By: Gigaom
June 06, 2012 at 13:12 PM EDT
Makie gets $1.4m to drag toys into the future
Forget virtual worlds and children's apps: London-based startup Makielab thinks the toys of the future will be 3D printed and totally customized -- and it's raised a significant round of seed investment to start preparing to play with the big kids.

Forget virtual worlds and Facebook games and children’s apps: London-based startup Makielab thinks the toys of the future are both digital and physical — and it’s raised $1.4 million to prove it.

The company, which uses 3D printing to let people turn their personalized digital avatars into custom-made real-life dolls, quietly launched in alpha a couple of weeks ago. And now it’s announcing a significant round of funding to help it transport the toy industry into the next generation.

“We’re making toys using game data and 3D printing,” explains Alice Taylor, Makielab co-founder and CEO. “We call ourselves a smart toy company, and for us that means there’s a digital side to it by default.”

The company slogan is “the action doll you design”, and here’s the concept in a nutshell: you hit the Makie website and create your own avatar, choosing from a range of shapes, sizes, features and outfits — the kind of thing that’s recognizable from all kinds of MMOs, virtual worlds and kids’ games. But then comes the magic: press a button and you get your digital figure turned into the real thing, produced as a one-off in bone-white plastic using cutting edge manufacturing techniques.

The alpha is essentially selling a limited batch of dolls, each costing £99 ($150) — which means it is a proof-of-concept largely aimed at adults. But Taylor is adamant that they’ll reach kids as soon as it’s possible. To that end, over time the company hopes to bring down the price as its sales increase, perhaps introducing a £50 ($75) version aimed at children and a higher-end version costing £150 or more for hardcore toy collectors.

And getting from the basic product towards the mass market is what the money, which comes from Nordic VC funds Lifeline Ventures (Thinglink, Ditto) and Sunstone (Gidsy, Podio) — as well as a trio of angels — is being used for.

The first Makies are reaching customers now, says Taylor, and feedback has been good. But while buyers seem to be intrigued, she admits that right now the company exists in a fairly tricky space — it’s not quite a toy company, not quite a games company, and not quite a web business. Instead, it’s a hybrid of all three, with a little bit of weirdness thrown in for good measure.

“I look around at toy production and it’s so different to what we’re doing,” says Taylor. “In the traditional toy industry it takes years to go from having your prototype to going on sale.”

“We had to get the physical stuff out of the way, because nobody had done it before. You can’t learn how to make 3D printed toys from somebody, because it’s new. So you kind of have to roll your sleeves up and learn, regardless of whether you’re us or a 20-year toy industry veteran.”

She says that over time the business will roll out more — for example, more customizable options, more clothing and garments, more game elements that give rewards to players who invest more time and energy in the product (you have to reach level 20 before you can get a crown to your Makie, for example). And then? Well, it’s just the first step.

“We have technology that could apply to lots of different types of toys, but right now we’ve got enough to build Makie,” she says. “I’d love to be here in 50 years time, the same size as Lego.”

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