Photo: Kane Hsieh
In a startup scene filled with boring me-too photo apps, Pinterest clones, and marketing gimmicks, it’s thrilling to discover a company that’s trying something truly ambitious.After speaking with Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of Romotive, we think we’ve found just that.
Romotive makes a little robot that lets your iPhone wheel around.
The little gadget retails for $149, and most people will dismiss it as a toy. While they’re right to call it a toy, they’re wrong to shrug off the company.
Romotive is turning smart phones into a brain that powers inanimate objects. In a sense, it brings them to life. Rinaudo says he wants to place a robot in every household and his team is developing a robot API.
To do that, he’s lined up an impressive list of investors. Romotive has raised $1.5 million from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, TechStars executives David Cohen and David Tisch, Lerer Ventures, Microsoft executives and a Nokia executive.
Now the company is fulfilling 2,000 Kickstarter orders, including two orders from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman.
But it wasn’t easy for the company to get taken seriously.
HOW IT WORKS
Right now, Romotive is just a mini car that your iPhone, Android or iPad can control for $99. The mobile device becomes the brain of the robot on wheels. Romo has a cute blue face that changes expression and makes noises, like growls and giggles, at the controller’s discretion.
Romo can be controlled by one or two smart devices. With one, the user can strap the mobile device to the car and put Romo in free range mode or dance mode. With two devices (two phones, an iPad and an iPhone, etc), Romo can be driven around a room, much like Orbotix’s Sphero. The driver can control the robot’s direction via the phone’s camera and video features.
You might not be impressed by a device that simply rolls around, but kids are.
The first investor who met with Romotive brought his 9-year-old son. Upon arriving, the boy was given a Romo to entertain him. Romo was placed outside the room and the boy had to navigate it through the closed door using only the iPad’s camera. The investor told Romotive, “Guys, you could have been speaking Klingon to me. When I see my own son so wrapped up in something how can I not invest?”
In addition, Romotive is creating a robot API. Developers can program new moves for the robot, and users can download them to upgrade the toy.
It is the future of toys and mobile gaming — a toy that keeps evolving without ever having to buy a new version. Toy stores and major electronics companies are already interested. Romotive is working on a deal to place its robots in stores nation wide. It has had meetings with the likes of Mattel, Disney and Apple.
IT LOOKS JUST LIKE THE OLD APPLE DAYS
Romotive’s three founders are childhood friends. CEO Keller Rinaudo says he’s been friends with his co-founder Paul Seid since he was “small enough to stuff in a locker.” Rinaudo attended Harvard; his other co-founders attended their state school, University of Arizona. The three 20-somethings are working in a Las Vegas apartment that’s a few floors down from lead investor and Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh.
We got a tour of Romotive’s office and factory via Apple’s FaceTime. The space also doubles as the founders’ apartment. Twelve people are working in the tight living quarters.
The bathroom doorway is barricaded by the 2,000 Romotive devices ordered on Kickstarter and need to be shipped.
Lerer Ventures’ Eric Hippeau left the office saying it reminded him of the old Silicon Valley days, where people built things in garages and the community gathered around to watch.
REJECTED FOR THINKING DIFFERENTLY
While Romotive is building and shipping like crazy, it wasn’t easy to be taken seriously at first.
Photo: Kane Hsieh
Rinaudo and his co-founders applied to TechStars NYC but were told there was no room in the program. Managing Director Dave Tisch placed a call and got them into the Seattle TechStars program.”We had mentor whiplash,” says Rinaudo. “A lot of them said iPhone robots were a bad idea and that we needed to pivot.”
Rinaudo says Romotive was the only TechStars Seattle startup in its class to present on Demo Day without any financing.
“We were sort of the black sheep,” says Rinaudo. “The director put our presentation in the middle — I think he thought we were young guys who couldn’t execute. A lot of the other companies were marketing plays focused on traditional websites. The idea that we were going to build robots was just crazy.”
Instead of talking about market sizes, Romotive’s Demo Day presentation was spent talking about the vision of robots and why the ones today needed to be reimagined.
“We grew up watching movies with amazing robots,” says Rinaudo. “Unfortunately they suck today. They’re either cheap plastic toys that break or they cost $5 million dollars. That’s a huge gap. There needs to be one that’s affordable that can do normal things.” Romotive wants to put a robot in every household.
Rinaudo says their presentation last August clicked with the audience and investors started calling immediately. “We went 12 for 12,” he says of the meetings. “Every conversation we had ended in the person choosing to invest.”
In the end, Romotive raised more capital than any of the other startups in its Seattle class. Dave Tisch told the founders that passing on them initially was one of his biggest regrets.
“Romo plays into a really deep childhood dream,” says Rinaudo. “People realise, ‘Wow, there are going to be robots in the future,’ and it comes from 40 years of frustration of never seeing that dream come to fruition.”
Here’s a video of the founders showing and explaining their product, Romo in the Las Vegas headquarters:
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