By Kyle Thomas
So you’re a kid in school and your teacher asks, “Who wants to build robots, fly drones and create self-driving cars?” Are you kidding…who could say no to that?! What these kids may not realize, however, is that after you build robots, assemble drones and create self-driving cars, to make them all operate you’ll also need to learn code.
Thanks to San Diego’s passionate team of engineers, educators and science lovers at Robolink, kids are learning, AI, computer science and engineering using fun and approachable robotics kits that bring computer science to life and teach real industry competency.
Robolink’s work has garnered not only national but international attention and recognition, having won the CES Best of Innovation Award for Robotics and Drones earlier this year, beating out even the industry giant Intel in this category – (microphone drop).
Robolink also earned recognition last year by the San Diego’s oldest accelerator and startup incubator Connect, for the Most Innovative Product, for the company’s Zümi robot self-driving car.
Located in the tech-hub of Sorrento Valley, I recently met at the Robolink headquarters with CEO Hansol Hong to learn the backstory and find out what these guys and gals are up to.
Growing up in Korea: “To tell you this story,” Hong began, “I have to go further back. My dad was an entrepreneur. He started a company when he was 27. His company went public in Korea. My mom was one of the first two investors that invested in his company. She was a stay at home mom, but her second job was, as I liked to call her, ‘an angel investor’.”
“Basically because my dad was an entrepreneur and my mom invested in his company, they would talk about this at the dinner table while I was growing up, and it was natural for me to think that one day I would also start my own company.”
Welcome to the US: Hansol moved to the US after junior high, and after finishing high school was accepted to UC San Diego. “I specifically picked the management science major because I had been told it was half industrial engineering and half economics,” he said. “So I thought this is like half business and half tech, which is perfect for me. But as it turned out, UCSD is a lot more focused on economics when you’re an undergrad and then when you’re a grad student you do more technical stuff. So there was a hunger for me because I actually wanted to do more tech stuff.”
Hong graduated in 2010, and in 2012 teamed up with his friend Wesley Hsu, and together they formed their new company Robolink and embarked on a mission to begin encouraging students to engage in STEM in an after school extracurricular program.
“We wanted to teach kids engineering in a fun way,” Hong said. “Starting with five elementary school students, it grew to 20 and then to 100 and now we have taught over 10,000 students here in San Diego. That became the fundamentals of our business, in that we’re always teaching students to see what’s educational and fun for them and to really create a balance. Our products come out of this.”
San Diego: San Diego was the natural choice to launch Robolink. Hong said his decision was “Mainly because I graduated from UCSD, and it was a bit expensive to move to the Bay Area. But seeing the talent pool that we have, and supportive community, living expenses, I think San Diego is a good choice.” From 2013 – 2018 UCSD graduated 7,400 engineers with undergraduate degrees, and “I wanted to take advantage of the talent coming out of that school,” Hong said.
Teaching STEM: The beginning of the entrepreneurs’ Robolink venture into teaching STEM at San Diego schools utilized early prototype robot designs developed by Robolink’s team of engineers, which eventually evolved into the robotic products they sell now. As it turned out, Hong was learning from the children as much as the children were learning from him.
“During one of the projects,” Hong said, “We made a swimming robot because one of the kids was a swimmer and he wanted to make a swimming robot. It was probably a very bad idea to put the electronics on top of the water, but we put the robot on top of a piece of Styrofoam, and the robot swam, and fortunately, it worked out.”
He further explained, “When we started teaching students, they were leading us on what to do. They would say, ‘I wish we could do this, or do that.’ Students were, and still are, giving us a lot of ideas and we try to follow their lead.”
Crowdfunding: Eventually, in 2015, Hong and his team designed and developed their first product; Rokit Smart, a robotic kit that allows users to build and program 11 different kinds of robots. To help fund Rokit Smart, Robolink created its first Kickstarter campaign.
“In the beginning, it was a way for us to get our product out there because nobody knew about our company,” said Hong. “So we put the idea out and it was well-received. People liked the idea that we were teaching robots and coding, and we raised about $50,000. This became the first point where we actually started serving customers outside of San Diego.”
In 2016, Robolink launched its second Kickstarter campaign for its second product, CoDrone the programmable drone, which raised over $200,000. As a result of these successes, Robolink developed widespread credibility in the Kickstarter community for delivering on its promise.
Hong acknowledges the importance of using crowdfunding in his company’s success. “Considering it was Kickstarter and not an institutional round, we got pretty significant funding to make a difference.”
In November 2019, Robolink will launch its third product, Zümi; described as a “Friendly and approachable robot that makes the exciting world of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars accessible.” The startup raised $150,000 for this Kickstarter campaign.
Building Blocks: When asked about raising additional funding, Hong revealed, “I think we will be. We were doing a very hard business. Education is a hard business. The sales cycle is very long. The robotics business is also very hard. It’s an interdisciplinary area – hardware, software, and integrating the two. We were holding off doing funding as much as possible, so we could actually really choose the direction that we want to go into. But now there’s really a clear product-market fit, so I think we are going to go for the scaling money.”
San Diego Startup Resources: “San Diego is very supportive and more things are happening. The only thing that I wish there is more institutional investors who will invest outside of biotech, but I see more happening recently,” Hong said.
Future of AI and Robots: According to Mckinsey Institute statistics, 20 million jobs will be replaced by 2030 by automation and AI. “Meanwhile, the tech jobs are in the shortage even now (according to some stats, 1.4 million jobs are not filled), and the gap of the shortage will be even higher,” Hong said. “We’d like to make sure to educate students at an earlier age so that we can fill that gap.”
Market for Educational Robots: Hong believes the market for educational robots will continue to grow. “The robotics field will be huge as well; it’s a $13 billion market and is expected to grow three-fold within the next five years. That’s a quick growth, and to keep up with the growth rate of the field, education should be the answer, and I have no doubt that it will grow fast.”
Editor’s Note: Innovation Hub is an original FBT series celebrating the extraordinary companies that span across the entire San Diego region. From software to healthcare tech, retail tech, Agtech, AI, fintech, cybersecurity, robotics, brewing and more, this series takes a deeper dive into the innovative industries that make up the collaborative culture of this diverse ecosystem.