The Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, often called “the Nabe”, had some vacant space at its 953 De Haro Street location. According to Edward Hatter, executive director, a youth substance abuse counseling program that’d been operating from the building shutdown three years ago due to lack of client enrollment, leaving several rooms underutilized. About a year ago, the area was rented to Piper, a technology startup that produces instructional computer kits that help children gain science, technology, engineering and math skills.
“They’ve been wonderful tenants, and have been growing by leaps and bounds,” said Hatter. “They’ve doubled in size over the past year, but there has been no strain on the House because they are wonderful folks. In terms of the collaboration, it has been a godsend. It’s been an opportunity to expose low-income children to coding and the whole technology world.”
Rental revenue and facility assistance has been a boon to the Nabe. The organization had been paying $1,000 a month for internet service through TelePacific. Piper found a better deal with Comcast, lowering the expense to $300 per month. The relationship between the two entities grew when youth participating in the Nabe’s “Summer in the City” and other enrichment programs began beta testing Piper products.
Piper’s kits consist of a wooden box filled with electronic components, such as LED lights, buttons, switchers, and a LCD screen. It’s also equipped with a Raspberry Pi, a minuscule, fully functional, computing device geared towards use in learning environments, such as schools, to help kids learn programming. A blueprint is provided that challenges users, aged eight to 14, to setup the computer and explore programming it through projects and games. The kits are designed so that adult supervision is optional; participants follow detailed instructions that require thoughtful engagement and persistence to be successful. The gear helps youth develop problem solving and computer engineering skills.
“It’s like a sandbox environment for tech,” said Tommy Gibbons, Piper’s head of customer experience. “They’re going to be challenged and frustrated, but that’s part of the engineering process.”
Piper’s founders – Joel Sadler, Mark Pavlyukovskyy and Shree Bose – aware of how young children are increasingly exposed to technological devices, created Piper so that today’s youth can grow up understanding how the devices they use work, while providing a foundation for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills, important to the modern economy. About 20,000 kits have been sold to customers around the world, mostly to schools, educational camps and families. The kits cost $299, though schools are offered a discount if they purchase multiple sets.
“There are kits in many Bay Area schools, and we also run an afterschool camp at Marshall Elementary,” Gibbons offered. “Word of mouth has been a major component of our marketing. We’re big in places like Scandinavia, Japan and Australia that are forward thinking in tech.”
This past summer, TechCrunch reported that Piper received $2.1 million in investment from Princeton University Alumni, Entrepreneurs Fund, Reach Capital, 500 Startups, FoundersXFund and other sources. Apple Inc. co-founder, Steve Wozniak, reportedly endorsed the company. Piper employees claim that Elon Musk has bought several kits for his kids.
“We created a survey to give kids before and after using the kits to measure changes in confidence levels,” said Gibbons. “On average, there’s a 20 percent increase in feeling confidence in the ability to build something with technology. The highest confidence increases are seen in girls and those who had the lowest levels of confidence starting out.”
Piper is developing a new product, which’ll allow kids to use computer code to create something new. Beta testing began in earlier this fall.
With assistance from Piper staff, the Neighborhood House has applied for $75,000 in funding from the City’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families to support STEM activities. The money would pay for a full-time instructor, as well as technical equipment. If awarded, the cash will be available next summer.
“There’s such a big push and craving for this kind of STEM exposure,” Hatter commented. “The center would be housed and staffed at the Neighborhood House. We do summer camps every year, and this year we did a STEM integration with Piper and it provided exposure to coding.”