Start-up builds children's art network

SoftBank backs SmarTots' mobile educational apps as tablets and smartphones drive demand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 4:57am

A former Nokia engineer is building a private social network on the mainland where children share art projects online with parents or grandparents.

Japanese phone giant SoftBank, which has provided funding, is betting he'll succeed.

SmarTots, Jesper Lodahl's Beijing-based start-up, has offered mobile education applications for children from two to seven through Apple's China iTunes store since June. Designed as a game centre for app developers, SmarTots is adding functions to let parents to "like" or comment on projects in a layout similar to Facebook's site, Lodahl said.

SoftBank and Lodahl expect growth in smartphones and tablets to drive demand for educational services.

Parents' desire for their children to stand out from their peers was likely to drive strong demand for any service that could offer an edge, said Duncan Clark, Beijing-based chairman of BDA China, which advises technology firms.

"People will pay a lot for their kids' education," he said. "There is a lot of spending power around educational betterment."

Mainland smartphone shipments will more than double to 460 million units by 2017, research firm IDC forecast last month. The country's public expenditure on education reached 4 per cent of gross domestic product last year, data shows.

Started with US$1 million in 2011, SmarTots won financing in December from SoftBank's Pan-Asia Fund, managed by SoftBank Ventures Korea, a unit of Japan's third-largest wireless carrier.

SmarTots gave children a way to "share to Mummy" the iPad creations that could be valuable memories, said Anna Lo, who helps manage the fund.

"Children are engaged with the devices and the content, but parents have no idea what they are doing," Lo said. "In old traditional forms, there were photo books and scrapbooks. In today's digital age, that is rapidly being replaced with mobile content stored on various digital devices."

SmarTots offered 33 education programmes for children and had recorded 1.4 million downloads of its software to date, Lodahl said. Most of the apps are free. "We provide an entry strategy for the China market for developers that haven't localised their product for China and don't have any marketing channels here," Lodahl said.