Many people would readily agree that launching a hardware startup is more challenging than starting a software one. This is especially true when some of the said challenges include factoring in vandalism and the end product is for children, one of the most heavily regulated market segments. But if there ever were an index for the probability to succeed in a hardware startup, Hristo and his partner Ilian Milinov would surely rank in the top percentile. They are both serial entrepreneurs, with Hristo being among the co-founders of one of the most successful Bulgarian startups – Walltopia. Yet, when asked to tell his story of Playground Energy, he starts by praising his partner: “I am subjective and shouldn’t be believed, but you can trust me, Ilian is an industrial designer, if not one of the most ingenious in the world, then at least in Europe. He has won two Red Dot design awards without even making that big of an effort. He is the inventor of the seat table, which became chair of the year in 2002 in Italy, in the very mecca of furniture design. Simply said, he is a genius.”
With a team like that, it is no wonder a prototype was ready in just the three months they worked with the Eleven startup accelerator in Sofia. But it must have been hard to launch something like that in their 40s, with families to support. “We are nuts, that’s the only way to explain it,” Hristo grins.
A balancing act
The first Lumi playground in Pazardzhik. Photo credit: Playground EnergyTwo years into the project, there seems to be a reason to their madness, as tangible results can be seen in the smiles of children and even some grown-ups, while they swing around on Playground energy’s sleek Lumi 1 and Lumi 2 spring toys. In fact, one of the challenges has been keeping grown men of substantial mass off the equipment and they have had to do their first repairs as the toy struggled with the weight, Hristo laughs. “Vandalism is a big factor in our design, and I was pleased to see that of all components, just one, a non-crucial one at that, gave way, and we will replace it soon with sturdier material.”
Back to the very inception, as many ideas do, this one was born in a bar. One with swinging chairs, where Hristo and Ilian were having an afternoon coffee. “Ilian’s phone battery was dying and he said it would have been great if he could plug his phone into his chair and charge it by swinging,” Hristo remembers and with the bug in their head, they started thinking about implementations. They decided this wouldn’t be such a necessity indoors, where there is easy access to electricity, but would really make a difference outdoors. Looking at their environment, the two dads came up with one place that any parent would agree offers an abundance of untamed energy – the playground.
From the start, they agreed on a common goal – to lead children back to the outdoor playgrounds, abandoned in favour of on-screen entertainment. Fully recognising the importance of online games for developing cognitive skills, however, they seek to establish a balance and are even working on ways to introduce partnerships with online games.
“We are working on partnership opportunities with online games, so that when kids play at our playgrounds, they can earn online currency to buy special weapons or materials,” Hristo says. “We are currently developing an augmented reality mobile application to strengthen the connection between the virtual and the real. For example, instead of seeing her kid using our spring toy, the mom would see them riding a fire-breathing dragon. We want to visualise it, we don’t want our games to need any instructions, we want to make them as intuitive and easy to grasp as possible.”
Unfortunately, Hristo’s kids were already too old to use the product, but, at the age of four when the prototype arrived, Ilian’s son was just the perfect beta tester and the beaming face of their first promotional video.
A startup’s seesaw
Ilian Milinov, the design genius behind the spring toys. Photo credit: Playground EnergyТhe prototype is this first step that proves an insurmountable hurdle for many hardware startups and ultimately leads to their demise. It took a lot of hard work and some serious bootstrapping for the two dads to get where they are, yet the environment also played a big role. “We have managed to do all of these things, only because there is sufficient equipment in Bulgaria,” Hristo says. “We have found a 3D printer here, laser cutting, CNC machines, everything. We achieved a prototype in the third month only because the Bulgarian economy enabled us to use, at affordable prices, the services of a dozen different suppliers. It’s not a one-stop shop, but it works.” And the fact, that the country is small enough to be able to reach any supplier in a matter of hours is also a big benefit.
A game plan
Lucky as they may have been in finding the right tools, their inside knowledge of the world of hardware helped them get to the point where they are. They already have two completed playgrounds in Bulgaria and are working on a Smart City project in Milton Keynes in the UK and two playgrounds for a children’s museum in Sofia. In addition, they were backed by startup accelerators – first by local Eleven and then by Springboard in Cambridge. While he supports the local scene, Hristo recognises the value of joining foreign accelerators, but stresses that there is a time for each step. In the very beginning, he says, “go locally with an accelerator like Eleven, which provides strong financial backing and mentorship, and when a prototype is ready choose from the likes of Springboard, valuable for the contacts they can introduce you to and the advanced lessons they can teach you.”
For Hristo, who says he doesn’t yet have hobbies due to lack of time but has already purchased a small piece of land in hopes of taking up gardening, having a long-term strategy also played a crucial role.
Lumi uses kinetic energy for light effects; Photo credit: Playground Energy“We don’t want to stop with just the spring toys, we are currently working on six new toys – swings, trampolines, and others,” he says. “We also have a different type of product in the pipeline – a universal seat that could be retrofitted on most current spring toy models. We want to use it to enter a different market segment and become OEM suppliers, much like Shimano make drivetrain components that fit most bikes, but for playground toys.” In order to achieve that, they covered their bases early on and have two patents pending in Europe and the US – for the use of the technology on playgrounds and for the use of augmented reality on playgrounds. “Our innovation is that we found a way to generate electricity using the kinetic energy without any added resistance for the kids,” Hristo explains. “Currently there are similar products [on the market] but they involve a lot of mechanics and moving parts, creating the potential for breakage and they add resistance so it is actually more laborious for kids to play with them. This is in conflict with our idea to motivate kids to play more, so we managed to come up with a generator that makes playing with our toys indistinguishable in terms of the physical effort from playing with regular spring toys.”
And while he is keeping a close eye on the local scene to see what new hardware startups crop up in Bulgaria, Hristo’s company is slowly succeeding in giving a much-needed facelift to the oldest gaming platform in the world – the playground.