Creative collaborations: Reach Robotics
It's all very well having fantastic engineering knowledge in your business and the ability to create an incredible product; but without an understanding of how your customers might use it, your firm could end up making some costly mistakes and miss opportunities to grow.
One southwest company leading the way in robot gaming has been able to benefit from a close collaboration with arts and humanities academics that has helped them develop a much greater depth of knowledge and understanding of how they might make themselves more useful to their customers.
Bristol’s Reach Robotics has developed MekaMon (or Mecha Monsters), robots controlled via smartphones that battle with one another at the player’s feet as well as in the virtual world. The engineering is world-class: but from the start, the founders knew that there was more to a successful business than hardware.
To bridge this gap, early in the company's development Reach Robotics teamed up with experts in gaming cultures from the University of West of England to explore how players might interact with their robots. The collaboration was facilitated through the AHRC-funded REACT Knowledge Exchange Hub.
Reach Robotics’ aim was to find out more about what made a successful gaming 'culture' and how they could create a buzz around their product that gamers would become passionate about.
The UWE academics were able to draw on their research to provide a greater understanding of how players might interact with MekaMon robots and this in turn has informed how Reach Robotics market their product.
And it seems to have worked: the company is now looking so good that this summer it was able to announce that it had secured $7.5m (£5.8m) in foreign investment.
What Reach Robotics learnt from the UWE academics was that successful gaming firms inspire players to create vibrant cultures around the product, which include fan practices, discussions and transmedia products, such as Let’s Play videos, reviews and playtests.
It's this user-generated content that is a key marker of success and all the most popular toy and game brands have it, from World of Warcraft to Lego.
As a result of what they've learned, Reach Robotics have now prioritised the creation of a robotic gaming world that wraps around their product, which they hope will encourage people to have fun and at the same time learn more about robotics, technology and engineering.
As well as providing a valuable opportunity for learning, the collaboration also enabled Reach Robotics to draw on the funding opportunities provided by REACT to help establish the company.
They went on to be one of ten robotics companies to have been accepted onto the prestigious Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, an intensive start-up programme supported by Techstars based in San Diego, California.
Further recognition came in 2015 when the company was selected as one of the UK-based start-ups to accompany HRH Prince William on his ‘Innovation is GREAT’ campaign trip to Japan and China.
Silas Adekunle, CEO of Reach Robotics, was clear about the value of the collaboration facilitated by REACT KE Hub: ‘Collaborations of this sort are quite rare in the field of robotics and I have found them to be invaluable.
“We’ve now got more robust prototypes because we had users testing and informing our design process, with research input at every stage.
“We’re in a stronger position with the products because of this approach to knowledge exchange... REACT’s funding and unique approach to knowledge exchange has provided me with access to high-quality research, business support, and sustainable professional relationships that have helped me take my company from start-up to investment.”
Creativity thrives in clusters
Creative companies thrive in an environment where academics, researchers, other companies and entrepreneurs are able to mix and share knowledge, skills and ideas – and that is what the firm found around UWE and Bristol.
As Lexi Sage, Head of Comms & PR at Reach Robotics, told Tech Spark: “Being based in Bristol is one of the best things for our company.
“In 2015, we spent four months in San Diego and we discussed relocating to the USA, but ultimately, Bristol is a very supportive community, and full of top technical talent.
“It’s large enough to be a draw for recruiting but small enough that we can keep our heads down and focused on developing a great experience for our community.”