We Built a Toy: The Start of CogniToys

We Built a Toy: The Start of CogniToys

Back in 2014, IBM invited teams from all over the world to design an app that harnessed IBM Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities (the same technology that beat Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy champion). Majestyk was selected from more than 3,000 submissions as grand prize winners. Our future-thinking proposal –  to build a cognitive smart toy that learns and grow with your child which we’ve aptly named CogniToys.

Winning the competition gave us the amazing to opportunity to take our idea and turn it into a reality, and for the past two years, that’s what we’ve been doing.

Since the launch of the CogniToys Kickstarter in March of 2015, we have received over 1.2 Billion impressions. Yes, that’s billion, with a B! We’ve raised nearly $2M in funding, are swiftly approaching our beta launch and have received interest from almost every major retailer. What started as a neat “idea” has turned into a product and platform that has the potential to (and I mean this) change the world. Before reading any further, if you haven’t already, take a look at the CogniToys Demo Video.   


I’ve been fortunate enough to be on  this journey with a group of amazing men and women, while traveling the world demoing my little Green CogniToy. One of the questions I get asked the most is “how” or “why” did you decide to build this?

It started with that one question posed by IBM at their global hackathon – “If you had access to Watson, what would you build?” For some of us, it was one of those “nerdy” moments where we said to ourselves, “this would be awesome” to hack against Watson. The winner would have the opportunity to partner with IBM to bring the product to market and most importantly, get to incorporate Watson.

In the beginning, we didn’t really think we stood much of a chance with over 500 companies/entrepreneurs participating,but our pitch was very unique. We knew that IBM was traditionally enterprise focused and most of the other companies would be introducing concepts in healthcare or finance. Introducing the concept of a “speech based toy that could learn and grow with a child” was something we knew would be loved or laughed at but we were going to go for it anyway.

The challenge consisted of 3 separate phases:

1.     Business plan that detailed the use case and go to market strategy

2.     5 minute video demo

3.     Live pitch to a panel of IBM executives

We made it through round one. Round two. Then, we got invited to IBM Innovate in Florida for a live pitch where we had to have a working prototype. Building a fully functioning prototype wasn’t even conceivable so we grabbed a stuffed animal we had in the office, threw a small Bluetooth speaker into it and we were able to ask a few (literally a “few”) questions to the toy and hopefully get an accurate answer back.

On stage at Innovate, we did our best to clearly get our point across. We explained how toys are typically less than intelligent and don’t care who the kid is or how the kid learns. How our product would change based on how a child interacts with it, personalizing its responses and using its position in the child’s play to help teach on specific subjects. The prototype mostly worked but we were far from having a polished app, let alone prototype. When it came down to judging, we had no idea what to expect.

In the follow-up Q&A after our pitch, the other groups received really great feedback from the judges – lots of questions and not enough time to answer them all. We received one question. We had no idea if that was good or bad but we had a cute little toy that was answering some of the 100’s of questions kids ask everyday!

Well, we did not lose. We were a grand prize winner and have been working with IBM and other great partners since. It was an amazing experience, a great first step as a startup to go out there and see what others thought about our idea/concept and was a way for us to get our first “champion.”

For us, finding those “champions” of the product was very important. It gave us validation that we wouldn’t have otherwise had and allowed us to get really great feedback from those outside of our small circle. It’s an approach we’ve continued to take and from a consumer perspective, received from our Kickstarter.

I would challenge every entrepreneur to dream big, make things happen and find your “champions.” That might be friends and family, investors or even consumers. Don’t be afraid to validate early and do everything you can to work fast and hack your way to success – finding non-typical ways to meet your milestones and prove that the market wants your product.