Students interacting with the robot Jett during a programming session.

RoboKind uses their tech powers for good to help kids with autism and STEM education

RoboKind is one of those companies that flies relatively low on the radar of the DFW startup community, but since 2011 they’ve gone from 5 to 22 full-time employees, raised $17 million dollars locally, and reached students in 35 states, and they’re just getting started.

Richard Margolin, CTO and co-founder, has worked in robotics for many years. After working on multi-million dollar robotics projects for university research groups, he saw the potential for socially advanced robots to impact autism therapy on a large scale.

“I had no idea it would work this well. I thought the best case, it would be just as effective but much cheaper,” he said. He decided to find a cost-effective way to bring this research and technology to the masses, and RoboKind was born.

RoboKind is based in downtown Dallas, and their mission is to create cost-effective and inclusive education for all. Their two product offerings include Robots4Autism and their later creation, Robots4STEM. Starting out, their team worked closely with the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community to help shape Milo, a facially expressive and socially advanced robot for their Robots4Autism program. To say that their tech is changing the world for good would be an understatement. Milo has taken kids who have been in therapy for as long as 10 years with little to no improvements and helped improved their skills in as quick as 1-3 months. The curriculum for this program covers many areas these children struggle in, including calming techniques, conversation dynamics, emotional expression and recognition, and more.

Video provided courtesy of RoboKind

While traditional therapy success rates sit around 3%, Milo boasts a success rate of 80%. This success is tied to patience and repetition that humans can’t replicate, and that is the key to success in engaging ASD learners. In the years since they’ve launched RoboKind, the autism community has become more accepting of their product as the data they’ve collected has proven Milo’s success.

A student sits at a table with an aide during a therapy session with the robot.

An ASD learner interacts during a session with Milo. Photo: RoboKind

Moving forward, the company realized that their robots had the potential to effect change across STEM curriculums in public schools as well. They created Robots4STEM, a visual programming language using Scratch that gives children the building blocks for computer science. They have fun learning computer science basics with drag and drop programming to control a humanoid robot named Jett. Jett serves as the avatar and works in parody with an actual robot in the classroom to carry out the students’ programmed commands.

Starting November 1, Robots4Stem will be launching in 15 schools in DISD, with plans in place to be in 35+ schools by the end of the year. While the curriculum is mainly focused on grade 2-6 right now, the goal is to be an end-to-end solution when it comes to STEM education for students through high school. RoboKind’s goal is to get students to a place where they can graduate high school and be prepared/skilled enough to take an entry-level programming job.

Parents oversee their kids interact with Jett during a programming session.

Photo: RoboKind

For 2019, they plan to look forward to more growth and a bigger reach across the US. While they’re in 35 states currently, they have the most traction in Texas and South Carolina. One of their biggest challenges since starting the business has been selling the programs to schools, despite their proven success rates. The process is slow, and it can take partnerships years to get up and running due to the bureaucracy, which can be frustrating. But the team is determined, knowing that they’re a cost-effective solution for schools and students.

For the Robots4Autism program, their conservative estimate is a savings of $80-200,000 a year per robot that schools invest in, depending on how many students they’re reaching. “If we can help these kids move forward and be more independent in life, they’re a lower cost to society, and they can lead productive lives,” said Richard. And it’s not all talk, as several of RoboKind’s own employees are openly diagnosed with autism.

2019 will also include more fundraising for the company. To date, they’ve managed to buck stereotypes and have raised $17 million here in DFW. For their next round, they will have to venture out of the area. They’ll be looking to specifically partner with groups in education to help them with their strategic growth into more schools across the country. They have been successful despite a long road full of challenges that they’ve had to overcome.

Richard’s advice to other startups? “My advice is early on, really figure out what you’re doing and create a narrow focus for it. Anything that diverges from that is a distraction.” He goes on to say that startups should ignore the weird partnership requests unless they’re committed to a full pivot.

“I’ve watched so many people burn through so much cash and accomplish so little because they didn’t stay focused. Figure out what you’re doing and stick to it. Learn and get feedback as early as possible.”

You can learn more about RoboKind and both of their programs here.  

Caitlin Studley