Kate Pipa, Co-Founder and CEO of Genuis Box, Inc., is passionate about helping introduce kids to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Pipa shared her experience with building a startup, working with reSET’s accelerator program, and being involved in Connecticut’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Innovation Destination Hartford: Tell us about Genius Box. When and why did you and Shivangi Shah start the company? How did you develop the business concept?
PIPA: Genius Box is a monthly subscription box service for kids. For curious young minds, Genius Box delivers a monthly STEM adventure right to your door packed with projects and learning opportunities.
We are geared toward 8- to 11-year-olds and delve into a new topic each month, from Earth Science to Gravity to The Sun. Our directions come in an envelope that says “Top Secret: For Your Eyes Only” and include a narrative “Challenge Card” with a story presenting a challenge to solve by completing the activities in the box. Then, there are at least three activities and all the items needed included in the box to explore the topic at hand.
The business concept was actually developed through a startup competition when Shivangi and I were undergrads at Northeastern University in Boston. We demoed our idea with a minimum viable product and ended up coming in second place. After receiving a lot of positive feedback and excitement around the idea, we decided to explore it further and eventually launched a crowdfunding campaign to beta test our concept. We raised an initial $10,000 through that process, which proved we had a product people were willing to buy and customers to test it. From there, we developed and sent out beta boxes with “Circuits” and “Kitchen Science” themes in early 2014, then gathered feedback. This also allowed us to test supply chain management and logistics, as well as how we were presenting our curriculum and box activities. From there, we took customer feedback into account and iterated and launched a full subscription model in December 2014.
IDH: Why focus on STEM for kids?
PIPA: When Shivangi and I were taking part in the startup competition, it was becoming evident how STEM careers and fields were evolving and growing in importance, on a global scale. Having grown up in the 90s and early 2000s, we were worried that “kids these days” were being inundated with screens and gadgets and not learning by going outside, digging in the dirt, and setting up experiments, like we had.
We wanted to bring back the experience of learning by doing—like making an explosion with Mentos and Diet Coke—plus focus on STEM because of its growing importance. We felt we could make STEM fun and engaging to really inspire lifelong curiosity and love for the topics.
In high school both of us were disengaged with how we were learning science and were really turned off by it. Now we have a great appreciation for it. So, we felt we could bring STEM topics to life in a fun, engaging way that really could connect kids with real-world examples of why these topics are important and, most of all, fun to learn about.
IDH: How does your product work?
PIPA: Genius Box is a monthly subscription box service, so you sign-up and receive a physical box through the mail once a month filled with stuff. Each box comes with a “Challenge Card” that introduces the current topic in the form of a narrative story with a challenge to solve by doing the activities in the box.
For example, our first box explored the topic of “Kaleidoscopes.” The Challenge Card set the scene: The famed Kaleidoscope del Sol in Spain has gone missing and pieces of it have been found. Now we need your help to put it back together again. Using knowledge of light reflection and refraction, it is your mission to rebuild the kaleidoscope with items from the box.
IDH: In your CTStartup Podcast interview, you mentioned the company initially pivoted with regard to making a social impact—can you expand a little on that?
PIPA: From the beginning, our goal was to always make some sort of social impact through our business. I was studying social entrepreneurship as my major and Shivangi was studying it as a minor, so making our business have an impact socially was an important motivator for us.
Our first thought was doing a subscription box focused on a different cause each month. For example, water rights, clean energy, or poverty reduction. We realized that this was more of a niche topic with a smaller audience that might be hard to gain traction. So, we started thinking about STEM and the way kids were learning these days and thought there would be a lot of value in providing hands-on projects and learning experiences in a convenient way for parents that was also fun for kids. Our mission is to “empower the change-makers and problem-solvers of tomorrow, today.” We are really passionate about kids feeling empowered to make change, even at a young age.
And, to expand on social impact, Genius Box is a new type of corporation called a “benefit corporation,” which is now recognized in Connecticut and 29 other states. That means that, as a legal entity, our mission is to generate positive social impact for society, not just maximize profit for shareholders.
For every Genius Box sold, we donate $1 to the non-profit ManyMentors, which supports middle and high school students’ interest in and pursuit of STEM careers, with specific support for women and minorities who are often drastically underrepresented in the STEM fields. As of January 2016, we have donated close to $1,700 to ManyMentors.
IDH: Where do you see your company in the next few years?
PIPA: I would like to work on expanding our audience through outreach to schools, after-school programs, summer camps, and organizations such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. We already have 14 great boxes created, so in the next year I’d like to expand from the subscription model and offer previous boxes through these different channels, with the potential for bulk discounts.
IDH: How have Connecticut’s startup resources help to shape your business?
PIPA: The venture accelerator out of the reSET co-working space in Hartford was a great stepping stone for getting introduced to and more involved in the Connecticut startup scene. I had just moved home from college and wasn’t too familiar with the resources in Connecticut. This was a great way to go through a structured class with assignments and homework while meeting other entrepreneurs, bouncing ideas around, and working on the business in a very thought-out fashion. Just being in the reSET ecosystem allowed for access to workshops, mentors, and service providers to help answer questions and give advice on different challenges that can come up when starting your own business.
IDH: Any advice for entrepreneurs or startup business owners?
PIPA: Get involved with the local startup scene. Visit the local co-working spaces, go to workshops, see what the local Chamber of Commerce is offering. I think the entrepreneurial ecosystem is great for so many reasons, but having that support from other local entrepreneurs plus the ability to share advice, resources, and ideas is huge.