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Michael Tougher - Soundbops

In tune with music market…

Michael Tougher - Soundbops

In tune with music market

Most music teachers recognise that all of us have musical potential and should start learning when we are young – ideally between three and six years of age when our hearing develops most quickly. It’s also widely recognised that learning should be fun, and Michael Tougher, CEO of Soundbops, has come up with a clever technological solution that could create the next generation of Mozarts, Madonnas and Mobys...

As an inventor and designer, what gives Michael Tougher the most satisfaction is seeing his ideas becoming real products, and this year his innovative educational music technology will go into production after three years of development – ready to capture a share of a fast-growing market (STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Maths) toys) worth an estimated $30 billion by 2019. As an “engineering entrepreneur,” what also gets Tougher excited is the fact his working prototype has already established a fan base of 400 paying customers in ten different countries and generated pre-orders worth over £50,000, suggesting that Soundbops has global potential even before it is officially launched.

The interest so far goes beyond a healthy-looking order book, according to Tougher. In fact, he says, his early adopters not only provide him with valuable technical feedback but also send him ideas and samples of music which he’s able to include in educational materials. “Together, all this validates our product and what we are doing,” says Tougher, “and gives us lots of confidence moving ahead.” Combined with the support of its crowdfunding partners, this also means that Soundbops has an international customer community to join it on its journey as it seeks to research and develop new products – “brand evangelists” who believe in the product and recommend it to others. “You can do lots of marketing surveys,” says Tougher, “but when people share credit-card details, you believe what they say.”

Tougher is enjoying the challenge of building his business and speaks like an experienced entrepreneur, but it's only three years since he set up his company, straight after finishing college. After graduating with a first-class honours degree in product design engineering from the University of Glasgow, including courses in mechanical engineering at Glasgow as well as a design course at the Glasgow School of Art, Tougher could have gone on like some of his colleagues to work for a large multinational firm; but he had a different idea – an idea that grew into Soundbops.

The big idea

Tougher says he always knew he wanted to be an inventor, and his interest in music dates back to his childhood, learning guitar from his father. These interests came together in the early design of his musical toy, first conceived while still at university, an experience which Tougher says provided him with “a fantastic basis for learning how to transform an idea into a real prototype that works and can be used.”

After testing his idea, Tougher knew he was onto a winner: “Having seen young children struggle to play the keyboard, only hitting the white keys and playing one note at a time, it was great to see them engaging with
my product and really learning to enjoy making music.”

Soundbops looks like many other colourful toys aimed at very young children, but it packs a lot of power and intelligence. In simple terms, it consists of a plastic control panel (in effect the blank page for the musical score or notation) where children place small colour-coded buttons, marked A, B, C, D and E, etc., to represent all the basic musical notes, enabling them to compose their own music without traditional instruments.

The key to its success is flexibility – it doesn’t have fixed keys, like a traditional keyboard. When you press a button in any location, it plays the note displayed by the letter, and if you stack the buttons, you can also play chords (A Minor, E Major, etc.). By arranging the buttons in a particular sequence, you therefore create your own tune, and can experiment with different combinations simply by changing or rearranging the buttons.

Most people have what’s known as “muscle memory” when they play music, but Soundbops means that children learn the building blocks of music right from the very beginning. “Notes are the foundation of music,” Tougher says on his website. “Having a thorough understanding is key to playing any instrument, and with Soundbops your kids gain a comprehensive understanding without even noticing it.”

According to surveys, 96% of parents want their kids to learn music, but very young children can struggle with keyboards, for example, and may be discouraged because they don't experience instant results. Soundbops is designed to address all these issues, so lack of dexterity is not an issue and the children have fun from the start.

“Most parents tell me their children love music,” says Tougher, “but the worry is that this initial interest will evaporate. Not everyone can be a virtuoso, but we can all enjoy music, whether it's playing an instrument or simply listening, and that is where Soundbops can help – not just with creativity but also concentration.”

The challenge

Connectivity to tablet computers and existing music apps such as GarageBand is also an integral part of the design, making it easy for users to connect and collaborate via the Internet – so they can form an online orchestra or pop group. Tougher also plans to create special apps and develop new products for older children, making sure the new designs provide continuity with the original Soundbops, including the same colour coding.

In terms of the technology, the biggest challenge was stacking the notes to make chords. Tougher knew the buttons had to be reliable but also affordable, and this has taken up a lot of Tougher's time during the initial design stage, when trial and error also made a major contribution. “It's important to keep prices down at the same time as making the product robust,” he explains, “especially when we are talking to schools, who want products to last.” Another major challenge is design for manufacturing, and Tougher has called on the talents of other designers to help him on that score.

“My priority right now is building the brand,” says Tougher. The only real competitors are apps, he believes, but they do not provide the same degree of interaction or learning value, while conventional keyboards also have their limitations.

For the time being, Soundbops will focus on products for very young children, but Tougher also has ideas for mass-market products in future, including electronic products aimed at older age groups, building on the success of his existing technology. Other possibilities include the creation of cartoon characters linked to the brand.

Seeking investment

Even though production started in summer 2018, Soundbops is still at an early stage in its development and Tougher is actively seeking investors, including recent crowdfunding initiatives via Kickstarter. In the first round of investment, Tougher aims to raise about £300,000 by the end of the year which, added to the £50,000 already in the bank, will help him build his team and develop new products. “It will be a big step to become an employer,” says Tougher. “At the moment, my job involves a lot of plate-spinning, so I need help with lots of things like social media, to strengthen our relationship with early adopters, so I can focus more on getting the product to market and building the brand, as well as speaking to investors.”

It may be early days in the company's history, but Tougher also has his eyes on future expansion. “In the educational/musical market, acquisitions are common,” says Tougher, “and if we meet our revenue targets of £10–15 million by the end of Year Five, our investors would see very healthy returns. It’s a very exciting, exponentially growing market, and we're ready to capture a large market share.”


Now a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub, Tougher has a solid background in engineering and has sharpened his business skills since university, thanks to a series of mentors. Various jobs as an intern, working with names such as Hasbro, Bayer, Sony, Loewe, Asus, Intel and Sonos, as well as retail experience with Channel Assist and John Lewis, have also helped him learn about the importance of branding and customer service.

Tougher has also won a string of awards, both as a student and as CEO of Soundbops. For example, he was named the “brightest young engineering entrepreneur” last year in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Launchpad Competition, and has also won the Young Edge Award, the William Ross Prize, the Deutsche Bank Creative Enterprise Award for Design, the Hammermen Award, the PDE Trust Award for Excellence and Innovation and the James Dyson Foundation Award. He also came first in the Design Innovation Plastics Competition in 2014 and won the SIE Young Innovators Challenge, and was a finalist in the Young Innovators Challenge in 2015. He was also the first person from Glasgow School of Art to become an RSE Enterprise Fellow in 2016. This year, he is also a finalist in Scottish EDGE, competing for a top prize of £100,000.

Tougher himself describes the brightly coloured building blocks of Soundbops as “the Lego equivalent of music,” and if he comes even close to the achievements of the Danish toy industry giant, he will be a major player in one of the world's most competitive markets. “A lot of people want to be part of the journey,” says Tougher, “and our ambition is to be a global brand.”




"Michael Tougher - Soundbops". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-two)
Printed from on 03/07/20 11:12:09 PM

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