Startup of the Month: STEMtrunk

Yuba City-based company launches subscription service for educational toys

Back Web Only Oct 3, 2018 By Russell Nichols

Parents need only look at their children’s old toys to recall the law of inertia — that an object not played with will sit on a shelf collecting dust.

In 2017, Aaron Watkins launched a rental service called STEMtrunk because he doesn’t believe educational toys should be left behind. He calls his Yuba City-based startup “Netflix for learning toys” because it works with the same subscription-based concept: Parents select a STEM toy (LEGO Mindstorms, Parrot Minidrones, etc.) from a catalog, the toy comes in a trunk and the child can play as long as she or he wants, then parents ship it back and wait for the next one in the queue. STEMtrunk currently delivers across the United States.

With subscriptions starting at $39 a month, STEMtrunk gives children a chance to experiment with toys and technologies for the jobs of tomorrow without parents paying the hefty price, Watkins says.

Related: Startup of the Month: Anu Snacks

Related: Can a Comic Book Teach Children About STEM?

“Robotics kits and computer kits can easily cost $150-plus per item,” he says. “As a parent, you want your kids to have the best educational materials to prepare them for the jobs of the future. But what if they don’t like it? That’s a lot of money to spend in a tough economy.”

Watkins stores the inventory of learning toys in his basement in Yuba City. This summer, after raising a total of $45,000 — $16,000 of that from an Indiegogo campaign, $10,000 from a grant and another $10,000 from private investments — the first home-delivery shipments went out.

Jessica McAfee was one of the first customers. She and her husband, Mike, have a 14-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. Over the years, they bought lots of educational toys, but after a while, no matter how cool a gadget was it ended up on a shelf or in the trash.

“They’re not inexpensive toys,” McAfee says. “As the kids get older, they outgrow things, so the toys need to advance along with them.”

The parents went through the STEMtrunk catalog and had the kids select what looked interesting. The first toy they received was Cozmo, an AI toy robot. The kids were thrilled and when they stopped being thrilled, Cozmo was boxed up and sent back.

“It was a month of good fun,” McAfee says. “Now we can send it off and get the next cool thing.”

Watkins isn’t new to the business world, although this is his first foray into the education space. In 2009, he co-founded Appency, a marketing service for app developers. But a few years ago, he says he got bored and decided to branch out.

To test the rent-a-toy idea, Watkins first called around to local home-schools programs. Tiffany Millen, director of the Natomas Homeschool Alliance, received a message from Watkins last summer about his new service. Watkins thought this would be a viable market, but Millen told him the home deliveries wouldn’t appeal to her homeschoolers, because they typically receive state money that can be applied to educational products. “From their perspective, there is no sense in going out-of-pocket for things they can use state funding to buy,” Millen says, adding that it is viable for homeschoolers as long as they can use state money to access it.

But she had another idea that Watkins decided to incorporate into his business. Millen was in the market for a STEM teacher, and asked Watkins if he was interested. STEMtrunk staff now provides hour-long classes each week for the Natomas Homeschool Alliance during both the fall and spring semesters. The popular classes target third to fifth graders.

“Kids are interested in gadgets and technology,” Millen says. “Last year, he did robotics. This year, he is teaching them how to build a simple computer and doing coding projects with Minecraft.”

STEMtrunk currently teaches after-school programs at 10 local schools (paid for by the parents). By adding this teaching branch to the company, Watkins was able to get traction with the STEM toys and the successfully-funded Indiegogo campaign reassured him there was a market for the subscription service. Right now, the bulk STEMtrunk’s revenue comes from teaching, but Watkins believes the rent-a-toy piece will catch up as word spreads.

The startup also offers subscriptions for classroom kits and lesson plans that schools can purchase to teach on their own, starting at $500 a month.

“Low-income students can’t afford to pay us to do after-school classes or pay us to send them a toy,” Watkins says. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access. If we can get into schools, that financial burden on the family is taken out of the equation.”