The Portuguese entrepreneur who quit his finance job to play with toys.

If it’s slimy, noisy, strange or smelly, kids are going to love it.

That’s what Miguel Pina Martins realised 10 years ago when he was searching for a new career. At the age of 21, he felt that kids were not getting what they needed in science toys, so he quit a promising job in finance and started his own company to offer something different.

“I was working at an investment bank as a trader when I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this the rest of my life,’ so I threw all the money I had into my new project,” says Martins.

Martins was living with his parents and his savings equalled EUR 1125. Today, his company, Science4You, based near Lisbon, offers hundreds of toys and employs more than 200 people. In 2008, the company’s sales were EUR 54,000. This year, sales will hit EUR 20 million.

Miguel Pina Martins created Science4You in 2008 at the age of 21. He now offers hundreds of science toys.

Miguel Pina Martins created Science4You in 2008 at the age of 21. He now offers hundreds of science toys.

Pushing science toys to the limit

So what did Martins do that was different? He made science toys funnier, quirkier and filled them with the unexpected. He gave the toy kits names like Explosive Science, Rocket Factory or Slimy Factory Slippery Slugs.

His concept grew out of a final project at university in Lisbon, where the assignment was to find a new market for scientific toys.

 “We tried to find things that kids might enjoy, like making soap, making slime, making a rocket, making candy, making an explosion, and then also showing them how to do it in a new way,” he says.

Martins’ toys are amusing and even silly, but they also teach children about science, chemistry and physics, while improving creativity and social skills. The games also foster curiosity and an awareness of the child’s surroundings. The company publishes a Little Scientist Blog that teaches children why they yawn, why mosquitoes bite and why triangles are important.

The European Investment Bank offered a EUR 10 million loan to help Science4You grow. The loan is part of the Bank’s European Fund for Strategic Investments, which helps smaller, innovative companies that commercial banks view as untested or too risky.

“Science4You is a start-up company that began as an academic project, and every year they have been growing and showing positive financials,” says Francisco Alves da Silva, an EIB loan officer.

A scene from a video for Slimy Factory Slippery Slugs, one of the top toy kits offered by Science4You.

A scene from a video for Slimy Factory Slippery Slugs, one of the top toy kits offered by Science4You.

Science4You will combine the EIB loan with EUR 10 million of its own money to invest in better equipment to assemble toys, improve online sales and promotions, and come up with new toy ideas. The company, which sells 40% of its toys in Portugal, also will use the financing to expand in Europe and beyond. The company distributes to more than 30 countries around the world.

Maximizing cognitive capabilities

Science4You toys apply the STEM concept, which refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The STEM idea aims to improve children’s cognitive capacities, reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving. Major retailers like Amazon have a specific sales area for STEM toys. STEM toys are trendy now and Science4You toys are riding this wave, Martins says.

Besides perfume, soap and slime, Science4You offers toy kits on spas, medicine, dinosaurs, chemistry, rockets, explosions, crystals and cooking. Each kit is based on scientific studies and comes with colourful, detailed guidebooks explaining the experiments and the research.

“Twenty years ago, kids were making perfume, but now they can make and be educated,” Martins says. “When you make our perfume, you can create the smell of anything. If you like a rose, we teach kids to go get a rose and put it in there. If you like the smell of another flower, you can make that smell. With the slime, we teach you why it is sticky and how you can get a certain colour.”

The company is even playful in its advertising. Its videos for Perfume Factory, Lipstick Factory or Explosive Science show a scientist pouring one liquid into another liquid and then sending his laboratory in smoke.

“We believe we have hit the right balance between education and fun, when Mum and Dad buy an educational toy and when the kids really want to play with it,” Martins says. “It’s always very hard to find this balance.”