Our Alumni - 2014


Modbot puts industrial quality robot building blocks into the hands of everyday inventors.

Imagine automated manufacturing and consumer robots within reach of everybody, assembled like Lego but with industrial precision and power.

Modbot is a system of affordable and reusable modules that snap together, filling the gap between $100 hobby and $20,000+ industrial motion equipment.

Daniel Pizzata stepped off the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield stage at CES 2014 and was stopped by Highway1’s Saroya Whatley, who handed him a brochure. “I just had a psychic moment with Brady Forrest [VP,Highway1 ] while he was onstage,” she told him — Brady was a judge that year — “and you guys need to come see us in San Francisco next week.” A scant two months later, team Modbot was on a plane from Australia to start the program.

The next four months, Pizzata recalls, were an “incredible, overwhelming, confronting experience for us.” Bringing to life their dream of a modular robotics platform meant that even putting together the demonstration unit for Demo Day would be an unprecedented amount of work: “We literally had nothing but a model.” In the weeks leading up to Demo Day, they found themselves working twelve-hour days, seven days a week. “The very last day was a 22-hour day and night, running back and forth between rooms, living on almonds — we finished at 6 AM on Demo Day.”

They weren’t alone: even as busy as they were, the Modbot team found time to help their fellow Highway1 classmates. “We spent a lot of time offering skillsets,” Pizzata says, “and that was a really valuable exchange. The teams that were available who had skillsets other groups didn’t were able to collaborate effectively for free, and have this shared resource without any concern for IP because our companies were distinctive enough to not worry about it.” Pizzata singles out Nick McGranahan from sigSense, who had invaluable input on electrical engineering matters. “We were always the last ones in the room.”

The exchange of technical knowledge didn’t stop there, either. Pizzata says they got the most value from a talk given by Chumby’s Bunnie Wong during the trip to China. “He talked to the specific low-level requirements of what you’re gonna have to do on the production line, how you can communicate with your manufacturer and your factory workers, and how you can manage your pricing throughout the process.”

The trip to Shenzhen was hugely rewarding in two senses, Pizzata thinks:

In the abstract, “the China trip means it’s becoming real: your product’s not a delusion inside your mind anymore. You’re being given real perspective: that there are other people out there who are gonna be able to take your idea, your CAD, your circuits and software, and carry it through the production line. All of us get to see it and come back excited by the prospect thinking ‘OK, great! This is the next step for me, and I know what’s next after I finish here at Highway1.'”

To Modbot specifically, “Shenzhen was really valuable because we were able to see on the factory floor what the process for production is, the operations that are available to us, the different types of machines and injection molding, etc.”

The trip was doubly valuable in that Modbot was able to identify an entirely new market. “One of the biggest transitions for us as a company through Highway1 was that we came in with a B2C model, and we’ve completely flipped that around. While we’ll always be able to sell to consumers in the future, we’ll now be able to tailor to industrial clients straight off the bat, which is a ridiculously massive market in comparison.” Modbot has received corporate investment from the likes of GE and Flextronics, and is busy forming partnerships to bring their vision into the world.

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