Elemental Path is an award-winning technology and toy startup that is revolutionizing the possibilities of "smart toys" via the development of their patent pending cloud-based, artificial intelligence (AI) technology aptly named "Friendgine," which rivals IBM Watson, Siri, and Alexa.

Established in 2014, Elemental Path is best known for its flagship "CogniToys Dino," which was released in 2015. Now, the team is anticipating the release of "STEMosaur," a far more advanced version of the Dino model—one which encourages STEM skills by allowing children to construct the toy and actually create their own content through an innovative coding panel.

Moreover, the software contains a number of filters that encourage kid-friendly answers and restrict bad content, such as profanity. Parents can also use the toy's Parent Panel to receive insights into how their children are interacting with and learning from STEMosaur—such as in key subjects like science, math, grammar and more.

Elemental Path launched its Indiegogo campaign as a means to support and fund STEMosaur via crowdfunding—a method that companies are employing with increasing frequency. Given the popularity of the team's first "Dino" and the excitement around STEM, the campaign is now nearly 200 percent funded with almost two weeks still to go.

Recently Donald Coolidge, the co-founder and CEO of Elemental Path, granted an exclusive interview during which he discussed STEMosaur and his aspirations for the future of the technology that he helped create.

Technology, toys, and startups

Meagan Meehan (MM): What initially inspired you to seek out a career in technology and how did you find your way into toys?

Donald Coolidge (DC): In college, I began developing a few apps around music and games. These were initially passion projects, but got me really excited about tech and specifically about how consumers were using technology in their lives.

That led me to create my first company, Majestyk Apps, with another Marine. The company grew extremely quickly with the rise of "mobile" and specifically app-related technology.

One of our focus areas was on games and how you can gamify experiences to make them better. We developed several platforms for toy companies. After that, I was hooked on how we can build better technology for kids.

A lot of technology that kids were/are using was designed for adults, so we began to look at ways we could take the best technology that was available and design it kid-first. This led to the development of our CogniToys line of speech-based smart toys.

MM: You've stated that you're not a programmer or a coder, so how did you manage to launch this company and create a software that rivals Siri?

DC: I don't code, but I have been architecting systems for my entire professional career. My expertise is aligning the user experience (which for toys is the "play pattern") and the technology underpinnings that enable it to happen. I am also a really great team player and focus on building the best teams possible.

I think my military experience helped me a lot here; I've done a really good job of "knowing what I don't know" and try and build well rounded teams with supplementary skillsets. We are a small team of about twenty, and the great thing is that every team member understands the entire platform. Therefore, we all work really closely together and everyone understands how their role and what they are building impacts the rest of the platform.

MM: You have a unique patent pending technology—what was the whole "patenting" process like?

DC: Complicated. We've spent several years working on the process. We've submitted several updates and will likely continue to refine our application. It’s definitely one of the more tedious processes of establishing and growing a startup company, but it is absolutely necessary.

We are beginning our expansion in Asia and specifically China, which raises a whole set of additional intellectual property concerns. There is an entirely different set of rules when dealing with IP and China, and I am beginning to navigate that process.

MM: Crowdfunding campaigns worked for you when you launched the original CogniToys Dino, but what made you decide to take the risk and seek funding that may or may not have come through?

DC: Well, we've never been scared to take risks. For us, crowdfunding is an opportunity to engage with our customers earlier in the product life cycle than would typically occur. This allows us to get the feedback necessary to continue to refine the product. We've done a really good job in building the narrative around our product launches, and with the launch of STEMosaur we had so much excitement around the product that we didn't think about it not going well.

MM: You're a well-established company now, so why did you choose Indiegogo per se?

DC: Indiegogo was a huge risk for us because we already had a successful Kickstarter with a built-in community that we would lose if we made the jump. Indiegogo provided us with a number of backend tools that would help us in tracking the customer journey to the site, and also some really handy tools that allowed us to do things like create "secret" perks for certain backers and a lot more.

MM: STEMosaur is truly a step above the original CogniToy—is it true that it can talk to groups of people at once and remember everyone's name and preferences merely from the sound of their voice?

DC: STEMosaur and all CogniToys will soon be getting an update that includes speaker recognition.

This will allow for a child's CogniToy to recognize voice patterns, then use those patterns to separate users. Initially, we will use speaker recognition sparingly within games. And then we will increase how we use it so that one Dino can have multiple "profiles," recognizing users through voice patterns and allowing for multiple kids in a home or school to use one toy and still have a personalized experience.

MM: What about the STEMosaur do you personally find most interesting and/or impressive?

DC: I am most excited about the coding panel. It was the most asked for feature over the last twelve months. I am really excited to see how kids use the coding panel to create their own Dino experiences and also excited to see how parents use it with their child.

I am sure we will have amazing content created, and I've already heard amazing features that kids and parents have built. Some of which might end up getting built directly into CogniToys.

MM: Upon successfully ending the Indiegogo campaign, what are the next steps?

DC: Then the fun starts! We will almost immediately start shipping the product. Once backers receive it, we are going to pay close attention to the coding panel and how it is being used. With the first large group using it, we expect to need to make some very quick tweaks to it based on the feedback we get. We are planning to roll-out with ten coding modules and will continue to roll new modules out over time.

Software, apps, and the future

MM: At present, what are the limitations of your software and how do you think these limitations can be overcome?

DC: We are expected to know and answer everything. That’s just not possible. We've had kids ask "Why is a goat a goat and a chicken a chicken?" Good luck having a software handle that question! We don't think it’s necessary to know everything, but our goal is to continue to get better at answering, better at engaging and really finding the right fit for our technology in typical play routines. If we can help facilitate learning and be a useful tool for kids and parents, then we will feel like we are successful.

MM: Kids are being encouraged to build the STEMosaur—the kit even comes with a screwdriver—and then code/personalize it via your app.

How much more of a "bond" do you think this makes between the children and the toy?

DC: From the start, we've felt that it’s the kids' toy and they get to determine how to use it. That's why we left the name blank. Dino, STEMosaur—kids have to name the product because it's theirs. I believe we are going a step further by having them assemble it and code it as well. Allowing the child to really feel like it's theirs and that they can build and dream up whatever they would like.

MM: What was the process of creating the app component of this toy like, and how did you make it both simple and customizable?

DC: The app was the easy part. I've been building apps for more than five years. The app is really a small part of the platform.

Its real function right now is simply to connect to WiFi. We will be adding features to it for STEMosaur, but it’s important we never lean on a screen for much functionality. That’s important to us.

MM: Overall, what has the response been like regarding the STEMosaur?

DC: Tremendous. We have had nothing but rave reviews from the STEMosaur beta testers, our press samples, and kids who have used early versions of the coding panel.

MM: Is it true that even adults can use the STEMosaur?

DC: We actually hope adults use STEMosaur. Learning is best when an adult is showing interest, and we've built the coding panel to be "easy enough for an adult to use." That means parents are not intimidated by learning to code and can code with their children.

Basically, create experiences together.

MM: How do you hope your company as a whole will expand over the course of the coming year, and is there anything further that you wish to discuss?

DC: Well, we've nearly doubled in the last twelve months and that looks like it will continue. We've secured several new partners and are rolling out CogniToys internationally as a tool that helps support English language learning. We also have two other products that will be rolling out at CES and NY Toy Fair in 2018. It’s going to be a very exciting year and future!