Startup promises hands-on play for a digital generation

—Small Brands, Big Plans: stories about small Canadian marketers with big ideas—

A Toronto startup is developing a possible solution to rising parental concerns about screen time for young children. Gepeto is attempting to blend traditional real-world play with screen interaction to deliver a healthier, more engaging experience for kids eight and under.

“I don’t think the problem is necessarily with screens. The problem is more with how screens are used,” says Gepeto CEO Ram Puvanesasingham. “You can have very passive experiences that ‘zombify’ kids. Or you can design experiences that are active, engaging and even creativity inspiring.”

Gepeto CEO Ram Puvanesasingham.

According to research from Common Sense Media, kids eight and under spent an average of 48 minutes a day on mobile devices in 2017, up from just 15 minutes in 2013. Nearly three-quarters of that time (72%) is spent watching videos, and 57% of all screen time has little or no education value.

Gepeto, which was among 136 companies that received funding from the Ontario government’s Interactive Digital Media Fund last year, is currently trying to Kickstart its first solution, the “Rubu Adventure Kit.” A mashup of tech and old-school play, Rubu is “a curious young robot” that kids play with to “explore wondrous new galaxies and work with fascinating characters to solve challenging problems.”

Rather than tap the screen, kids control Rubu with a puppet-like controller using the front-facing camera of an iPad. Aside from the on-screen elements, the full Rubu kit includes playing cards, a colouring book, a map and journal.

“You can turn screen time into an active, playful thing,” says Gepeto’s creative director Kyle Lamb, who started working with the company after an agency career that included more than seven years as art director at John St., followed by an ACD role at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco.

There’s a lot of startup activity in Toronto right now, but Lamb says many of these companies need to think about their brand or how to build marketing solutions early in the development process.

“When you are so close [to a project] you think this is our marketing, just us and all the stuff we are talking about,” he says. Startups require someone with branding or advertising background who can step back and think about how the product and brand story are evolving together—that the product matches the brand vision, and the storytelling accurately reflects the product.

“The biggest thing I was interested in was building a strong brand from the beginning,” says Lamb. “Working in an agency that is not usually the case—you have a brand and you need to look for angles.” This is about getting in early when a brand is a just a vision with a “light idea” of what the product will be. “As we are building our story and who we are and our brand, I can come in and look at our brand and our experience and say I don’t think this fits that.”

At this point, there is no real advertising or communications strategy for Rubu beyond drawing people to the Kickstarter. The company has built up a network for friends, family, teachers and educators to share ideas, and has also assembled small test groups of kids and parents to take Rubu out to play.

David Brown