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Tech Talk: Do you wanna build a robot?

Updated October 07, 2018

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CEO Nabeel hopes robots will change country’s rote-learning education system.
CEO Nabeel hopes robots will change country’s rote-learning education system.

Which one of us didn’t fancy having his/her own robot as a kid (or even as an adult)? What if there’s an easier way around —something that doesn’t require becoming a scientist? Well, bring in Edvon and there might be.

It’s a Karachi-based startup that manufactures robotics kits and lets you make customisable robots. Currently offering four product kits — 3-in-1 STEAM do-it-yourself robot, smart DIY robotic kit, Edvino and programmable robot (probot) — the company hopes to bring easy, programmable robots to classrooms and aid the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

How exactly do their products work? The kits contain a number of tools ranging from controller and wheels to sensors and LEDs which you can program according to your liking. Whether you want a robot that can detect obstacles or one to just walk in a line, you can do it all with Edvon.

The startup also has its own software to let you program/code your creation. And since it’s targeted at a beginner-level audience, there are video tutorials to walk you through the entire process.

To have an idea of their market size, Edvon currently has a clientele of about 60 schools, to whom they have sold around 5,000 different units so far. “Earlier, most of our partner schools were teaching robotics as an extracurricular activity but now we have got them to integrate it in the course as well,” CEO Muhammad Nabeel says.

The startup was bootstrapped initially, but two months ago, they raised seed money from a Pakistani investor based in the US. Nabeel is confident that this funding will buy them a year, while not disclosing the amount.

Their main source of revenue is sales, mostly coming from schools but the company also generates some cash from teachers’ training and robotics/programming courses they offer privately. How scalable can the latter be though? Well, it’s not. “We hope to move away from our side services and focus solely on manufacturing, hopefully by 2019 end,” Nabeel says.

He feels the biggest hurdle to his business’s growth is the lack of awareness about technology and robotics in general. The field has mainly been limited to university students but that’s what Edvon wants to change: bring it to younger audiences.

Nabeel and co have designed their products in as basic a manner as possible, making them suitable for anyone over eight years.

But approaching schools to incorporate the study of robotics might sound like a losing battle as most haven’t even gotten to using simple audio-visual aids.

Then why we go for such a market in the first place? “There was no strictly commercial motive to go for young kids but I did find them easier to train,” the CEO explains.

It started after Nabeel completed his master’s in robotics and had some free months before joining a PhD programme. “I just casually started teaching basic robotics to my cousins and to my surprise, they picked up the stuff I learned during my undergrad,” he recalls, adding “Soon I started approaching schools and one of them asked for 10 units. I was without a prototype then.” A year later, he dropped out of his doctorate and joined Edvon full-time, launching commercially in 2016 end.

Earlier, whatever few schools using robotics for teaching purposes were mostly fancy names and used pricey Lego kits. But now Nabeel wants to capture that market and his edge lies in the clear cost advantage: around $350 for Lego Mindstorms versus Rs2,500-4,000 for his products.

His main threat, in fact, comes largely from India and China, which have excelled at high-quality/low-cost tech. How does the company plan to compete in such a predatory environment then, especially against the latter?

To Nabeel, the potential risk is real, but he is banking on our customs department to do a fair job at protecting his business. “Their processes are so complicated and act as a natural deterrent against anyone wishing to export to Pakistan,” he says.

All the manufacturing and development, from sensors to software, is local and done at their office in Karachi. And an order 50-100 units takes around three days, Nabeel claims.

The CEO knows that his business can only truly scale up if the state gets involved and updates the school curricula. Which is exactly why the startup recently got enrolled at the National Incubation Centre, Karachi (ironically an accelerator) in the hopes of building the right network with the right people in government.

I guess it’s ever too late to have a pet robot, right?

The writer is member of staff:

m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2018