June 01, 2016      

ODENSE, Denmark — Local universities, governments, and robotics companies have been working together to make this city a European robotics hub. Yesterday, 11 startups had their moment in the spotlight as they made their pitches to potential investors at RoboBusiness Europe 2016.

This year’s Pitchfire contestants included university spinoffs, small companies looking to expand, and innovative groups from across Europe (and North America). Some of the markets they hope to serve are industrial automation, healthcare exoskeletons, and education. Here are the competitors:

Each Pitchfire contestant had two minutes to make its presentation before Lars ROnn, a partner at Vaekstfonden Venture, and Peter Madsen, investment manager at Southern Denmark Technology Innovation. The judges then had two minutes to ask questions of each person before moving on to the next entry.

And the Pitchfire winner is….

After nerve-wracking questions and deliberation, Madsen and ROnn announced the winner of RoboBusiness Europe 2016’s Pitchfire contest. They noted that “Europe must compete with the rest of the world in education” and that the winner “gave a good, precise pitch and had a clear market strategy.”

Shape Robotics CEO David Christensen holds Fable modular robot.

Shape Robotics was the winner, earning investment advice and recognition for its modular educational robots. CEO David J. Christensen delivered the pitch for the Copenhagen-based company, and he sat down with Robotics Business Review to discuss the Fable product.

The patent-pending educational tool is made of high-density plastic and snaps together like Lego blocks, another Danish invention.

Fable has been tested with 400 students. “Kids love it more than sitting through a lecture,” Christensen said. “They immediately start building and programming.”

“Teachers and schools are happy that the system is so simple and doesn’t take a long time to get started,” he added.

The robot modules can be made in larger and smaller sizes, and they can also scale up in functionality, with different types of sensors and applications.

Fable would cost about 30,000 Danish krona ($4,500 U.S.) for a classroom kit of 10 robots, equivalent to the Lego Mindstorms kit.

We all need some education

Christensen got his Ph.D. in Odense and studied self-reconfigurable robots. He then joined the Technical University of Denmark and later worked on project development for “intelligent bricks” at Lego.

“Mindstorm was first made in the 1990s with MIT, and I got to work with the same people on products not yet on the market,” Christensen said. “My research background and time with Lego provided inspiration.”

“At the MIT Media Lab, I learned about constructionism theory, learning by doing, and experimenting,” he said.

“About five years ago, I observed problems in testing with kids,” he recalled. “With Mindstorms, which is a fine product, it takes a while to build a robot.”

“Students then don’t want to take it apart and build something new, and the time investment can impede the classroom experience,” he said. “The teacher has a limited time for lessons.”

“We had a different background than Lego, which was building with small components. We use larger, rugged, magnetic pieces,” Christensen said. “We saw that, if education with robots is to fit in schools, it has to be fast and easy to build with.”

Shape Robotics' Fable robot

Shape Robotics’ Fable modular educational robot

“We wanted something that is fast to start programming, rather than a separate programming step — there’s no cross-compile and download to the robot,” he said. “Fable’s programming interface has a progression, based on Google’s visual programming language.”

“Like the hardware, it has blocks that snap together, basically building the robot,” Christensen said. “It’s hard to make mistakes in terms of syntax.”

“There’s one interface for 8- to 9-year-olds, and a more advanced one for up to 16 years old,” he said. “There’s a progression to textual programming language, item code generated from blocks, and the Python interface.”

“It’s part of our business model — a school doesn’t need to buy 10 different robots for 10 grades,” Christensen said.

No hard feelings

Christensen complimented his competition. “I saw lots of interesting things, some very strong, some mature, and some early to market,” he said. “I didn’t expect to win!”

“I spent six months at Carnegie Mellon University, so I liked Hebi’s product,” Christensen said. “I love seeing modular robots get into the world.”

Modular robotics firm builds business model

Shape Robotics has already raised €205,000 ($230,000 U.S.) last year and a pre-sales amount of €26,000 ($29,000) for October in Denmark. It is seeking €750,000 and hopes to launch Fable in Europe and the U.S. in 2017.

Shape Robotics’ team includes a total of 11 people, including the four founders, former students, and businesspeople. Some of the staff has experience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Lego A/S.

The company has been working with pedagogical advisors from the University of Sjaelland and plans to hire a teacher, Christensen said. Shape Robotics also has a licensing agreement with the university.

Shape Robotics plans to begin with a small number of modules in production, he said. “If we get capital, we’d build a larger library and then go international,” Christensen said.

“We’re scaling up from 3D printing to injection molding and mass production,” he said. “The component electronics are built in China, the injection molding is being done locally, and we have our own assembly production in Denmark.”

“Our goal is to sell 200 robot sets to schools in Denmark by the end of the year,” Christensen said. “To build larger robots, several groups can come together, using time-sharing for programming and working with the robot.”

What’s next for the Fable modular robot?

“We’d like to make more modules for different functions,” Christensen explained. “One vision is to make a modular robotics system for personal robotics, since our basic parts can scale up or down in size.”

“We’re launching in autumn with a ‘minimally viable product’ and will add more modules as we raise money,” he said. “In one year’s time, we’ll have a full system.”

“It’s a small but growing robotics community in Denmark,” Christensen said. “It’s good because everybody knows everybody and is supportive of one another.”

He cited the examples of a vacuum-cleaner app or a homemade social robot that could check on a vacation home to see whether renters have cleaned. “This interaction would be based on tools that users provided and shared,” he said.

“We expect to get feedback from users. It’s an incremental process,” Christensen said. “For example, students from one school spent a week in January testing welfare robotics technology at a nursing home.”

“The kids had an explosion of ideas on how to help the elderly with everyday tasks,” he said. “It was a joy to be around this, and we’d like to eventually build these.”

The Force Is Strong With Pitchfire Runner-Up

OptoForce was the second-place winner at RoboBusiness Europe 2016’s Pitchfire contest. It uses optical sensing instead of strain gauges or piezoelectric means, resulting in three highly efficient and flexible six-axis torque sensors, said Marton Gyarmati, product consultant.

The Budapest-based university spinoff worked with Harvard University, MIT, and KUKA. It started with a polishing task in China and is moving into industrial robotics.

OptoForce optical sensors can handle a brightness overload and are 60 percent cheaper than the competition, according to Gyarmati. It has patents in the U.S., China, and Europe, he said.

OptoForce has experienced 600 percent growth to €300,000 ($335,000) in revenue, and it was looking to raise €1.5 million ($1.68 million).

The Pitchfire judges noted that OptoForce has no direct competition, strong intellectual property, and a clear plan of what its founders want to do for the product and sales. They also noted that both winners attended morning sessions to prepare for their presentations.

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