In this episode, Audrow Nash interviews Silas Adekunle, Co-founder and CEO of Reach Robotics. They speak about Reach Robotics’ first product, Mecha Monsters: legged, gaming robots that are controlled by a smartphone.
Through Mecha Monsters, Reach Robotics is attempting to connect the physical and digital components of the gaming world. Adekunle also discusses the startup process, including technology accelerators.
Below is a video where Silas reveals Mecha Monsters.
And an image of a Mecha Monster.
Silas Adekunle is the Co-founder and CEO of Reach Robotics, a company developing intelligent gaming robots. He established Reach Robotics while still an undergraduate at the University of the West of England, UK. Before Reach Robotics, Silas managed a “Robotics in schools” program in partnership with UWE, the UK government, and HP for 4 years, leading a team of engineers going to schools to develop the interest of young students in STEM through robotics. As a robotics engineering graduate and avid gamer, Silas’ goal is to make robotics more accessible to both young and old through play.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Audrow Nash: Hi, welcome to Robots Podcast. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Silas Adekunle: I’m Silas Adekunle, CEO and co-founder of Reach Robotics. I’m from the UK, but we’re currently in San Diego, where we’ve just taken part in the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars.
Audrow Nash: Great! Tell me a bit about Reach Robotics.
Silas Adekunle: Reach Robotics is developing the world’s first intelligent gaming robots. I don’t know how many people are familiar with the movie Big Hero 6, by Disney. There’s an underground battle scene where the kid brings out a robot. It’s like everything you fantasized as a kid — having a real robot companion that can battle, and upgrade. It’s an entertainment consumer product, but the vision’s a lot more than that.
Audrow Nash: What do they look like? They’re called MechaMonsters, correct?
Silas Adekunle: Yes, they’re called MechaMonsters. The branding is about to change, we’ve spent a lot of time in the accelerator so there is a lot of new stuff coming. They look like four-legged robots, quadrapeds, who are well-articulated so they move fluidly. They’ve got weapons on their backs, or weapon ports, and shields, like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Audrow Nash: What are weapon ports? Can you attach new weapons, do they actually do anything?
Silas Adekunle: What we’re doing is supplying game play mechanics. You start with your robot at level one. The more you train by battling other players, or by engaging in activities, the stronger they become.
That means you can start to add on weapons, shields. They don’t just change the way your robot looks. You can tailor your MechaMonsters any way you want, and it also improves your performance in battles. They’ve got electronics that allows the robot to know what functionality to add to the robot itself.
Audrow Nash: How would you describe the weapons? Is it a click on piece that has electronics the robot registers?
Silas Adekunle: Yeah, that’s right. So each weapon has an IDE that plugs into the robot, where we plan to add different types, different levels of functionalities. Weapons will be moving parts, so a bit more premium. Weapons by themselves are little, but look awesome. Each weapon, or add on as we call them, has a piece of electronics that has an ID for the robot.
Are shields entirely in the user’s imagination? Or does it register on the smart phone controller?
Silas Adekunle: When you put the shield on, it clips to the leg of the robot. So it’s a physical item that clips on.
There are ports on the leg of the robot and on the back. We call them hard points. These are all the game play mechanics or terminology for the MechaMonster world we haven’t put out yet, because we’ve been trying to get the foundation right. Over the next few months we’ll be more engaging with early adopters so we know exactly what we put into market next year.
Audrow Nash: What does a battle look like with two users controlling the MechaBox?
Silas Adekunle: You’ll be able to knock your opponents over for higher damage. It’s interactive game play, the way you’re trying to use the world around you to your advantage, hide behind the table leg, things like that. You try and outsmart your opponent. Because the robots are maneuverable we’re focusing on the strategy of the game play. For example, there are skills where you can stun your opponent’s robots for a few seconds. The robot will just stay there and not be able to move because they need five second to wait. That gives you the opportunity to get behind your opponent.
It’s one of those things that’s better experienced than described, sorry to say!
Audrow Nash: What kind of sensors are on the robot? Do they interact in game play or battle?
Silas Adekunle: We’ve got sensors for the robot state, in itself. We have an IMU [Inertia Measurement Unit] in there so that the robot knows its orientation, a sense of where it is. We have infrared images, so that robots know distance from each other and orientation. Those are the metrics that plug into the role, the game play.
Silas Adekunle: For the infrared emitters, do you just have one that emits in all directions, and then so the robots can tell their relative distance from each other? Typically, an infrared LED it’s very directional.
Audrow Nash: Which direction are the infrared emitters and receivers? Are they in the front of the robot?
