When Melissa Rabideau first started a business, she sold an innovative product geared toward solving a problem for a favorite furry friend. The Poochie Bowl is a uniquely shaped bowl that helps long-eared dogs keep them dry while drinking. But, like every good entrepreneur, she didn’t stop at her original idea. From dog bowls to a makerspace, Rabideau and her family (the founders behind the Poochie Bowl) found their business changing, adapting and solving the problems of a much larger consumer base.
Today, tinkrLAB is the product of innovation meeting technology, two crucial ingredients to creating a successful business in an ever-changing and always plugged-in world.
A safe environment that encourages creativity and curiosity, tinkrLAB is a makerspace where kids are encouraged to play, touch things, take them apart and put them back together. From coding to robotics, the space is constantly guided by a question that shapes all innovation and encourages all entrepreneurs: “What if?”
Working closely with other inventors over the years, Rabideau often heard one story over and over. These inventors started when they were kids, tearing things apart with passionate curiosity. But, that passion was often smudged out as they grew up and were encouraged to focus on more practical things. They lost their inventive spirit. They would only get back into inventing as adults when they found a problem to solve. So, Rabideau asked, “What if they stayed interested? What if their passion was encouraged and they were given a space where it could flourish?”
“Kids have no limits on their imagination,” Rabideau explained. “There are no bounds to their creativity.”
She and her family set out to build a space that would not only be a hub for inventors but would encourage kids to make things and feed their desire for innovation. But when you’re looking to help others be innovators, you must also constantly innovate yourself.
Rabideau and her family shifted from Poochie Bowl, a store that sold pet products made by people they knew, to a space that would do more for kids and inventors than simply sell their products, to tinkrLAB, a product of constant innovation and adaptation.
When Seth Killian’s parents told him he could only study abroad in Paris if he learned French, he looked back on his unsuccessful three years of high school French and asked, “What if there was a better way to learn a language?” From this question, Lingco Language Labs was born.
When Killian set out to dive into French, he wasn’t a beginner but he wasn’t an expert either. He realized the resources available to him offered no way to gauge his existing knowledge and begin
where he needed to begin. The solution to this problem, Lingco Language Labs, is a web platform that steps away from the idea of teaching every student the same lesson plan. Instructors can use the platform to create a class and input the information students need to know by the end of the class, and the program takes it from there. It will gauge the students’ previous knowledge and focus on the areas they need the most help on rather than starting from the beginning, speeding up and slowing down as needed. To succeed as a technology company, these are the kinds of products inventors need to focus on.
“Inventors need to know the difference between a trend and a fad. Every product is the solution to a problem,” said Aaryn Richards, communications manager at the Michigan State University Foundation.
The foundation is behind the Conquer Accelerator, which provides selected teams with 10 weeks of intensive programming, focusing on completing tailored, goal-driven benchmarks. Teams work with instructors and mentors on topics like fundraising, technology and longevity. Lingco Language Labs was one of those teams.
Killian said he and his co-founders, Ian Rowan and Reuben Levinsohn, spent their summer in Conquer building a product, gaining customers and finding funding.
“When we started, we just had a concept and a few screenshots,” Killian said.
Conquer connected Lingco Language Labs to other founders who could help them answer questions and build an actual business. According to Richards, “Conquer connects teams with mentors who are aware of the market and can help them leapfrog the competition.”
Sometimes encouragement is all a budding innovator needs. While Rabideau noted they are not a technology company, they offer the chance and space for others to use technology to innovate and invent.
“We create the environment for these things to exist. They (the kids) are the ones that will eventually own tech companies or be engineers or designers,” Rabideau said.
And, like Conquer, tinkrLAB gives inventors and innovators opportunities they may not have access to on their own.
TinkrLAB aims to turn an interest in any STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) subject into passion and lifelong discovery. Just like they asked “what if?” when they decided to expand beyond pet products, they want the kids who come into the store to ask the same questions.
“There are huge deficits in STEAM jobs like coding, programming and robotics,” she said. “Kids need to be taught these things now, but it can’t just be the school’s responsibility.”
Yet parents don’t always know where to go to nurture such interests.
“Parents can bring their kids here, and we can continue to help as they get older and they can either use these skills to create a business that fills a need or fill the jobs that are empty,” Rabideau said.
But tinkrLAB doesn’t only focus on the future. By the end of their class or program at tinkrLAB, kids realize they don’t have to wait until they grow up to design videogames or invent products.
“So many kids can spout off what they want to be when they grow up, but none can answer what they want to do right now. They don’t know,” Rabideau explained. “That’s an innovative idea in itself. We are giving kids the power to innovate and helping them realize that learning isn’t a chore.”
When their passion for innovation is nurtured, they excel. Whether they are naturally creative, introverted or even on the autism spectrum, allowing a hands-on learning environment can increase a child’s confidence and help them succeed. With a focus not only on learning but also failing, kids can learn perseverance and gain the skills they need to learn from their failures.
“So many kids are scared to try something because they might do it wrong. Here, they learn there’s not just one way to do things. That’s where the innovation starts, that’s where the learning starts,” Rabideau said.
When they learn to problem-solve, ask questions and try things, they go from curious kids to ambitious adults who want to build products and start companies, maybe even before they “grow up” or – as in the case of Lingco Language Labs – while they’re still in college.
According to Richards, who watches scores of businesses come through the accelerator program, innovation is not only asking “what if” but it’s looking at a problem through a new lens.
“You don’t have to solve a new problem, you just have to make it your own and let your company own that,” Richards said.
Struggling to learn a language isn’t a new problem, but when he struggled to learn French, Killian asked, “What if we could build an adaptive language learning platform that would make recommendations based on what the student already knows?” Lingco Language Labs is taking a new approach to not just language, but education in general.
TinkrLAB is also looking at education through a new lens in order to train kids to meet the needs of an ever-changing world by offering a learning environment that is completely hands-on.
“If they don’t touch, they don’t learn,” Rabideau said.
To her, innovation means being willing to put in the effort to change things. You can see this both in their approach to teaching and the way the company has changed over the years to stay relevant.
“We aren’t just retail. There’s a whole social component to what we do,” Rabideau said.
Because of Amazon and other competing retail options, tinkrLAB has to innovate or the store won’t exist. So Rabideau and her family try to give people reasons to come into their store. And those reasons are plentiful. From school field trips that come to participate in robots, petting zoos or toy hacks to the one-on-one help guests receive when choosing just the right gift for the child in their lives, the main focus in bettering the customer of the business.
While tinkrLAB aims to support kids in their pursuit of learning, the Conquer Accelerator hopes to help the kids who have grown into budding entrepreneurs and are constantly wondering “what if?”
“They exit the program and are automatically part of the Red Cedar Ventures Portfolio, and from there they make connections based on their market and niche,” Richards said.
As one of those teams, the folks at Lingco Language Labs are using the funding and expertise they gain from Conquer to meet with schools, get their platform into language departments and speak at the world’s largest language convention.
Every good innovator needs a space where his or her innovation is encouraged and supported. In the Lansing area, the Conquer Accelerator and tinkrLAB are just a few of those spaces. Like the kids who visit tinkrLab, Killian and the team at Lingco Language Labs aren’t waiting to get started.
“There are those who wait for the future to come to them and those who create it. That’s innovation,” Killian said.