North West entrepreneur Annie O’Toole has left the online tech marketplace she founded to join the team behind a hotly-anticipated augmented reality toy range.
O’Toole was a founding director at JUXDIT – which sought to bring cutting-edge technological products to the masses – but left to become senior project manager and growth hacker at SwapBots this week.
Start-up SwapBots is the brainchild of John Keefe and Andy Cooper, the founders of Liverpool design agency Draw and Code, and seeks to bridge the gap between physical and digital play.
It will launch this year with 12 real-life toys which are capable of interacting with an app, allowing kids to pitch them together in battle.
“I’m really lucky to have been part of the SwapBots story before joining Draw and Code,” O’Toole, who will perform the same role at Draw and Code, told BusinessCloud.
“I remember seeing the initial sketches, hearing the original idea and watching the characters come to life through the medium of pen and paper.
“I’ve always had so much faith in this product and the team behind it, so when Andy and John invited me to join them, it felt right.
“I’m an entrepreneur and my true love is innovative start-ups and their international growth. I’m ready to be a vital cog in the expansion of this extraordinary product.
“Sadly, that meant saying goodbye to JUXDIT. But, if you know me, you know I’m a head and hearts character – I follow my passions and the things that inspire me. Life’s too short not to.”
JUXDIT’s future is uncertain after several investors pulled out for various reasons. O’Toole was forced to lay off the firm’s staff, saying “the cashflow killed us”, but it still has the site and many of the products it was planning to sell.
O’Toole previously worked at IT company Oddineers and also ran the Bottle Top Business, which connected entrepreneurs in cities across Northern England through regular monthly events before the advent of Tech North.
She sees great international potential in SwapBots because the toys, which will retail in packs of three for £20, are affordable compared with the likes of toys-to-life video game Skylanders.
“Our product doesn’t break the bank, which means it is universal – most parents, internationally, can afford SwapBots,” she said.
“You can download the app to your phone or tablet for free, which takes out the expense of a console, and you won’t be hit with any in-app purchases. The cost is the toy – that’s it.
“We’re doing business with China, we’re planning our USA launch and we’re excited to sell across Europe. In a year’s time, it will be everywhere – it’s hitting some pretty major shelves in 2017.”
Each physical SwapBots character consists of three parts which lock together and can be swapped to create different characters, with a total of 1,728 possible combinations. Each part represents a different power or function when it is viewed within the app via video.
The toys are currently in beta testing, which will give the SwapBots team the chance to make any final changes to the product.
“The app uses augmented reality and recognises each piece of the SwapBot range – the Bots can then battle one another… to make it fun and interactive,” O’Toole explained.
“There will soon be a SwapBots store too, where you can collect various environments and accessories for your Bots.
“We’ve had a lot of interest. It’s humbling to see so many people supporting this product – it gives you an extra special boost as you know you’re creating something people want.”
SwapBots won a “substantial” grant from the £4m UK Games Fund last summer and was also selected for Tech North’s Northern Stars programme, which has already seen the start-up visit 10 Downing Street and pitch at Bloomberg.
It has also been invited to become part of renowned San Francisco hardware accelerator HAX, while it will close its opening round of seed funding from angel investors this week.
However it is not the only company seeking to break into the potentially lucrative toys-to-life market.
“We’re very lucky to have been presented with awesome opportunities in San Fran,” said O’Toole. “We’re taking advice and support from across the globe. We’re just a small start-up from Liverpool – it’s amazing that these things are happening.
“Everything is developed here in Liverpool, but we are keen to ensure Brexit and the current political scene will not prevent us from growing and producing the very best products which make kids happy.”