Silas Adekunle: The four sides of the robot.
Audrow Nash: Are you changing the way they emit based on the side? A sort of light signal that you can detect to tell if the robot is turned?
Silas Adekunle: Exactly. You brought different IDs, so to say, for each side so you know that I’m reading 1 for front, 4 for the back.
Audrow Nash: That’s how you make sure that if the robot attacks and it’s facing the wrong way that it doesn’t register. For an attack to hit, the robots have to be within a certain distance and facing the correct direction?
Silas Adekunle: Exactly. There’re different types of attacks, and this will be for the people that want to get into the game play. For example there are some attacks that don’t care about direction. In game play stuff like aerial effects attacks.
Audrow Nash: Like a ground smash?
Silas Adekunle: Exactly. It doesn’t matter where your opponent is, as long as they are within a certain distance, the orientation doesn’t matter.
Audrow Nash: If I was a slick kid, could I cheat by covering up my infrared detectors in certain directions so my opponent couldn’t hit me from the side or something?
Silas Adekunle: Yeah, you could, but that would make you a spoil-sport. Once we start to get into the game-play testing we’ll have our own methods of making sure that people don’t cheat too much, but at the end of the day in every game you have the hackers and the people that will out-smart everyone else. We like that, people are going to be able to hack this stuff to bits, and we want that. We just hope that our customers will be fair players and not annoy their friends too much and be too much of a spoil-sport.
Audrow Nash: Are you making this open to the development community? Do you see research labs using it?
Silas Adekunle: Definitely, it’s part of the story of the company. This all started because I was eventually going into schools, teaching kids robotics, and it’s something that we love very much, and all of us engineers, we want that. We were careful how we wrote it out to make sure people don’t break their robots, but it’s something that’s part of the plan for us, to have versions that people can just take apart and use for development itself.
Audrow Nash: For the hackers, will it have its own operating system on it, like its own little Linux I can pull up?
Silas Adekunle: We’re considering it, we’re still debating exactly how we’re going to do it. I don’t want to make any promises. We want it to be accessible and easy to use.
Audrow Nash: The primary focus for MechaMonsters is to be put in the toy industry?
Silas Adekunle: Yeah, the entertainment industry. We call ourselves a robotics gaming company for a reason, because we think the amount of work that’s going into this product and the experience that we’re putting together it puts it with Skylanders.
Audrow Nash: What is that?
Silas Adekunle: Skylanders is a game, by Activision, where you can buy figurines and use them to unlock characters in a video game. It’s a product that straddled the physical and virtual world, so the lines are starting to blur. For the product in the next 5 years, the kinds of products that are going to be on market it’s going to be hard to define them as toys or games. We find our-self in this spot where we’re halfway between the toy, the intended market, and half of it’s in the gaming market. To kick off we are releasing this product for entertainment.
Audrow Nash: What kind of people do you see buying this? Is it for children?
Silas Adekunle: From interacting with our customers we’ve had interest from children all the way up to adults. These are people with disposable income that are getting nostalgic, they’ve always dreamt of this as a kid and we’re now giving it to them. We’re lucky because we have a product that appeals to so many people: Boys, girls, adults, people that are very techy to people who just want to see their robot beat the crap out of another robot. We consider ourselves to be a consumer product, where the kind of people that will buy it initially will be tech-savvy people until the brand takes off and becomes a general market item.
Audrow Nash: Tech-savvy people to begin with, not kids?
Silas Adekunle: As part of our go-to-market plan we have a campaign in mind that we’re going to launch, and the kind of people online that will have this campaign are going to be people that have access to the internet and things like that. Maybe some parents that want to buy it for their kids, but in the short term it’s going to be someone that’s no Kickstarter for example, that would be able to have initial access to it.
There’s a reason for that. This is a very complex product, a very unique product, and we want to do it justice. We want to give access to people that will be patient enough to give us critical feedback. This is what we like about the product, this is what we don’t like about the product, so that when it starts to reach mass market the people are getting the best experience that we can offer them.
Audrow Nash: Initially, it’s for just testing and feedback so you can refine it.
Silas Adekunle: Exactly.
Audrow Nash: How did you pick your market in the beginning?
Silas Adekunle: It’s a route that’s worked well for other companies so far. It’s not particularly Kickstarter people, it’s where do you find your early adopters. When you’re taking a product to market, how do I get this product end goal?
Audrow Nash: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo Campaign, sites like this, people that are looking for products, or on Reddit. How did you identify your audience?
