When you buy a Tinkerbots robotic toy-building kit, two things are likely to happen:  First, you’re going to want to spend as much time playing with them as your kids, and, second,  your mind will conjure up images of the colorful, snap-together parts being made at some Gepetto’s workshop in Silicon Valley.  

So, buy two kits–one for the offspring and one for yourself, to amuse co-workers and entertain friends at dinner parties.

Then, erase the vision of the kindly toymaker teaming with the high-tech world. Tinkerbots, which launched in late 2015, is the brainchild of a German trio with nary a toy-making nor a tech background. Leo Oschütz hatched the idea when he was studying product design at Bauhaus University (as in Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius Bauhaus) and was tasked to create a “dream machine” for a class project.  His early Tinkerbots prototype won awards, not to mention plenty of friends who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the modules to create mini moving robots. It dawned on Oschütz that his little invention was more than just a school project and quite possibly a marketable product.

In 2011, he teamed with Christian Guder, a fellow Bauhaus grad, who was knowledgeable in bringing a product to market.  Through mutual friends, they found Matthias Bürger, a PhD in innovation economics, and launched Kinematics, their company, and their first product, Tinkerbots.

“At first, we survived on grants and award money,” says Burger, “then we started looking for investors.  But most German investors are cautious.  They’re looking for apps, or business-to-business startups–not consumer products, let alone toys.”

But the thirty-something partners kept plugging away, testing the prototypes at schools, child-care centers and on friends’ children, as none of them had children.  They came up with the name “Tinkerbots” for its toy-like sound and robotic reference.

In 2014, they decided to take investment matters into their own hands with a crowdfunding campaign that allowed contributors to pre-order a choice of six building kits.  “Our goal was to raise $100,000,” says Bürger, “but we ended up with $300,000.” It took about 18 months to deliver the product to market (and anything that could go wrong, did, Bürger admits), but the toys were a huge hit.

The crowdfunding gave them enough cash to pay engineering experts and hire a small staff.  It also helped winnow down the offerings to the three most popular kits.  Of the 200-some parts that go into the kits, most are made in Germany and assembled on site at the firm’s headquarters in a Berlin suburb.

Tinkerbots at Amusespot

“We’re now selling in Europe and the United States,” says Bürger, “and though our main target audience is children from 6 to 11 years old, we’re finding that 25 percent of our sales are for adults.  One 70-year-old guy told me he didn’t buy a Tinkerbots kit for his grandson, but for himself.”

The toys, Bürger notes, were designed to appeal to both girls and boys, but when he observed the market-testing sessions, boys tended to build more cars and monsters, while girls built animal figures.  

The toys are educational, the three partners explain, teaching children building, robotics, sensorics and basic programming.  Schools and other educational institutions are interested in the product, as are businesses, which use the kits within team-building exercises.

Still, Tinkerbots is aimed squarely at kids.  “Children see it and they get it,” Bürger says. “It’s designed to be easy.  It doesn’t have to be explained or require a parent’s help.  They can’t make a mistake. Through trial and error, they figure out how to build, rebuild and move the toy.” Even better, the Tinkerbots have the ability to interact with Lego kits.

Gepetto would approve.

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Watch Liam Check out his Tinkerbots.

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