Startup of the Week / Sparkup: Reading With Love When You're Away

Travel a lot, leaving the kid at home? Wish he could hear your voice when you're gone? It can be done.

Kids love tablets, smart-phones, televisions and other screens. Hassled parents love the convenience of sticking their young'uns in front of "electronic babysitters." But following a mounting suspicion that all that passive viewing isn't healthy, many parents are looking for alternatives. One such is an Israeli startup's device to help bring young children back to good old-fashioned books. The story is read to them by a beloved voice – even if the person isn't in the room.

“All the toy companies were developing tablets for children – that was the message of 2012," says Amir Koren, CEO and founding partner of Sparkup. He wanted to create something completely different.

Thus the Sparkup book-reader, which was launched three weeks ago.

The device's role in child-rearing is to read the story aloud in the taped voice of a parent, grandparent or beloved other.

Once the tape of the story is uploaded, the device senses what page the kid is on (and when the child turns the page) and reads the story to him aloud. It achieves this feat with the help of a tiny camera and machine vision technology.

The reader attaches to the book’s rear cover. It has the memory capacity for 50 books in any language. Moreover, it can be used to read books in any language, using any alphabet. That is because it doesn't intelligently "read" the story: it has a visual memory of each page. "With its proprietary technology, the Sparkup even knows when a child has skipped pages and will automatically begin reading from the new page," the company pointed out in a statement.

At a later phase the company intends to offer premium content that can be downloaded into the reader for an additional fee. Thus, for example, one could listen to a Mickey Mouse voice "reading" a book about himself.

"It’s a game that allows the child to benefit from parents even in their absence,” says Koren, rejecting criticism that suggests that the product will further disintegrate the modern family unit.

The Sparkup reader costs $50, and is available through the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo Chapters: parents in other countries can order it from the chain's website. Sparkup has plans to expand to additional markets, including in Israel, where the launch is scheduled for January 2014.

Since its Canadian launch three weeks ago, it has already sold several thousand units, Sparkup says.

Partygoers unite

Sparkup began as an unconventional initiative, with founders deep in the party scene.

Founders Amir Koren and Roei Simantov were childhood friends who attended the same school in Kfar Saba. Most of their career was in show business, such event production. In the army they served in the education branch, overseeing army troupes and the army’s theater group. After their discharge they continued organizing parties featuring up to 2,000 people.

Since the age of 16 they have established four companies.

In 2007, after the birth of his daughter Aviv, Koren wanted to shift his activities to daytime. After a short stint in marketing Israeli-made handbags to American chains, the two friends established Sparkup, which is located in the Galilee.

“I was flying around a lot at the time and had a 2-year old daughter at home. I wondered how I could maintain contact with her even when I was away, and how I could preserve those special and intimate moments during which I read to her,” Koren says.

Among the company's investors is Sami Sagol, the CEO of Keter Plastic. The company has raised $3.4 million from private investors.

Reuters