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How Marine training helped a talking dinosaur come to market

CEO of smart-toy startup credits time in the Marine Corps Reserves for skills he took to the tech and toy industries.

To Donald Coolidge, veterans are a lot like MBA students, which makes them great candidates for the startup space.

"They are really good at making decisions quickly, and without a lot of information available, which in the startup world is extremely helpful," said Coolidge, who has successfully applied his US Marine Corps Reserve training to the market battle in the AI toy arena.

Coolidge, 30, is CEO of an internet-connected toy company called Elemental Path. He served nine years in the Marine Corps Reserves, including a deployment in Iraq. While transitioning from the armed forces back to civilian life can often be a difficult battleground for veterans, Coolidge said being in the reserves kept him rooted in both lifestyles.

"I was always one foot in the military, one foot in civilian life," Coolidge said, noting that aside from the deployment into Iraq, his transition wasn't as extreme as it could be.


The CogniToys Dino is the first product from Elemental Path, a company whose CEO is a veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"When I came back from Iraq, I started to get into the nonprofit world for veterans," Coolidge said. "I think that did help with that transition process, and that's sort of how I got into the tech industry because one of the Marines in my unit was a computer science guy."

While not a coder by profession, working with that other Marine got him started with building products in the tech world. He credits his time in the Marines for giving him management experience at a young age that he's taken with him.

"When I was 20, 21, I had responsibilities that were far beyond what I would of had if I didn't serve," Coolidge said, which included supervising younger Marines and handling equipment. And he learned how to react fast.

He and his co-founders, Sean O'Shea and JP Benini, applied that speed when they took the CogniToys Dino toy from Kickstarter to product. Elemental Path was founded in August 2014, launched its Kickstarter in February 2015 and launched the first wave of the Dino toy later that year.

"About a year or so after we launched the company, we were actually pushing Dinos out into the public," he said.

The Dino is similar to the Amazon Echo speaker in some ways: It connects to a Wi-Fi network and when a child speaks to it, the toy answers questions and plays games. Unlike the original Echo, the toy only listens in when a button on the Dino's stomach is pressed.

"When we first started out, Siri was just becoming a real thing," Coolidge said. "We introduced a kid-friendly version of Siri that was actually thinking and learning."

The assistant inside of the Dino is also enhanced by IBM's Watson, the artificial intelligence known for taking on "Jeopardy" champions and developing recipes.

The toy faces competition from a variety of voice-activated devices, a close competitor being Mattel's Hello Barbie unveiled in 2015, which also connects to the internet to answer questions. The doll uses 8,000 lines of dialog, which Coolidge says is different from his company's goals with the Dino. He see's Dino more as a portable digital assistant.

"Siri and Alexa, they don't have games, they don't have stories," Coolidge said. "Really our niche when compared to Siri and Alexa is about maintaining that engagement, not being a chatbot, and layering in games, stories and scavenger hunts."

The company pushes updates to the Dino, which include content, for example, for for specific holidays throughout the year.

And safety has also been a top priority for the Dino, which, in addition to only listening when a button is pushed, has no camera and encrypts the data it does collect. This has become a big deal as toys become intelligent -- toy maker VTech suffered a hack in 2015 that exposed data from 5 million customers.

"We don't actually store parents' credit card information," Cooldige said. "The data we're collecting is more around specific likes and dislikes, interests so that we can teach on those subjects."

The CogniToys Dino retails for $99 in the US (converting roughly to £80 in the UK and AU$140 in Australia), with Toys R Us labeled as its key retail partner.

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