July 02, 2009      

Toy robots — from remote-controlled models to Transformers — have been around since before the first successful functional robots appeared. They have never received the respect other aspects of the robotics business have, however, despite the $97 million they generate in sales every year. RobotGalaxy may not change the level of respect robotic toys get within the industry, but it does intend to do for them what Build-a-Bear did for Teddy Bears and birthday parties.

Oliver Mitchell and Ken Pilot — friends and lifelong robot aficionados — founded the New York City-based RobotGalaxy toy company in 2006 to satisfy their interest in robots, yen to start their own business on a national scale, and to give Mitchell’s five kids “whole some toys to play with.”

Both Mitchell and Pilot, who spent years as a marketing executive at The Gap clothing chain, are well aware that they are trying to grow their business in a challenging economic environment and that the toy market is characterized by extremely fickle tastes. To overcome these challenges, RobotGalaxy approach is to take an innovative product (a toy robot), make it Web-enabled, combine it with an inventive virtual online and hard copy ecosystem, and top it all off with ingenious, practical and phased marketing.

According to RobotGalaxy, another important consequence of the company’s expansion plans is the impact the RobotGalaxy figures might have on the overall market for intelligent robot toys, including educational robotics toys. “Our underlying goal is to unleash kids’ creativity and there’s a big educational aspect to RobotGalaxy,” Mitchell says.

Two Funding Rounds
RobotGalaxy’s mission statement was sound enough to net the company $5 million in its second round of funding in September, 2008, from gas-turbine manufacturer Bachmann Industries, Inc. and several private investors — the same group that provided its initial $7 million funding. Valuation after the second round of funding was $25 million according to VentureWire.

RobotGalaxy is privately held. The company operates two mall stores, one in Nyack, N.Y. and the other in Freehold, N.J., and a 600-sq.-ft. department in the Toys-R-Us location in Times Square in New York City. They are also sold in the boys’ department of the upscale Neiman Marcus department store chain nationwide.

Customization and Expansion
The main differentiator between the RobotGalaxy robots and more traditional toy robots is the RobotGalaxy robots are customizable, programmable, and personalized. They can move independently and ultimately utter up to 100 different phrases. There are nine levels that the robots and their owners can achieve ranging from Cadet to Commander, each of which comes with a new set of four to six prerecorded phrases or responses. In a nod to beleaguered parents — and an attempt to make the robot an integral part of each kid’s day — the robot incorporates an alarm clock that can be programmed to wake the kids up.

Pricing for RobotGalaxy robots begins as $19.95 for the 13-inch toys. Youngsters can choose from a variety of colors, parts,and accessories for each. Finished models average $40 to $80 with additional parts.

RobotGalaxy also hopes that the addition of the “inspirational and tough” female robot named Chrystal will lure more girls into the robot universe. According to the company, “Chrystal is tough — she’s more Lara Croft than Barbie.” The company noted that that new features are in the offing for the 2009 holiday season as well.

RobotGalaxy does not disclose sales figures, but co-founder Oliver Mitchell says the company has made “tens of thousands” of kids happy and engaged both in the stores and online. RobotGalaxy’s audience is mainly boys between the ages of four and 11.

Unlike a pure retail approach, RobotGalaxy’s model attempts to maintain a connection with customers long after they have walked out of the store. In November 2008 RobotGalaxy added Web-enabled functionality and links to an online virtual world complete with a full history of the RobotGalaxy universe and back stories for its robots.

By tethering their robots to a computer via a USB cable, kids can download new phrases and sound effects from the RobotGalaxy website to animate various robot parts or accessories, and change the color of the LEDs in its eyes. They can also play six new mini-games in which they answer up to 100 questions on a variety of topics such as, space exploration, science, mechanics, robotics, computers and technology. Points in each game expand the number of downloads accessible for each owner. The RobotGalaxy robots are able to say its name and rank, the child’s name as well as the high score the youngster achieves in each game.

With the Web presence and in-store customization, RobotGalaxy builds on successful models such as the retail store Build-a-Bear that allows children to choose a bear or other stuffed animal and choose from thousands of combinations in which to dress and adorn it. The online model is Webkins, a physical/virtual-world toy combination that allows children — primarily pre-teen girls — to carry a doll and log in to a Web site to interact with their friends and build a virtual world for their dolls.

Virtual World
Robot owners can also become “Explorers” on the RobotGalaxy Web site, and are encouraged to customize both the online and real-world versions of their robots through a variety of story lines.

The Explorers begin their journey at The Bridge, where the five members of The Brotherhood are displayed. Explorers then travel through the Flight Deck and Lab, where they can personalize their robot characters from various motorized parts, accessories, decals, rover vehicles, and programmable features including sound, lights, and speech — in more than a thousand combinations. The next stop is Mission Control where robots are fitted with fuel cells that power their parts and can give them speech. The journey culminates at the seventh Ring of Saturn where the robots are brought to life and activated.

Interactivity and Customization
The interactivity and story development potential are specifically designed to overcome the “one day of play” phenomenon Robotics Business Review research has identified as a significant drawback for robotic toys. Consumers are not only reluctant to pay more than $150 for a robotic toy (RobotGalaxy’s average prices fall comfortably below $150), but children tend to experience and become bored with all the pre-set functions of a robotic toy in an extremely short amount of time.

Online interactivity and the potential for continuing modification and customization of the robot itself make it far more likely parents will bring a child back to the store for additional RobotGalaxy toys and that they will become ongoing customers for products, enhancements or accessories sold through the company’s Web site.

Comic Books
To further enhance the RobotGalaxy customer experience, the company has published a series of comic books designed to create a more cohesive mythic background for the robots as part of an organization called “The Brotherhood.” The comic books (written by another friend Rob Kurtz and published by IDW) are being repackaged into novel form. The comic novella will be geared towards six-to-nine year old readers and will be available in bookstores beginning in June.

Customer Feedback
So how do kids actually feel about RobotGalaxy? In a completely unscientific poll, Robotics Business Review asked several children between the ages of six and 11 to log onto the Web site and give their impression. None of the four children we interviewed had any prior knowledge of the robot toys, nor had they visited the Web site or any of the stores.

All of the kids avidly scanned the site and began assembling their favorite configurations, with no encouragement from the adults. They remained engaged for an average of more than 30 minutes. The only time, they took their eyes off the screen was to ask the adults present to purchase a robot for them.

Continued Innovation
Mitchell says RobotGalaxy intends to keep on innovating. “We’re making robots and by association — intelligent robotics toys accessible to the masses. Kids today are surrounded by robots and this will only increase over time. We’re going to continue to personalize our robots and broaden the definition of interactive,” he says.