, I shoved it, I didn't work on it for three, four months, or six months even. At times in my life I was doing something else entirely. I was either teaching or I was making interactive artwork or I was doing client work, interactive installations. So a lot of times I wasn't working on littleBits.

But it would always be something that I would have ideas for, brainstorm about, get inspired for and put money aside to I could work on it when I was able to.

HARLOW: What was the hardest part of making this work?

BDEIR: The major sources of frustrations were when I was designing the magnetic connecter and that's because it's a custom product, it is a custom design. Nothing like it really existed in the world.

So that was at a time when I was also at I-Beam, which is this amazing, wonderful, non-profit center in New York for art anthropology. I was working on a separate project, this line of lingerie that was inspired by a Syrian tradition of putting electronics into underwear.

So in Syria, there is this tradition of older Syrian ladies who live a few hours outside of Damascus who basically take underwear, lingerie, you know, underwear, bras, et cetera, and then they take electronic toys that are made in China.

They hack the electronics and then they put them into the underwear to make the underwear more fun. They're not sex toys in any way. It is more of a novelty.

They're panties with feathers on them, with little pressure sensors that you press and light starts going off. It is the kind of thing where the equivalent in the U.S. would be for bachelor parties, you know. It's more a comedic outlet.

So one of the panties that I was working with had a little electro magnet. You had this kind of panty and it was held together with electro magnet. There was remote control.

When you click on remote control the magnet demagnetizes and the panty falls and that day when I was working, I was at the design firm, then I went to tiny bits, was working on that, looking for connectors.

Then I look at the magnet, I was like it has to be a magnet. Like this is the way it is going to be. That was really kind of the inspiration behind it. The inspiration for littleBits came from Syrian panties, yes.


GUPTA: Ayah Bdeir isn't one to forget her roots.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She has this character in her.

GUPTA: Her story takes us to from the heart of New York City to her home town in Beirut.



GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Ayah BDeir isn't one to forget her roots. Lebanese raised, Ayah identifies deeply not only an innovator, but as an Arab woman.

Her story takes us from the heart of New York City to her hometown of Beirut where she set up this media lab called Karaj. Its mission, support and inspire other Lebanese innovators.


BDEIR: Karaj is a space I founded to be a media lab in Beirut. It is a small space in the heart of Beirut, which kind of an artsy area and the goal of the space is to try to catalyse a community of designers and artists and technologists that work together to create artwork and inventions about the city, about society, about technology and various other things.

The space here is very much inspired by spaces that I've been part of over the past many years in the U.S. and so Karaj is inspired by that and trying to kind of bring that same type of thinking, but in a sort of more realistic way.

The larger mission is trying to think of how the Arab world can start to look inward and solve its own problems with the talent that we have, which is really amazing.

I was actually born in Canada, but I grew up in Beirut. I was born in Canada because when I was born, there was the Israeli invasion on Lebanon and my parents fled. But for the most part I lived in Lebanon.

One of the things that I really loved when I was growing up is I would take things apart. Some things I would steal from my parents, like radios and things like that, I would break them open.

I feel like I grew up in a very special home where my parents didn't believe in gender difference. They didn't raise us like girls the way girls are raised a lot of times in the Middle East.

My mom really wanted us to be scientists and engineers and really push ourselves and be career women, and she was a career woman and still is. My mom has been a very big influence on me.

RANDA BDEIR, AYAH'S MOTHER: Ayah is one of four daughters and she's always has been different. She has this rebellious character in her. She never liked to be the same as others.

BDEIR: My dad when I was 12 years old got me programming lessons on a Commodore 64, even though a lot of our friends used to get Barbies and doll houses and all sorts of things. He used to buy my younger sister baseball bats. I viewed myself as a really equal member of society. I never had any thought in inn my mind as to why that would be something different.

My father was an incredible influence and force in my life. He supported me in the very, very early days of littleBits where it was still a cardboard prototype that I carried around when I came to see him in Beirut.

And he from the first time he saw it, he was like you have to stop everything, you have to focus on this and you have to support it, it is going to become the next big thing.

RANDA BDEIR: Two years ago her father passed away and she left all her university and her work, her studies, and she just stayed beside him for -- she used to be every weekend coming from New York to stay with him and she was very close to him.