Silas Adekunle: By taking the product out there and getting feedback. We actually did some testing online ourselves, we took the product out, for example spent a whole day at a Comic-Con in San Diego, we put our product on the internet across different websites, just looking at what people think about this. Did some preliminary research, as much as a small startup can do, and that was how we identified who the kind of people are that would initially be the right early adopter for this, who could give the right feedback.
Audrow Nash: What is a tech startup accelerator? How has this changed in the startup accelerator? I assume that it’s gone through more refinement of who your target audience will be.
Silas Adekunle: A tech startup accelerator is exactly what it sounds like. The company goes in and they must accelerate you to the next stage. That’s different for each company. The accelerator that we were part of, we had companies that just at the idea stage, we had companies that were at the market validation stage, we had companies that were at the growth stage. It’s tailored depending on which accelerator you go into.
There are some that are hardware focused, ours was hardware focused, and it’s there for each company to take them from stage one and rapidly get them to the next stage for them. For us we need a bit of work on the marketing side of things and quite a bit of work on the product development side of things as well. You’re looking at what market you should be aiming for, not just in the short term but the grand vision for the company, and how do we create a product that addresses that.
Audrow Nash: How did that develop? How did you choose for the early adopters in the tech field, and how was that affected by the tech startup accelerator.
Silas Adekunle: The great thing about accelerator was the network you get out of it. You can talk to founders of other robotics companies and what they’d done to get to where they are today. That was how we figured out our strategy, just talking to 4 or 5 past founders. We discovered that a pattern occurred if you’re a consumer product. What worked best is to put it out there to early adopters, and the best channel to reach them on today is by online; platforms like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo are there to make that easier for you. Then, when you reach your early adopters and you have your direct sales and gotten your feedback, then you start to get into your retail channels. It’s really talking to other founders and identifying what strategy worked for them and looking at how we could apply it to our products as well.
Audrow Nash: My impression would be that the early adopters that you find on these websites would be a much smaller market than say the toy industry. How are you guys maintaining funding until you tap into a larger market? Do you seek venture capitalists? They’ve invested in you?
Silas Adekunle: Yeah, we raised money from investors that share our vision and like what we’re working on. Just like any startup, we raise and then use that money to develop before you get to market. The money you raise is to fill that gap before you’re self-sustainable.
Audrow Nash: Going back to MechaMonsters, there has been previous robotic battle toys. One that I had when I was a kid was called Rumble Bots, and the idea with Rumble Bots was they were little remote controlled robots, you didn’t use a smart phone, but you loaded in different behaviors, attacks, that kind of thing by scanning in cards to them. They would read the cards, and then after they were all loaded the devices would battle. This company went bankrupt. What makes MechaMonsters different than other companies that maybe didn’t do as well?
Silas Adekunle: [00:13:00] It’s a question we get asked all the time because battle robots is an idea that people have had. It’s recurring; you’ve got Battle Bots in the US, Robots in the UK, Real Steel and other movies. It’s something people want. It took us awhile as well to figure out exactly what’s different about us, or why we’re going to succeed.
It boils down to creating a battle robot, and there are loads of companies that have tried this in the past. What you’re trying to do is create an experience. We’ve looked at it and said, “Okay, we’re going to create this experience of people being able to battle each other. How exactly are we going to make it the best experience that they can get?” We’ve taken that approach to everything that we’ve done. Initially to kick this off we took a lot of advice from people in the toy industry, and then took a lot of advice from people in the other industries.
Sorry, it’s a bit of a lengthy answer.
Audrow Nash: That’s fine.
Silas Adekunle: The first thing to create a successful product is that there has to be 3 elements: Competition, collectability, and customization. We have all of the elements in it.
Audrow Nash: Where do you get these 3 from?
Silas Adekunle: These were recurring answers from toy industry people. If you look at products that have been successful, apart from the massive amount of marketing budget that were behind them, fundamentally they had these parts.
Skylander, Pokemon, had these if we’re looking at purely the toy industry. When it comes to battle robots, this is stuff that captures people’s imagination. When people say, “I’m gonna buy a battle, or I want a battle robot,” they’re not thinking I want a plastic toy or something, they’re thinking, “I want that epic, awesome robot that I saw in this movie I watched yesterday.” To really deliver that experience we’ve had to focus a lot on the hardware.
For example the Rumble Bots, I think they’re a price about $40, looking at their costs that means their building materials must have been something like $10. This is a while back, right, so looking at the type of technology that was available for that price at the time, the type of components you could get I don’t imagine would be very good.
Audrow Nash: Yeah, and they were before the cell phone boom so, I mean, you get your IMU on your chip then.
