Hip to Be Cubed: Modular Robotics Raises More Than $56K Via Kickstarter

11/7/13Follow @MichaelXBD

Add another name to the list of well-funded startups turning to Kickstarter to build an audience and gain exposure for new product launches.

Modular Robotics is a Boulder, CO-based startup that builds robotic construction kits. On Thursday, ModRobotics began a Kickstarter campaign for MOSS, its second product. The target is to raise $100,000 within 34 days, but the company isn’t primarily interested in the money, co-founder, CEO, and design director Eric Schweikardt said.

Instead ModRobotics wants publicity for MOSS and the chance to connect with gadget fans and tech geeks—and tech reporters—who have turned Kickstarter into the go-to marketplace for people who want neat products they can tinker with before they appear in stores.

“It’s where people go for cool new tech toys these days,” Schweikardt said.

So far, MOSS is a hit and is well on its way to hitting its goal. As of noon, ModRobotics had raised $56,405 on Kickstarter.

ModRobotics is the second Boulder-based startup that has used Kickstarter for a new product. In September, Occipital’s Structure 3D sensor made its debut on the crowdfunding site. Occipital raised more than $1.29 million and hit its $100,000 goal within hours.

Offline, ModRobotics raised $3 million in a 2012 Series A round led by the Foundry Group, a venture capital firm based in Boulder. The startup’s seed funding came from National Science Foundation grants.

But enough about Kickstarter, investors, and grants—let’s talk robots. Deceptively simple robots that, according to Schweikardt, distill sophisticated technology and theory into small magnetic blocks young children can use to assemble robots within minutes of opening their kits.

Before today’s launch, ModRobotics’ only product was its Cubelets. Cubelets are magnetic cubes the size of building blocks that contain motors, sensors, or batteries. Each Cubelet contains a microprocessor and is programmable, although they come pre-programmed out of the box.

Every Cubelet is a tiny robot in its own right, but Cubelet’s strength is in numbers— to start playing, a user just has to connect a Cubelet with a built-in light sensor to a battery Cubelet and to a Cubelet with a small motor and wheels. That’s enough to make a three-piece robot smart enough to drive around on a table and respond to changing light conditions.

Snap enough Cubelets together and you have machines that have surprisingly life-like behavior and can act in any number of ways.

“Every single construction kit can be used to construct a whole new universe,” Schweikardt said.

MOSS builds on what ModRobotics learned with Cubelets and is the result of about two-and-a-half years of work, Schweikardt said. Like its predecessor, the basic units of MOSS kits are little robotic cubes that snap together magnetically. But where Cubelets only worked with other Cubelets, MOSS modules can turn wheels or move arms that are included with kits. The most advanced modules use Bluetooth to connect to smartphones that can control vehicles.

Cubelets and MOSS share some features and a passing resemblance, but they are two different ways of thinking about robots and toys.

“It’s just a very different model of thinking about the world. On the one hand, you could say Cubelets are more advanced because they have a microcontroller inside every single piece and they talk to their neighbors digitally. MOSS doesn’t have a microcontroller in each piece, and it uses really simple analog communication,” Schweikardt said. “On the other hand… [with MOSS] you can have a lot more pieces working together in sync.”

With wheels and arms, a robot built from MOSS modules looks much more like a toy. Top-of-the-line kits include a tank turret that fires foam darts. The design specs for its cannon required it to be able to “hit cat-sized targets from 3 feet away,” Schweikardt said.

While the new design could appeal to more kids, ModRobotics also is shooting for the ‘It factor’ that will appeal to geeks/hipsters. During a presentation at the Defrag conference in Broomfield, Schweikardt said ModRobotics is reaching out to designers who are influential in the growing art or designer toy world. The first partnership is with Huck Gee, who designed the Shogun Tank model, which is the one that fires foam darts.

[For more on what designer toys are, check out this Wikipedia article and the Website for Kidrobot for some examples.]

Cubelets aren’t without charm, but they look like something that came out of a robotics lab, which they did. Schweikardt has a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he worked in the university’s Computational Design Laboratory. That’s where he met Mark Gross, his Ph.D. adviser and ModRobotics’ co-founder and research director.

Schweikardt said they wanted to take the advanced concepts they were working on and put them into physical form. Eventually, he and Gross made the first Cubelets.

Cubelets are a hit at science centers and in classrooms, but Schweikardt admits they “are a little abstract” and tend to appeal to kids, most often boys, who already show signs of growing into hackers or geeks.

“We realized that Cubelets have some problems for mass market adoption. It’s a great academic, theoretical robotics kit, but it’s expensive. And it’s made of a bunch of little cubes, which aren’t particularly evocative or good for telling stories or for the playing [many] kids like to do,” Schweikardt said.

Yet MOSS was designed to be accessible to a broader audience. “I think we’re about to hit a point where it’s no longer just boys,” Schweikardt said. “I think it’s a toy for everyone.”

ModRobotics is taking orders on Kickstarter now and will be delivering kits early next year. The company buys components from overseas, but they are assembled at its factory in Boulder.

“It’s weird because toys are made in China today, and if you were to pick a place to build toys in the United States, you wouldn’t pick a place like Boulder,” Schweikardt said.

Schweikardt outlined the decision to keep its factory in the U.S. in a blog post earlier this year. About six months in, he thinks it was the right call. Designers, engineers, and assemblers are all under the same roof, ensuring an easy flow of ideas among ModRobotics 40-some employees and simplifying quality control.

“It’s this wonderful closed loop that allows us to be really agile,” he said.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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