Entrepreneurial Insights: 5 Minutes with Barobo’s Graham Ryland
Graham Ryland is passionate about creating robots that inspire young people to pursue careers in engineering and science. He focused on modular robotics for his graduate work at UC Davis, and was bitten by the entrepreneurship bug at the UC Entrepreneurship Academy in 2008—an early experience with the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship that has deepened into a rewarding relationship. In 2010 Ryland founded Barobo Inc., an educational robotics start-up, with his faculty advisor, College of Engineering Professor Harry Cheng.
As president of Barobo, Ryland creates robots for transformative K–12 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) experiences. Barobo recently launched a $40,000 campaign on Kickstarter to jumpstart sales of its latest affordable educational robots.
In a nutshell, what is Barobo?
Barobo makes it possible for anyone to create with robots!
How did you and Harry Cheng come together to found the company? You describe yourselves as “a bunch of robot geeks with the goal of delivering an affordable and versatile robot to power the next generation of innovators.” What are your roles in the company today?
Harry and I decided we wanted to start a company together the first day we met. I was interviewing labs at UC Davis, deciding where I wanted to do my graduate work, and we hit it off right away. I handle Barobo’s day-to-day operations and engineering development, and Harry handles outreach.
What is Barobo’s entrepreneurial journey, from your first product to your latest, the Linkbot. You’ve demonstrated that both a business plan and the ability to be nimble and flexible are critical.
We created our first robot, the iMobot, in the College of Engineering’s Integration Engineering Laboratory during my graduate research. We then took this advanced technology and reduced the complexity from a $5k robot to a $270 robot—the Mobot. We’ve 3D printed more than 300 Mobots, and they’re currently being used in 30+ high schools and middle schools across California. We launched the Linkbot earlier this year as a low-cost alternative. We were able to take the profit of our sales of the Mobot to bootstrap our way into plastic injection-molded parts for the Linkbot.
How can the Linkbot transform K-12 STEM education—and more?
Robots make math come alive by giving a hands-on application for word problems. Our robots are easy to control even if you have zero programming experience, and they have applications in the STEM curriculum, which is part of the common core. We also have a unique software called PoseTeaching that allows kids to program with their hands on the robot first, and then make edits to the code afterwards.
Barobo received a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2011; last April you received an additional $500,000 from the foundation. How has this and other support helped Barobo grow—and helped make your product affordable?
We are extremely grateful to the NSF for making it possible to commercialize research from UC Davis and launch our educational robots. Through sales and partnerships, we’ve been able to bootstrap our way thus far, so we’re still completely privately owned and operated. We’re currently looking for partnerships and a round of financing to expand our market by reducing our product cost and marketing.
From the start, you’ve fostered close connections with the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. How did the 2008 UC Entrepreneurship Academy help you gain the insight, skills and network that have been critical to Barobo’s success?
I really caught the bug at the Entrepreneurship Academy! It was an intensive program that stretched me out of my comfort zone but helped me to realize, through exercises and guest speakers, how to demystify the process of starting a company.
The institute’s Angels on Campus program provides a rare opportunity for budding innovators to present to a group of angel investors, get feedback and build plans to commercialize their research. How has Barobo benefitted from this?
I’ve pitched to the Angeles on Campus on two occasions and both times received a lot of great feedback that honed my story and helped me describe our technology and market more clearly.
What was your experience as one of Davis Roots’ initial client companies?
Davis Roots opening their doors to us was perfectly timed! We were all doing this from our homes and garages and Davis Roots—a business accelerator bridging the city of Davis and UC Davis—provided Barobo’s first office and helping to foster the professionalism and community I wanted for Barobo. We learned a lot from Andy Hargadon and Joe DiNunzio, and leaned heavily on their network to help us achieve what we’ve accomplished.
What has been your most satisfying moment since launching Barobo?
Getting that half million dollar grant from the NSF was pretty dang sweet! My wife and I hugged and cried. It was an emotional time for us: Barobo was finished without that grant.
You just launched a $40,000 campaign on Kickstarter, a leading crowd-funding site, to jump-start sales of the Linkbot educational robots. Assuming success, what’s next for Barobo?
We’re working with hobby and school re-sellers to get the Linkbot on the shelves and in the classroom. We’re also working with several organizations, including C-STEM at UC Davis, to develop curriculum for the classroom.
You’ve shared your experiences and expertise at the institute’s Think Global, Launch Local speaker series this spring and will be presenting at the UC Entrepreneurship Academy in September. What is your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at UC Davis?
Starting a company takes a lot of work and a lot of money, and I wouldn’t have been able to come this far without the full support of my wife, Natalie. Pick your partners wisely: this will make or break it. And don’t let your company become 100 percent your “day-job.” Keep some part of it your passion, otherwise you’ll burn out.