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When McMaster University graduates Justin Policarpio and Reiner Schmidt teamed up and launched Hamilton-based Roboteurs Inc. in 2013, they turned their love of robots into a business.
Recognizing a gap in the education market, the pair focused on developing 3-D printed robots to help high-school and post-secondary students learn about robotics in a fun, hands-on way.
Mr. Policarpio, 28, who has a masters in engineering entrepreneurship, currently juggles CEO duties alongside his job as manager of student entrepreneurship at McMaster. Mr. Schmidt, 25, a new graduate with a bachelor of technology in automotive engineering, is the company's full-time CTO, responsible for product design, development and supporting learning materials.
Roboteurs grossed about $70,000 last year, the company says, and reinvests the money from robot sales into R&D and more product. Their education-based robotics are popular with academic institutions in the Hamilton area, such as Sheridan College and Mohawk College, as a low-cost alternative to more complex and expensive industry robots.
"A lot of schools got funding for 3-D printers but don't really know what to do with them," Mr. Policarpio says.
"They're cool technology – but there's no educational material or curriculum developed around them. So we decided to create an educational package that sits on top of the 3-D printer that students from Grade 8 up can use to print and customize their own robot. Once they put all the pieces together, they can write a piece of software for it or use free pre-made software. The software is trademarked by us but it's very simple, so selling the software really isn't our market. Our company provides all the electronics, motors and hardware needed to actually get the robots moving."
Justin Policarpio, co-founder of Hamilton-based educational 3-D-printed robotics company Roboteurs Inc., has a masters in engineering entrepreneurship. (Roboteurs)
While most of the company's revenue comes from educational consulting services – either developing educational materials or developing the hardware – for high schools, colleges and universities, they would like to sell more of their robots to the general public. With the decreasing price of 3-D printers, they feel there is a potential consumer market.
Roboteurs recently raised $14,646 with 69 backers through a Kickstarter campaign. They also got the attention of Texas Instruments, a global semiconductor manufacturer, which contacted Roboteurs about featuring their Printabot arm (which runs off of Texas Instruments Launchpad and a Booster Pack developed by Roboteurs) in their booth at the Maker Faire in California in May. Mr. Policarpio and Mr. Schmidt travelled to the event to represent Roboteurs and promote their line of 3-D printed robot kits called Printabots, which they recently launched as a separate website, Printabots.com.
"We're trying to make a shift because we'd need a lot of well-trained employees to grow the educational consulting side," Mr. Schmidt says. "That doesn't scale very well for us. So what we're trying to do is develop a more consumable educational robotic system, which is the 3-D printed robot thing we're tackling at the moment."
While the company is already selling globally to schools and individuals in the United States, Japan, Singapore and Australia, they haven't made a big push yet to promote the product because they plan to add more to the Printabots line first.
"The hardware we're making allows people to expand what they can do with a 3-D printer, so that you actually learn the STEM stuff – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. If you have a 3-D printer, now you can make an operating robot just by picking the parts and using our components," Mr. Schmidt says.
Laurie Mirsky, founder and director of 3DPhacktory, a 3-D printing and design studio in Toronto, agrees that Roboteurs needs to offer more choices before promoting their robots to the general public.
"Their starter kits are a great introduction to robotics, but once you've built one, you'll want to go further," Mr. Mirsky says. "This is the maker community. These people like to do everything from scratch."
He suggests that they separate the skeletal mechanics of the robot from the body so that people can work backwards – by deciding on a specific purpose for a robot first and then printing a shell that is specific to that build, rather than buying a pre-existing kit.
"Roboteurs could move incrementally to add more difficult builds and more interesting shells," he says. "The whole point of 3-D printing is being able to customize things, so it would be nice to have more shells."
Roboteurs co-founder Reiner Schmidt, with a bachelor of technology in automotive engineering, is the company's full-time CTO, responsible for product design, development and supporting learning materials. (Roboteurs)
He would also like to see a more inclusive sense of community on the company's Printabot website, particularly for those new to robotics. An interactive chat board for the builders would allow people to exchange ideas and share their videos.
"If I'm a high-school kid and want to buy their product, what's there for me?" Mr. Mirsky asks. "I'd like to be enticed by a story with a video, maybe featuring their animated dancing robot to introduce the company and what I can build with their products. Roboteurs could hold a contest for what the next robot kit might be with a free robot for the winning idea. These things aren't expensive to do because they're all Web-based."
Matt Rendall, co-founder and CEO of Kitchener-based Clearpath Robotics Inc., would encourage the Roboteurs team to focus on developing a sustainable business model, perhaps starting with building relationships with key stakeholders in the school-board system and then finding a way to fold their business into the students' curriculum.
"When my partners and I started Clearpath, some of the greatest advice I received was to always focus on the product-market fit – everything else is noise," Mr. Rendall says. "Robotics is a very cool thing, and with new applications discovered daily, it's easy for us roboticists to innovate and get carried away with the iteration process. But that process is all for naught if there isn't a distinct need in the marketplace. With the inception of Clearpath, we conducted a mass-market survey to determine the software, hardware and current platforms and payloads that were being used. We learned who our prospective customers really were and understood their pain points. With a full understanding of our target market, we iterated our unmanned vehicle to fit their needs. We continue to watch the market, listen to customers and focus on their needs."
Angèle Beausoleil, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, believes that now is a very important time in Roboteurs's entrepreneurial journey to pause and ask exactly who their customer is and why they believe that the general consumer is going to be interested. She points out that when you look at the sales of 3-D printers, it's a very small, niche market. Even with the price drop, it is still early days for a 3-D printer to be affordable enough for a rise in consumer-level purchase.
"I hope that before they even look at marketing, they focus on one segment and really learn about that segment before going after the general consumer," she says. "For that market, you need to be highly financed, but more importantly, have a very good market plan. Even if they think they're in the hardware business, actually they're not. What they have to deliver is a value proposition. What are they really proposing to their customers?"
Like Mr. Rendall, she suggests accessing markets through strategic partnerships. And she recommends getting a few champions on board as part of their team and to advise them.
"It would be a fantastic approach for them to think really small and very local at this stage," Ms. Beausoleil says. "They seem to be potentially well positioned to look at the school, community-centre and continuing-studies market. They can get there but they need to continue to be great learners through their product experimentation – so that they understand the why. They need what I call pilot communities first. Keep developing it – but one school or community at a time."