Silas Adekunle: We’ve had to think a lot about the hardware. Our robot is very complex, it has 12 degrees of freedom all together.
Audrow Nash: How many?
Silas Adekunle: 12 degrees, so 3 per leg. That means you can make it create awesome moves just like you’d see in a movie. Then, we had to think about what happens if the leg of a robot breaks, which is why the robots are modular. Things we haven’t really announced yet because it’s early in development but will work soon.
We’ve had a massive think, and it’s user experience driven, so we’re creating an experience, we’ve got to create the hardware to deliver that experience. I think that’s what’s different about us, the timing is right and the approach we’ve taken is right. The reaction and the feedback we’ve been getting points that way. When we get to market there’s going to be a lot of stuff that we’ll get wrong at the start, and that’s why we appreciate the feedback that we receive to tailor it.
All of us on the team, we’re gamers, we’re engineers, so we’re not going to put something crappy product out there, that’s what we hope anyway. We’re looking at it from the point of view of, “How are we going to create the best user experience possible,” and that’s what’s driven us so far.
Audrow Nash: What channels are you putting in place for feedback?
Silas Adekunle: We’ve got emails, people can send loads of emails, the accelerator, we’ve sent out some surveys to get feedback from customers. We sent out surveys to about 1,000 people.
Audrow Nash: What would you plan once you unveil it for the early adopters’ audience?
Silas Adekunle: What we plan after that? We sent out our surveys to get feedback, and we had some open-ended questions, non-leading questions. These are questions to confirm our hypothesis or to challenge our hypothesis. You always challenge a hypothesis. Then we’ve gone to live events with the people that we think are our target market, for example as I mentioned Comic-Con here at San Diego.
In the long run when the product is out there, we’re going to be doing a lot of face to face interactions. Once we’re at that state that we can start beta testing, there is going to be lots of invites to get people to try this and give us feedback.
The great thing about this product is that it’s digital in every sense of the word, you’re controlling it from a phone. That means we can look at how people are using the product and get instantaneous feedback, which I think is great for the time we’re launching this product, compared to Rumble Bots for example. We can know exactly how people want to play with this robot, what they do with it, and exactly what they don’t like about it and change it on the fly, so to say.
Audrow Nash: It connects to WiFi? It’s Bluetooth that you’re connecting the robot, but can you send updates over Bluetooth?
Silas Adekunle: Not in itself.
Audrow Nash: It has to connect to WiFi somehow?
Silas Adekunle: This is in the software itself. We’ll have a control infrastructure in there for how you control the robot from the app, so because the app is connected to the internet.
Audrow Nash: The brains of the robot are in the smartphone, it’s just a big actuator that you buy as the robot that receives this message. It’s like Fly By Wire for EJ Kumar’s Lab.
Silas Adekunle: There’s leverage in the power of the smartphone, I think, as part of the game place experience itself.
Audrow Nash: Because the brains of the robot are on the smartphone, you’re controlling what it does from the smartphone? You can add new behaviors to the smartphone to make it do new things, and that’s how you can update it, by updating your app or however you’re running your backend?
Silas Adekunle: Exactly. That’s an idea about how it works.
Audrow Nash: It’s a neat way of controlling it. Going back to the startup accelerator, what was it like?
Silas Adekunle: Hectic, I need to sleep. It was a very intense period.
Audrow Nash: Just for context, you’re at the end of it?
Silas Adekunle: Yes, we graduated last week. That finished last week. It was a very intense 4 months for everyone on the team and all the other companies that where here. You’ve got a target that you’re working towards, there’s demo at the end of it with a fixed date. What you show at the end is up to you, but it’s an opportunity to accelerate it or rapidly take your company to the next level.
Audrow Nash: What are these levels?
Silas Adekunle: For example, for a pre-seed company it would be to raise your seed round so that you can get to market faster.
Audrow Nash: That’s get enough founding?
Silas Adekunle: For other companies it’s to, by demo day, have 100 letters of intent that they’re going to use over at the B2B company.
Audrow Nash: It’s progressing to the next levels, so the next level of the company towards bringing a product to market and being successful in market?
Silas Adekunle: Everyone goes into that territory with this mindset of, “We’ve got 4 months and this our deadline,” and you work extremely hard to make that happen. This is all the while trying to take advantage of the networking opportunities that you’re getting. We met a lot of world class people, founders like the founders of Sphero, founders of other robotics companies like PetRo Robotics, all these people that have lots of success stories that you hope one day want to be like them, you get to meet them. You take in all these feedback, it’s just a massive boiler pot of feedback, development, business development, product development, everything all in one. It’s a very intense period. It’s fun at the same time.
