If your target market happens to be parents of young children, March Break is your haymaking season. This past March Break, five education startups held court at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for nine straight days of demos as part of the museum’s Futurology program.

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A Feltro creation welcomes visitors to the ROM

You might not think of the ROM as a stage for high-tech innovation. “People often forget that we do a lot of research here at the ROM,” says Kiron Mukherjee, ROMKids coordinator. “Our scientists and researchers use cutting-edge technology to do their work.”

“It’s popular to talk about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) in education right now—and it should be,” he continues. “These are the most fascinating things for kids and their families to explore. We want to inspire them so that, one day, they can do some of their own research.”

Throughout March Break, five MaRS ventures demoed their products from booths and also pitched in front of a live crowd as part of the ROM’s Technology Showdown. Perhaps the only audience tougher than one composed of venture capitalists is one composed of five-year-olds—yet the entrepreneurs managed to hold their attention.

Rule No. 1 for demoing to kids: Get something into their hands ASAP
Rule No. 1 when demoing to kids: Get something into their hands!

Toronto teachers Brandon Zoras and Joe Romano, who planned a hackathon for high school students at MaRS last year, introduced the ventures to the ROM’s visitors, bringing the creative process of entrepreneurship into the fore.

The unwritten rule for demos with kids is to get something into their hands as soon as possible. They don’t care what you have to say, they just want to play with robots.

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Mimetics had that covered with its Jade robots. The company caters to the maker/hacker crowd with an interface that kids can program themselves by simply pressing buttons. At the demo, kids were able to drive rovers around a fake Martian landscape, picking up rocks and exploring through an on-board video camera.

Mimetics robots at work
Mimetics’ Jade robots at work

WowWee’s MiPosaur was also popular, combining one of the ROM’s staple attractions—dinosaurs—with gesture and sensor technology from XYZ Interactive Technologies. Check out the video below to watch a demo.

The kids also appreciated low-tech innovation, using Feltro’s magnet and felt building blocks to build everything from clothing to top-secret forts, and from flower petals to—of course—a dinosaur. Several kids even came back for a second day to finish what they were building.

The Brainspace Magazine team built a colourful maze for kids to navigate, hanging images from the magazine’s latest issue on the structure. They used an iPad to turn the images into moving pictures.

“It’s the same technology that turns the newspapers to life in Harry Potter,” Brainspace founder Nicky Middleton explained to the kids. To the rest of us, it’s known as augmented reality, but all the kids needed to know was that the dinosaurs jumped off the page.

InteraXon fielded a constant lineup of both kids and parents who wanted to try out Muse, the company’s “brain-sensing” headband. The team had hacked a headband to fit little heads, so kids could sit quietly with the headband on and try to control the sounds and images on screen by calming their mind. The technology impressed both the kids and their parents with a futuristic vision of apps that can read your mind.

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The lineup to try out InteraXon’s Muse headband

It’s a truism in entrepreneurship that you need to go where your target market is. There’s no use lobbing press releases over the wall just hoping they hit their mark. It’s far better to get your hands dirty performing as many demos with real people as possible until you’re sure their feedback will turn into sales—and these five startups did just that.

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Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…