Coming up on 'Shark Tank': An Arlington Start-up Robot Riding Doll
Next up: a robot-riding doll.
Enter SmartGurlz, a line of dolls that ride robotic scooters, controlled by an app built to teach girls to code. Sharmi Albrechtsen, founder and CEO of this tech toy company, will appear on an episode scheduled to air Nov. 12.
Sharmi Albrechtsen pitches her SmartGurlz company to sharks Daymond John, Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, and guest shark Richard Branson, on an upcoming episode of "Shark Tank."
While many of the startups featured on the reality show tend to be early-stage businesses, Albrechtsen’s company is as young as it gets. A former nonprofit director, she and her engineer husband developed the product in Europe, making their first sales just in time for Christmas last year. They moved from their Copenhagen home to Bethesda, where Albrechtsen grew up, in January 2017.
“We’re so new. We did it mainly because it’s important for the company that we’re located in one of the biggest toy markets,” Albrechtsen said. "Also, for investment purposes, it’s easier to get investors if you’re located in the U.S."
The idea stemmed from their effort to help their 11-year-old daughter, now 16, who was struggling in math. It evolved when they saw a gap in the market for a toy that would effectively engage girls in STEAM — science, tech, engineering, art and math. They hadn’t planned to enter the doll industry, Albrechtsen said, but the concept grew.
Now Arlington-based SmartGurlz has a complete product. Its bread-and-butter app offers games and challenges for girls ages 6 and up that communicate via Bluetooth with “Siggy,” a Segway-like drone that the doll rides. Users can go on missions, play “SugarCoded” games, make their robots dance and follow paths through the app, which is available for iOS and Android tablets, and will soon be compatible with Kindle and other smartphones.
Each 11-inch doll has her own identity, colorful clothing and illustrated book, and represents one of the five STEAM subjects. There’s computer hacker Zara, mechanical engineer Jen, scientist Jun, mathematician Maria and graphic artist Emma.
The product sells for $80 online — on its website, Amazon and Walmart.com — and in about 50 specialty stores throughout the country. Because of the high price tag for consumers, and the complexity of the product, investing in marketing and education will be important, Albrechtsen said. That was a big driver of her auditioning for the show.
SmartGurlz has raised about $1.8 million to date, including investment dollars, loans and convertible debt, Albrechtsen said — and, that’s prior to any possible investment attained through “Shark Tank” (she can’t give too much detail because of a nondisclosure agreement for now). The company started with $100,000 in seed financing from an innovation fund in Copenhagen, proved its concept with 3-D printed prototypes at the international toy fair in Nuremberg, Germany, and raised another $500,000 before filming the segment about nine months ago.
To date, SmartGurlz has sold $300,00 in inventory — only starting to sell in the U.S. in July — with expectations for sales to ramp up during the holiday season. The six-person company is optimizing its website and working to put together a hotline in preparation for interested consumers following the episode’s airing. It also preemptively ordered 20,000 products traveling on a boat to the startup’s warehouse, to ensure it could meet demand should the segment make it to TV.
Besides being a fan of “Shark Tank,” Albrechtsen says that her segment's airing (which its founder only learned within the last week) will revolutionize the business, both through the millions of dollar’s worth of advertising it brings, and the level of credibility it provides.
“It’s really, really hard to make it in the toy business, it’s a really tough business,” she said. “So ‘Shark Tank’ will save my business, and that’s amazing, really — an unfortunate thing to say, but it will. And it will be able to pump up the volume and really get us known, and just open doors.”
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