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Call it "education in disguise." Taibotics Inc., based in Vancouver, makes easily programmable robots to help children learn.
"Kids learn about mathematical concepts through trial and error, and through physical engagement with a robot that they can program," said Todd Law, who launched the company four years ago with university professors Kuo-Yang Tu and Hansjörg Baltes.
The robots, which resemble circuit boards with wheels and have lights and speakers, are programmed using software on a personal computer. Users drag and drop icons to tell the robot to move forward and backward, to flash lights or make noise. Children learn problem-solving skills by linking their commands to the robot's actions, all without requiring extensive knowledge of programming.
Taibotics, which sold its first robots in 2012, offers two versions (the software is free). The original model cost $300, but the company has since come out with a more basic and cheaper version for $150. The founders say their prices are on par with other educational robotics. Taibotics also offers an accompanying lesson plan.
The robots are made in Taiwan, where Dr. Kuo-Yang is a professor at National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology. The software programming is handled chiefly at the University of Manitoba by Prof. Baltes, who is also a German former Olympic speed skater. The product has been sold in five countries worldwide.
The target market is teachers, the founders say, particularly those in after-school programs that Mr. Law compares to jukus, or cram schools, that he experienced during the nine years he worked in Japan. However, the trio has found it hard to gain traction against the competition. The market leader in the sector is Lego and its education-based Mindstorms robots. Taibotics' revenue amounts to less than $100,000 a year.
To better compete, Taibotics is aiming to convert its current Windows desktop software to allow access to anyone with a Web browser. It also wants to hire a dedicated marketing and sales expert.
Given the limited budgets of public schools, marketing the robots has been tough, and while private schools may be better candidates, Mr. Law, whose day job is as a product manager for telecommunications testing company Spirant Communication Pvt. Ltd., says he and his partners just haven't had the time to focus on it.
THE CHALLENGE: How can Taibotics Inc. gain the attention of teachers and traction in the market?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
David Fabian, co-leader, private mid-market practice, Ernst & Young, Toronto
We see a lot of companies that talk themselves into the size of their market and say, "Oh, well, globally we can sell this many units so it's not going to be an issue once we get the product out there." But the reality is, when you're a startup, you don't have the dollars to invest into a large market. So you need to be extremely focused and very strategic, because you can blow your brains out throwing money all over the place, and the end result is going to be a very fragmented market with no penetration.
Taibotics needs to be very, very clear what its goals are, where it wants to operate, how much money it has for each expense and what its expectation is for revenue. That way they can evaluate whether they are hitting those goals, otherwise they need to go to a Plan B.
Jason Brett, instructor, Technology Teacher Education program, British Columbia Institute of Technology, Burnaby, B.C.
Teachers will happily invest in products that will enhance learning, but are justifiably conservative in how they spend their meagre resources. Taibotics will need to convince teachers that its product works effectively and reliably, and then rely on word of mouth to support future sales growth.
Investing in enhanced brand recognition may be helpful. The company's website is, to be kind, very sparse. There are no samples of its lesson plans, no demonstration versions of its software, no user manuals, a few photos with no captions to explain what is going on. Notably lacking are any references or endorsements from teachers.
Also, to succeed in the educational robotics market, a product must work – the first time, every time – when used by small children guided by teachers who may have little background in electronic or mechanical engineering. Many of Taibotics's competitors offer a variety of sensors or mechanical configurations, or require the robot to be built before it can be used. Focusing its efforts on one robot, that arrives ready to go, and with easy-to-use software, may enable Taibotics to offer a greater degree of reliability, reduced complexity and an easier path to success.
Linda Thomas, vice-president of strategy and research at interactive-whiteboard maker SMART Technologies, Calgary
Has Taibotics done any research that demonstrates that children learn better as a result of using this product? That would be a huge selling point.
Also, the best way to reach teachers is through peer advocacy, teacher advocacy, special-interest groups and social media. Teachers want to hear from other teachers about what works in their classrooms. Giving the product to a select group of teachers who will try it, use it and then share the news and advocate for that product is the most effective and efficient use of the company's marketing investment.
Third, the model where you sell hardware and have to maintain and upgrade software forever without money coming in is dangerous over the long term. The earlier that Taibotics can adopt a sales model to incorporate a recurring revenue stream on the software side, the better.
Joseph Wilson, senior strategist at the business innovation centre MaRs Discovery District, Toronto
One of the reasons Lego Mindstorms is the market leader is because its technology is not super-threatening to teachers. There's simple assembly required, but it's kind of clicking together parts, and the brand name Lego has a really comfortable resonance with educators.
There are two directions to go for Taibotics. One is to make the robot the iPod of robots, which is to say that it's designed to be as simple as possible, as clean as possible – a one-button approach where you take it out of the box and you can just press a button and go.
Or they can design the robot so that you can see the guts and really dive into what's going on under the hood. This could be intimidating to teachers and students. That said, if you get into the right target market with it and the right people are using it and it's a good platform, people that are into robotics and kids that relate to this stuff will hack that platform and make it really cool.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Taibotics needs to decide where it wants to operate, how much money it will spend on marketing and how to measure success.
Build brand recognition
Upgrading the company's website would be a good start. It needs to better inform would-be customers.
Seek word-of-mouth endorsement among teachers. They could be instrumental in driving sales growth.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.