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Tech toy alert: This friendship bracelet teaches girls to code

Sara Chipps and Brooke Moreland are on a mission to change the way young girls think, through the toys they play with.

The duo co-founded their New York City-based start-up, Jewelbots, in 2014, inspired by Chipps' experience working as a computer programmer. The company makes programmable friendship bracelets for girls that can sync up, send secret messages and be coded for different functionalities.

"I was five years into my career before I worked with another woman, and another five years before I worked with another one," Chipps, 36, said. "I really just wanted to change that environment."

Chipps began coding at age 11 and dropped out of Penn State, where she was studying computer science, to head into the workforce, going on to co-found Girl Develop It in 2010. The nonprofit provides affordable opportunities for adult women to learn how to code via in-person classes, now in 50 cities nationwide, with more than 60,000 women served. She met Moreland that same year, after being hired to do some programming for Moreland's start-up Fashism, a fashion photo-sharing app for teenage girls.

"I thought it was really great to work with an engineer who was a woman," Moreland said. The two stayed friends, and when Chipps had the idea for Jewelbots, Moreland quit what she was doing to help co-found the company in 2014, talking to 200 girls during the life cycle of building the product.

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Jewelbots bracelets can pair up with nearby bracelets and be set to turn a certain color when friends are nearby. They can also send messages back and forth between paired bracelets and can be coded to change colors with open-source software, to expose users to coding in a fun and simple way.

The friendship bracelets are equipped with four LED lights and a button and connect with one another over Bluetooth.

To test the idea for Jewelbots, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in July 2015, hoping to raise $30,000 in 30 days. Instead, they hit that goal in 24 hours and went on to sell 3,000 bracelets and raise $170,000 in just one month.

"It was a great way for us to show, in a short period of time, that this is something people want and are willing to pay for before it even exists," Moreland said.

From there, they set their sights on Techstars in New York City, knowing the pitch may be a long shot. But they were accepted, and the co-founders graduated the elite accelerator program in December 2015. They've gone on to raise $1.3 million from angels and venture capital investors, including Techstars, Homebrew and Brand Foundry Ventures.

Chipps and Moreland also pitched a contact at Target, getting placed on Target.com in November 2016 in time for the holiday rush. To date, 7,000 Jewelbots have been sold in 35 countries, retailing at $69 for one bracelet or $99 for a two-pack. They're also working on international distribution ahead of this holiday season, trying to spread their message far and wide.

"Right now the toys we make for girls are consumables, and the toys we make for boys teach them to be builders, inventors and creators," Chipps said. "We teach girls to be caretakers. I think if we can start early and tell girls they can be inventors and creators and builders, it's going to change the world."