Audrow Nash: Before you decided to be in the startup accelerator, what were the pros and cons of being in a startup accelerator you considered?
Silas Adekunle: Depending on where you are. For us, we had to move out of the UK to the US for it. That was a pro because the weather in the UK sucks so no one complains about going to sunny San Diego, but you’re leaving family behind. It’s all part of the startup roller coaster ride, ups and downs, emotions and all that. You’re leaving a well-known establishment or infrastructure that you have behind, something where you don’t know. In terms of the cons, there aren’t that many cons.
Audrow Nash: The pros you mean? Or the cons?
Silas Adekunle: Yeah, there aren’t many cons. The only con I would think is you’re leaving a well-established infrastructure behind for something unknown. Going into it we were all super excited. The pros way outweigh the cons, it’s an opportunity to take your company to the next level, it’s an opportunity to meet world-class mentors, it’s an opportunity to meet other founders, it’s an opportunity to really spend a whole intensive period with your team and get to know them better, and everyone is focused on the same goal and same target. The pros way outweigh the cons if you have a startup company.
There are different levels of accelerators, Techstars is a fantastic one. If you have an opportunity to apply to Techstars accelerator, take it.
Audrow Nash: It sounds like you’ve learned a lot from this accelerator. What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned?
Silas Adekunle: We learned a lot. This might not be the biggest lesson learned because I haven’t had time to reflect, you should take time at the end of accelerator just to sit somewhere and gather your thoughts.
We learned a lot of great lessons. No matter how big the companies are, at the end of the day it comes down to people: people are what make companies successful. Regardless of the product, idea, market, which are all important, it’s the team that’s most important.
At the very early stages of the company it’s important to put together the right team and treat people you find right because they make or break your company.
Audrow Nash: Would you talk a bit about the long term goals of Reach Robotics?
Silas Adekunle: To take over the world.
Audrow Nash: Naturally.
Silas Adekunle: Naturally, as a robotics company what else do you do? For us the main thing we want is to focus on consumer entertainment, then we see an opportunity for us in education. If we want to shorten it, robotics and entertainment, it should be followed by Reach Robotics.
For us it’s really about getting the product to market, receiving feedback, and always creating something that delivers a great user experience. I think in the toy industry as opposed to the consumer tech industry, there isn’t a lot of brand loyalty because you can just release a new brand with one hit product each year, and then create another one next year.
There isn’t really a name that sticks around as opposed to Samsung, Apple, and all these giants in other industry, in tech. We want to change that and really focus on the user experience we’re developing and create a lasting company, as opposed to a one-hit-wonder.
Audrow Nash: What are some of your ideas on doing that, creating a strong brand?
Silas Adekunle: Community is important. Again, we can’t really dive into the products, but what we want people to be able to do is to create skills for their robots and share them online. If I create a new battle skill I can share it with my friends, so there’s a community aspect. If you design a shield or a weapon for your robot, then you’d like to 3D print, we want that infrastructure in place to provide. We want to focus on brand and community as part of our key defining features for the company.
Audrow Nash: How useful would you say was your university experience, engineering in robotics background, for your current endeavor with Reach Robotics?
Silas Adekunle: Make-or-break, so to say. You can’t go into robotics without having a background in robotics, you wouldn’t know what you were doing at least to get off the ground. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I knew enough to get off the ground. There’s always new technology coming out and you’re picking it up, but the foundation is important and university education gave me that foundation to have a broad understanding of the robotics space.
There were lots of opportunity for networking in the university. When I was in university I was in this stuff, I think it’s Steam here, we call it Stem in the UK, that was an opportunity to network with other people that were interested in Steam, and it was a university network. I actually found my co-founders though the robotics lab where I was based. I can’t picture being here without the path I’ve taken.
Audrow Nash: Why did you choose to start the company and doing this now immediately after your bachelors, rather than doing more education? How did you make this decision?
Silas Adekunle: Impatience, I suppose. I started the company during my bachelors, during my studies. Whenever you’ve got an itch, you’re not going to wait for anyone you just do it and figure it out along the way.
It’s always been that mentality: we’ll do it live. You get on the road and we’ll just do it live, we’ll figure it out, otherwise you wait yourself to death. It’s never the perfect time and I found that no matter how uncertain you are about something if you just go out there and do it, along the way you’ll find the right people. Even if they don’t have the answer they will point you the right direction towards the answer.
There’s never a perfect time, just go for it, and that was what I did.
Audrow Nash: Thanks for the interview!