TinyCircuits Innovates DIY Electronics

AKRON, Ohio — For hobbyists interested in electronics, finding user-friendly and adaptable equipment can be a big hurdle. That’s where TinyCircuits comes in. The Akron-based company, an operating unit of AkroSense LLC, is looking to do for electronics what Lincoln Logs and Legos did for construction.

“We make little, tiny circuit boards. I know it’s a stretch based on our company name,” founder Ken Burns says, unable to contain a laugh.

“They’re almost like little Legos that you can stack together and create all sorts of different things,” he continues. “That’s the idea behind it.”

Inside their offices, workers sit before microscopes, soldering and assembling circuit board after circuit board. Each is designed to perform a specific function.

“We’ve got about 40 different modules that can be plugged together in different ways to create different projects or products,” Burns says.

Some of the features the circuit boards come enabled with include GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

“We came out with something last fall. We called it ‘Tiny Screen’ – and it’s a tiny display that you can use on our electronics to make your own smart watch.”

Burns demonstrates by quickly snapping the screen onto one of his circuit boards. It lights up immediately, ready to perform whatever function its user can think up. Burns decides to have some fun.

“You can take this joystick module and plug it in there,” he says as he demonstrates. “Now you can play video games.” A tiny version of “Asteroids” appears on the screen ready to be played.

But playing video games is just one of the many uses for Burns’ products. Michael James has been using TinyCircuits about three years.

“I got my hands on some and started making some of the projects that he demonstrates on his website and just started tweaking them a little bit,” he says.

James is the owner of the Open Source Hardware Group, also based in Akron. The company sells educational materials for consumers learning to program hardware.

So it’s no surprise he saw TinyCircuits as a good tool to teach young people the fundamentals of electronics. James volunteers at Urban Vision, a program that helps inner-city youth in a variety of subjects.

“We made some e-textile stuff because he sells some that you can wash,” James says. “I had the students sew them into shirts and they made a Superman emblem on a shirt that would light up.”

The two big advantages of TinyCircuits hardware, James says, are its size and mobility. “You can power it with a coin-cell battery, so you don’t need to carry around a nine-volt battery or have something that plugs into the wall,” James says.

And because the circuit boards are so user-friendly and adaptable, they usually elicit a positive reaction from kids.

“A lot of technology for kids can seem like magic. It can be kind of intimidating,” he says. “But once you pull back that veil and show them all this stuff happens because people like you and I learned things and applied them, it’s not so scary.”

TinyCircuits runs on a system Burns calls the Tiny Duino system because it’s based on Arduino technology. “It was developed by some Italian academics, which is why it has a weird name,” he explains.

The makers of Arduino bill it as an “open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software.”

“It’s in use by millions of people and it’s about the size of a deck of cards,” Burns says.

Because Arduino is an open technology, people are allowed to modify it and derive new works from it. “Our system is basically [Arduino] but shrunk down to the size of a quarter,” Burns says, adding that his product is currently the smallest on the market.

The popularity of Arduino was one reason professor Margarita Benitez, an assistant professor at Kent State Univeristy’s college of arts, began using TinyCircuits in some of her students’ projects.

In one project, the students created scarves with LED lights embedded in the material to make them glow.

“Most of the people were not programmers, but everyone left the workshop with a working TinyScreen Necklace with a custom video on it,” she says. “The feedback was very positive.”

At the Fashion Tech Hackathon held at Kent State University, the winning team created a backpack to help people find their way in a busy city. Using TinyCircuits products, the backpack tracks its wearer using GPS and then causes either the right or left strap to buzz, instructing the wearer which way to turn at an intersection.

And other universities are following suit. A professor at Northwestern University found TinyCircuits a more cost-effective way to conduct research on the water systems in Mexican caves.

“They would go to Mexico with their students to measure tidal patterns in and out of underwater caves. There’s really nothing off the shelf able to do that,” James says.

The students created a float out of PVC pipe with TinyCircuits inside. With the floats attached to the riverbed, they could determine the direction the water flowed based on the tilt of the floats.

“And they could do it at about $100 per device,” James says. “So now instead of just putting one or two devices down, they can put these all over the cave.”

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University are also using the devices in their robotic studies. Researchers found they were wasting their time designing electronics to control the robots instead of working on the algorithm they were testing.

“So they can just buy the stuff, put it together and then just focus on the big-picture stuff,” James says.

Small companies and universities are where TinyCircuits sees the most growth and the company is on track to record $600,000 in revenue this year.

But the market Burns is really excited about is the “Internet of things,” he says, referring to the trend of connecting objects such as phones, watches and cars to the Internet.

There’s a “huge potential explosion of devices in your home, your car, that are getting connected to the Internet and really talking to each other,” he says. “We want to be making the parts that go into that.”

Pictured: Ken Burns started the company at his home in 2011. Before it became his business, it was a hobby.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.