Silas Adekunle was born in Nigeria and moved to the UK at about 11 years old. He spent much of his childhood obsessed with science and technology, playing with Lego robot kits and watching YouTube videos to get ideas for simple robots he could build himself at home.
Now 27, Adekunle is the CEO and founder of a robotics company that he says has raised $10 million in funding. He also built what he calls the world's first gaming robot, which impressed Apple executives enough that, in 2017, the tech giant signed an exclusive distribution deal with Adekunle's UK-based company, Reach Robotics. Apple now sells the robots at $250 a pop.
Adekunle still remembers the first time he built his own robot, "if you could even call it a robot," he tells CNBC Make It. He was only about 9 years old, still living in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria.
This first robot "was basically this motor with two batteries stuck to the side," Adekunle says. "And it would kind of buzz around and kind of shake around, and I would add little steering legs to it, to get it to move in a certain direction. So, you learn a little from there."
That very rudimentary robot actually "worked quite well," Adekunle says — or, at least "as much as a motor with two batteries stuck to it could work."
Now armed with a Bachelor's degree in robotics from the University of the West of England, Adekunle is focused on a much more advanced robotic creation. Called MekaMon, Reach Robotics describes its product as a "battlebot" that uses augmented reality technology to allow gamers and robotics enthusiasts alike to play around with the device in both the real and virtual world.
You can control the MekaMon with a smartphone or tablet (they're compatible with both iOS and Android-supported devices), making the four-legged robots walk around or do flips right in front of you. Connecting the MekaMon to a smart device via bluetooth and opening a free-to-download MekaMon app also unlocks a world of virtual gameplay where your robot can do virtual battle in your actual living room.
The MekaMon's infrared sensors and cameras can identify real-life furniture around it, with augmented reality technology turning a coffee table into a hiding spot for your battlebot as it fires virtual lasers at a rival robot in combat taking place on your smartphone.
"The best way to think of a MekaMon [is] as an entertainment platform," Adekunle tells CNBC Make It. "You've got this robot that's got four legs — really agile, lots of personality, lots of character. You control it from your smartphone or tablet. The more you play with it, the better it gets. You can compete with other people."
Adekunle has been playing with robots for most of his life. Growing up, his father was a chemistry teacher and his mother was a medical nurse, so he says he was always surrounded by science. In Lagos, he spent a lot of time hanging out with neighbors who worked fixing radios and other electronics for a living, learning the basics of using tools to fix and build electronic devices.
"I always wanted my own personal robot," he tells CNBC Make It. "You watch 'Transformers' [and you think], 'I wish I could have Bumblebee in real life.' "
Once he even caused a power outage for his entire apartment block when he tried to plug a battery into a power outlet using just some spare wires.
After his family moved to the UK, Adekunle continued to show an interest in technology, even getting into trouble at school by trying to hack into school computers to get around internet filter software that tried to keep students from playing games online.
When Adekunle went to college, he knew he wanted to focus on robotics, and he even started working on a prototype while still in his college dorm in Bristol, UK. "That took a few months in my dorm room building that," Adekunle tells CNBC Make It about the first prototype for a gaming robot that he made from hand-molded plastic while still in college. (He still has the prototype, which he told Forbes earlier this year looks "ugly as hell" now.)
In 2013, Adekunle met Christopher Beck, who was studying for his PhD in computer science, and John Rees, a robotics expert and engineering consultant. The three of them co-founded Reach Robotics that same year, taking Adekunle's robot prototype and working to develop it into what would become the MekaMon over the next few years.
Reach Robotics first unveiled the MekaMon in the fall of 2016 and then produced a limited run of 500 units last year that sold out completely during that holiday season, Adekunle says. "It was great to see your product in consumers' hands and … for them to actually write in feedback," Adekunle says.
Many of the first customers who tried the MekaMon came back with praise, calling the robot "amazing," Adekunle says. But, others had suggestions for improvements that proved useful to the team at Reach Robotics, including ditching a patterned mat that users of the first iteration of the MekaMon needed to place on the floor to allow the robot's sensors to recognize its surroundings. Moves like that, as well as cutting down the time for a firmware update, were aimed at "making the experience better for the customer," Adekunle tells CNBC Make It.
After selling out its initial run of MekaMons, Reach Robotics landed a major investment round in July 2017, raising $7.5 million from a group led by Korea Investment Partners and iGlobe Partners. (Reach Robotics' total fundraising now tops $10 million, Adekunle says.)
In November 2017, Reach caught the attention of Apple and the tech company signed an exclusive deal to sell the robots online and in brick-and-mortar Apple stores across the US and UK. For Adekunle, it was an amazing feeling to have Apple take an interest in his product and it gave the MekaMon a stamp of approval from one of the biggest companies in the world.
"As a startup launching a product for the first time, and for them taking it on board, that is a huge badge of approval," Adekunle says of landing distribution deals with the likes of Apple and Amazon. "That just shows the quality of the product."
While Reach's distribution deal with Apple was initially exclusive — meaning that MekaMons were only sold either by Apple or on Reach's own website — now, the robots are also sold by Amazon as well as by the Harrods department store in London and, soon, the MekaMon will be sold by the US toy store FAO Schwarz, Adekunle says.
"These are some of the strongest brands in the world, so that gives our customers confidence that the products that they're buying are also high quality," he says.
Of course, as a first-time entrepreneur, Adekunle admits that it was often intimidating to go into a meeting with companies like Apple and Amazon to pitch a product he'd build. But, he says, confidence is key.
"You want to make sure that you're putting forward your best foot. So, for me, I actually had the confidence in our product and the work that our team had done to be able to go into those types of meetings quite confidently," Adekunle says.
Reach Robotics is a private company and does not divulge its sales numbers, but the company is definitely growing, having more than doubled its headcount, to 59 employees, in the past year, according to Adekunle. And, as of last month, the MekaMon is being distributed in more territories than ever before, as it's now sold in a dozen countries, including the US, UK, and Canada.
For now, Adekunle is focused on continuing to expand the reach of his robotic creation. His primary goal at the moment, he says, is "to get our product out into as many hands as possible to share the magic that we're building."
Additional reporting by Andrea Kramar
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