BDEIR: He passed away before he could see any of the good stuff that came out of littleBits before I started the company, before it became a real product, but I feel him all around all the time.

I remember him, I keep a lot of his things around and I have his voice in my head any time something good happens. I know -- I mean that I know that he will us a be watching over and supporting what I do and I really try to channel him in my work.

I think my upbringing had a lot to do with who I am, of course. I now started a company that is really focused on a social mission to sort of change the way we're educated, to change the way kids grow up to think about technology and to counter this consumer culture that we take for granted.

And working towards littleBits becoming a staple in every household, much like Lego is and I think we could do it.




HARLOW: So this is your office.

BDEIR: So this is our office. This is littleBits HQ.

HARLOW: Headquarters.

BDEIR: Headquarters, exactly. These are my colleagues, Crystal, Jordy and Paul. We're a very small company. We're basically five people here in New York.

HARLOW: What I found fascinating in here is you design, create, imaginate, build everything right here.

BDEIR: Yes. So this is where basically we do the prototyping. HARLOW: There are so many parts too.

BDEIR: These are some of the parts that we use. You know, anything from alligator clips. We're constantly working on new modules and we're trying to release them on a bimonthly basis. So every two months we are releasing new modules.

Paul will design them. He will work on them in house. We brainstorm about different ways they should interact. Then he prototype them and will test them, like them, when that works we'll send them off to the factory.

What Crystal is doing here is she's coming up with ideas to for projects to make with the starter kit. Last week, we launched part of the web site called community where you can see projects that people have made and you can put your projects up.

So we're starting to see that part of the site and so Crystal is coming up with these ideas for things that we're going to make.

We're having a hard time keeping stock. We're selling too much faster than expected. This first year was supposed to be approval concept.

And supposed to be kind of like a slow roll-out, but ever since we started everything's kind of been -- we pressed the pedal and did do I fair and won best of toy fair. That was also a big push.

PAUL ROTHMAN, ELECTRONIC DESIGNER, LITTLEBITS: Working with Ayah is really great. Her enthusiasm for the project is enormous and it's contagious.

So coming in here, day in and day out, it gets to all of us and we all want to just really strive to build this company and build this kind of idea and make it something really great and powerful. Yes.

BDEIR: So one thing I'm extremely excited about is a new development with littleBits. It is a deal we've been working on for a bit and it really going to change the game hopefully.

LittleBits just partnered with PCH, which is one of the largest and most successful manufacturing and logistics companies in the world.

LIAM CASEY, CEO, PCH INTERNATIONAL: What excites us about this is that we actually think Ayah has the vision and capability to take it global and to actually make it a household name.

BDEIR: They usually don't talk to companies of our size, but they have recently started an accelerator program that's focused on supporting start-ups, supporting the companies that are going to become the next big thing.

So PCH has now partnered with us with littleBits because they believe we're going to be the next big thing and they've become our partner for all manufacturing and logistics.

And for me, this is very, very exciting because it means that we can start to dream bigger and we can start to get bigger reach and we have a very, very solid global partner with us.

CASEY: Majority of our businesses are with very large brand, big consumer electronic brands. We look at companies that are passionate about design, passionate about their brand and passionate about the consumer experience. We look at someone like Ayah. She fits all that.

BDEIR: I hope this brings us really global reach. I would really hate for littleBits to be a luxury toy that is only available in the first world.

I really would like us to be able to penetrate schools in all countries and develop in developing countries. I hope to be able to get our costs down so that it is a very affordable educational tool.

And so that people can start contributing and making their own and really for us to kind of reach beyond the choir and beyond our circle.

CASEY: When you look at Ayah, she's truly global and has a global vision, which is what we can help her with. So this is what excites us. I mean, in today's world, geography is history when it comes to doing business.

BDEIR: I'm working towards littleBits becoming a staple in every household, much like Lego is, alongside Lego. And I think we could do it and we have -- we certainly have the right partners, the right people in place.

And we're the -- the community is very, very supportive so there is no reason we can't. So now it is just a matter of getting to it.


GUPTA: Ayah Bdeir wants to inspire new generations of artists and innovators and she won't stop until littleBits is a household name. That's what earns her a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to and join me on my live stream at It is a one-stop spot for all my videos, blogs, tweets and behind the scenes photos.

Thanks for joining us. Thanks to CNN's Poppy Harlow. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back here next Sunday.