July 3, 2013

With $50 and Advice From the Experts, Young Entrepreneurs Test Their Ideas


COOL ENTREPRENEURS: Nate Howard and Jacob Schwartz, inventors of the “Cooling Hat,” cool down with some ice cream at the final session of the first “8 and Up” program, held at Tigerlabs this spring. Children between the ages of 8 and 10 learned how to create a product and market their invention.

Most of the budding entrepreneurs who use Tigerlabs as a place to launch start-up businesses are in their 20s, 30s, or older. But the innovators who spent six weeks this spring at the shared office space at 252 Nassau Street, testing out ideas for new products and learning how to market them, come from a considerably younger age group.

Their name says it all: “8 and Up.” Founded by entrepreneur Reuben Steiger, a Princeton native and Princeton High School graduate, this group of 8- to 10-year-olds was part of a pilot program to test out Mr. Steiger’s challenge: Would kids that age be excited about creating small companies and using a $50 budget to fund their ideas?

The answer, as evidenced by the enthusiasm at a recent end-of-term show-and-tell, is a resounding “yes.” Seated in a circle with their parents looking on proudly from behind, the kids took turns demonstrating their inventions. There was the iPad Supporter, Cassian O’Beirne’s imaginative invention that hooks onto a headboard to allow reading in bed. There was the Egg Cracker machine, Abbey Walden and Luisa Boekelman’s system for separating egg yolks and whites.

Liam Goldstein’s Fingo, a finger massager; Nate Howard and Jacob Schwartz’s Cooling Hat, which keeps the wearer cool via a fan attached to a baseball cap; Allison Wilson’s “Day at the Beach” pillow; Alex Erickson’s “Pencils Down!” pencil clock; Sarah Rackowski’s Guppy Separator that keeps little fish safe from the bigger ones in a tank — these and several others showed the ingenuity that Mr. Steiger had a hunch was there, but untapped.

“We decided to start young, because we felt like by the time kids got to 14, where cognitively they have a lot of greater capabilities, and there are more companies out there operating like college camps, they’re prepping to go into the system,” he said. “Also, my own kids were that age, so it was an age that I knew.” [Phoebe Steiger is 7, and Theo Steiger is almost 9].

Mr. Steiger has spent most of his career creating projects for companies like Google and IBM and the TED conferences. He and his wife lived in California before having children and moving back to Princeton. While commuting to New York, Mr. Steiger thought about his children and the way they were learning.

“It seemed to me that it was very different from the way in which I had learned,” he said. “Mainly because when I was growing up, we focused on knowing answers to questions. And my kids, from very young, were learning how to ask questions and look things up on Google. They were consuming media in a way that was completely unlike the way I did. They were using thousands of [TV] channels as opposed to three. And they were being creative in different ways.”

Mr. Steiger began by placing an ad in local newspapers last April 30. By May 2, he was over-subscribed. The pilot class was made up of children from local public, private, and charter schools, about half of whom were male and half female. Classes began May 15.

“Each class had a different principle,” Mr. Steiger said. “How do you get a big idea? How do you jump right in? How do you build a prototype you can test? How do you sell something? And then the final session, which was on launching the product. We had guests at each class, including Jessica Durrie from Small World Coffee, and Adrian Chernoff, a former NASA guy and Disney imagineer and leader of GM’s ‘Car of the Future’ initiative.”

At the final session, Mario Cucci, owner of Thomas Sweet ice cream, shared his experiences about buying that business and making it thrive. He came armed with individual servings of ice cream, which the kids got to dig into after the presentation.

“I think the kids loved the program because it didn’t feel like a class,” Mr. Steiger said. “They never sat in their seats for more than 10 minutes. They were building things with their hands and playing with a 3-D printer. There were breaks in the middle for ping pong, and plenty of snacks. And by the end, they had achieved something.”

Among the parents in attendance at the end-of-session party was Princeton Council member Heather Howard. She is the mother of Nate, the brains behind the Cooling Hat. “Nate has loved this,” she said. “It spurred his creativity. It’s fun. Little kids are so open and creative, and they have been really thoughtful here about how to tailor that energy.”

Mr. Steiger has welcomed the input, and the response, of parents to the pilot program. “We’ve had an incredible reaction,” he said. “I sort of pinch myself. It’s an amazingly supportive group of parents. Because it hasn’t been done before, a lot of people didn’t know what to expect.”

Each of the children who took part in the first “8 and Up” series got a tee-shirt after making his or her presentation. Mr. Steiger’s news that Twine, a store in Hopewell, will be selling their products was met with enthusiasm. “They’ll be your first customer,” Mr. Steiger told the kids. “So you all have distribution now.”

With the inaugural program such a success, Mr. Steiger is actively planning future classes. Those who took part in the first one are certified “Level One Entrepreneurs” and will be able to move to Level Two, where they can further refine their ideas or start something new. Mr. Steiger said he is now recruiting and training people and will announce in the next week some expansion locations, to include New York City and other markets. The pilot program cost $200 a child, but new pricing is part of the expansion to more programs.

“Our aspiration is for it to be accessible, so that this becomes a really exciting part of a child’s education and extra-curricular life,” he said. “We want them to look forward to it, like soccer.”

—Anne Levin