Viennese startup Robo Technologies turns children, or anyone, into robotics engineers
Imagine your child playing with blocks, snapping them together like Legos into different shapes and configurations. Then she grabs an iPad, and after a few simple swipes, bam! Her creation begins moving on its own. She has just programmed a robot.
All she needs is Robo Wunderkind – a product launched by a team of three young Viennese expats that will be ready for shipment this year. It consists of a series of interconnecting bricks, motors and sensors that allow data and power to flow from one module to the next. Easily assembled, they become a single unit of programmable hardware. Co-founder Rustem Akishbekov spoke with METROPOLE about how he turned his childhood passion into a promising business venture.
Early-stage life hacking
“Basically, it’s the robot anyone can build,” Akishbekov said as we sat at Café Halle in the MuseumsQuartier. The idea of creating an interface for non-techies to be able to program robots was something that had been on the 22-year-old’s mind for a while, but it took persistence, as well as the insights and know-how of his co-founders, to take it to the next step.
Born in Kazakhstan, Rustem was interested in computers, technology and robotics from an early age. He didn’t like taking the technology he encountered at face value, and used to hack his video game consoles. With access to the Internet from age five, he started designing websites at seven and began selling web-design services at 11.
After attending the Kazakh-Turkish High School for Gifted Boys, he won a scholarship to a prestigious university in Kazakhstan, where he studied mechanics and mathematics for two years. But he was dissatisfied. He had a different image of university.
“I was inspired by the MIT and Harvard culture, looking forward to lectures from Nobel Prize winners. All the lectures where I was were so boring.” He decided to look beyond his country’s borders and got accepted at the Vienna University of Technology (TU). “When I got here, I realized it wasn’t a problem with my university, it was a problem with universities in general.”
He dropped out after less than a year, but not before meeting a dormitory neighbor named Yuri Levin, a graphic and product designer, who would eventually become Rustem’s co-founder.
At the TU, Rustem started to build robotic systems and prototypes for gadgets on an open-source platform called Arduino. At first, interest was mostly from fellow “geeks,” but soon enough, he found a following in the general public. Who wouldn’t want to build a robot?
“But there is no tool for that,” he explained. So he decided to create a prototyping platform to do just that. “Basically, its the robot anyone can build.”
Putting the pieces together
Of course Rustem had no business experience, he was a TU dropout with no friends or connections in Vienna who knew how to start a company. He worked as an intern on the marketing team of the 2013 Pioneers Festival, during which he actively sought out a business partner to help with the logistics of founding and running a company. He met Anna Iarotska, a LSE graduate and project manager who knew the ins and outs of the Austrian business world from her work at Immofinanz and elsewhere.
“I told her about my idea, and we just started to work together.” So along with Yuri, Anna and Rustem founded the company in November 2013. Anna brought the focus it needed. “She said, we can’t make it for anyone,” Rustem remembered. “She said we have to target someone specific.” So the robot anyone can build became the robot even a five-year-old can build.
Just one month later, they won $10,000 in a competition organized by the tech venture fund Singulariteam. The funding allowed them to work through their biggest challenge: finding out where and how to manufacture the robots. There is one place in the world that is synonymous with tech manufacturing, and that’s where the Robo team headed. “We had to move to China, to Shenzhen.”
In the summer of 2014, Robo received a $50,000 investment from the Hax initiative by SOS Ventures, a sizable Princeton-based VC fund. The Robo team went to Shenzhen to take part in the Hax accelerator program for hardware startups.
Rustem was impressed by the sheer size of the city and the stark contrast between rich and poor. “On one side you see a pink Bentley and on the other side another Chinese guy is selling apples from a wooden cart.”
The team spent many of their days in the city’s central Huaqiangbei district, the biggest electronics markets in the world, where, according to Rustem, “you can find any piece of electronics you want, any chip – real ones, fake ones – LEDs, motors, transistors. There is nothing you can’t find in Huaqiangbei,” including high-level contacts at every factory there.
In China, the Robo founders learned the processes for getting their prototype manufactured, but before Robo could start manufacturing, they first needed to find some customers.
They returned from China and won Futurezone’s 2014 Robotik Award. In September 2015, after another year of development, they presented their prototype at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco and simultaneously launched a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Their goal was to raise $50,000. They closed with $246,000.
Innovation and education
Using test feedback from their early users – parents, teachers, and kids in both Austria and the U.S. – Robo continued to refine the prototypes. To gauge the usability of the interface, they even elicited responses to early stage sketches from their Kickstarter backers.
The hardware has now gone through several stages. During their research and conversations, the Robo team learned a lot about their target market. Now some of the modules have adapters allowing kids to attach their own Lego creations to the Robo blocks. “We had to make it compatible with the favorite toys of our customers.”
Rustem says that kids really love seeing the immediate results of their work as the things they create with their own hands come “alive.”
According to Rustem the greatest demand comes from teachers in Asia and the U.S. who want to bring Robo Wunderkind into the classroom.
“Maybe because people there are open to new things. In Korea, parents begin preparing their kids early on for the competitive job market,” Rustem said. In addition to the math, science and art courses offered for 3-year-olds, they could use Robo Wunderkind to familiarize kids with robotics.
Playing with Potential
The three co-founders have added three engineers to the team and expect to hire more. After Easter, Rustem will be returning to Shenzhen, this time on his own, to make the final arrangements with their manufacturer. They now have over 1,200 pre-orders from Kickstarter and expect 2,000 more in 2016. Their first round of production will be 4,000 units, with plans to enter the toy and electronic retail market in 2017.
Robo Wunderkind is truly international; aside from some initial setup instructions, no specific language is required. The toy’s interface works with symbols, instead of text or programmer code; this simplifies Robo’s global marketing efforts, as well.
Rustem also stressed that once the hardware gets to market, add-on software could be developed to interact with it. “People can play games with it, they can use it as a controller for their Playstation, or Xbox…” Rustem said excitedly. “Just imagine, people can do anything with it!”
Robo is looking to have an assortment of add-ons ready by early 2017. For early adopters, Robo Wunderkind’s pre-order prices range from $200 for a “starter kit” to $700 for a “professional kit”. Rustem knows how much work still lies ahead to meet their production deadline. But he’s confident his customers won’t end the year empty handed. “Anyone who pre-orders will have their unit before Christmas.”
The company announced the launch of a new product in Fall 2016 and a new investment. After the first product, “a robot that anyone can build”, they are now planning the Robo Play App, an application to remote control electronic devices. They have acquired half a million dollars from Arkley VC, Juergen Habichler and the Austrian Federal Promotional Bank (AWS). They will use it to expand their reach and cultivate new markets for their official launch in 2017.