One of the main reasons behind the creation of the Skolkovo Foundation was to revitalize Russian domestic innovation in multiple industrial and technological areas, including robotics. Now, ten years later, ROBBO, a startup and Skolkovo resident that specializes in robotics for educational purposes, was recently offered $2 million from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to fit out over two hundred schools throughout Japan with its equipment and software with the purposes of educating school kids in programming and robotics.
This is part of the Japanese government’s subsidizing program for EdTech services. State subsidies cover 70% of organizational expenses for the engineering class, while the remaining 30% the company invests.
The founder of ROBBO, Pavel Frolov, has a long background in free software programming - otherwise known as open source software and hardware. It differs from licensed software in that it is, by its own definition, free. Frolov has worked with free software since 2000 and, according to him, “all of our team’s work prior to the creation of ROBBO was preparation for what we are doing now.”
They have developed an innovative means to teach children robotics and programming through the use of public domain software. Open source software has an advantage over licensed software in this regard in that it allows kids to not only to disassemble and reassemble it, but also to make improvements and create an entirely new device.
From its array of services, the company offers two core products.
ROBBO Class is a solution for educational institutions, allowing them to teach robotics, programming and 3D-printing to kids. It provides both hardware and software as well as methodological materials for teaching the young innovators and engineers of the future. There are already over three hundred such classes in existence both in Russia and abroad.
Robboclub.Ru is a school of robotics, programming and 3D-printing for kids aged 5 to 15. It’s developing into a franchise and ROBBO is helping partners open clubs using its tried and tested business model and an in-depth educational program. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Robboclub.Ru classes are taking place online with one teacher, administrator and up to five persons per lesson.
During classes on algorithms, programming and robotics, kids will learn to create animations, games, and mobile apps, and will also program their own robots. During circuitry and microelectronics classes, the kids get to figure out the structure of devices and learn how to build them with their own hands. By studying “smart home” technologies, they learn to automate everyday processes, program devices, and design a setup of a “smart home” with useful and real working functions.
Entry into the Japanese market
Already in eighteen markets around the world, the company attracted the attention of the Japanese government when it won the Fukuoka Startup Day competition in 2019. The competition is a cooperative Russo-Japanese event in which ten Russian and Japanese startups compete; ROBBO won it and subsequently opened a subsidiary - ROBBO Japan - in December 2019 with the help of the mayor of Fukuoka. From there, using it as a platform, they intend to scale up their business and target other Asian markets.
Pavel highlights that the main goal in Japan and abroad is to show not just government representatives, but also the teachers, heads of schools and the parents the advantages of the ROBBO program.
“It is really a very deep program, and the educational methods are based on our Finnish experience, and the Finnish education system is considered the best in the world. Our developers provide an exciting means for studying technology in which kids gain real knowledge that they can apply.”
Few such programs exist in Japan and the current work to fit out two hundred schools is just the first stage of the project. The company hopes to build on this next year, as there are approximately twenty thousand elementary schools in Japan that need the services ROBBO has to offer.
Robboclub.ru opened its first two clubs in April - one in Tokyo and one in Fukuoka - although they are currently working online due to the ongoing pandemic and, for now, online education is the main point of focus, although its future prospects are promising. About a dozen Japanese companies and entrepreneurs have shown interest in the ROBBO franchise.
The Finnish Experience
This isn’t the first time that the company has won competitions abroad and subsequently set up subsidiaries. “In 2014, we won the Finnish government competition, ‘Finlanding,’ thanks to which we were able to enter the market. The competition organizers came to Russia in search of companies with good export potential and that could, through the Finnish government, scale up for an international market. They helped us open an office, and introduced us to the country’s educational institutions with which we immediately began collaborating. Now, through the ROBBO Finland subsidiary, we are exporting our products to [other] European countries,” said Pavel Frolov.
Finland has the best education system in the world, while Japan comes an impressive seventh place on the OECD Better Life Index. However, Japan is in the top five in the world in the field of robotics. It is thus no small feat for a young startup to attract the attention of both countries’ governments to help improve their education systems in the field of robotics.
“The fact that the Japanese government is helping us is a recognition of our developments and educational methods from the most authoritative experts in the world,” said Pavel. “It inspires hope that we can be as successful in other Asian countries as we have been in Japan, as they look to a great extent at the experience of their advanced neighbor. In Japan, they understand on a high level the importance of education in the field of Industry 4.0 technologies.”
Like Japan, Finland serves as a launching pad into other markets - European markets. The company’s Finnish subsidiary is taking part in collaborative programs with the European Union while opening robotics classes in Finnish schools.
For now, Russia is still where the company is most active and Mr. Frolov stated that as of 2019, educational robotics in Russia was valued at 4 billion rubles (54 million euros approx. according to the 2019 average exchange rate). According to Mr. Frolov, what differentiates ROBBO from its competitors is the fact that it uses open source software and hardware. Most other companies use licenced software, which is quite limiting if the aim is to teach kids how to program, improve and build robots.
ROBBO ultimately aims to enter as many markets as possible, although the ones that are of particular interest are China and India; with its current success in Japan, expansion into other Asian markets has become a realistic ambition.