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Returnee Spotlight: Silas Adekunle Is Bringing Robotics Revolution To Africa

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Silas Adekunle holding Mekamon robot

Silas Adekunle holding Mekamon robot [Photo credit: Legit]

The technology industry in the African continent is growing at a high rate. Many African youths are coming up with innovative ideas to solve some of the numerous problems on the continent. Young people particularly from the big economies are taking a lead in developing tech solutions that are gradually transforming Africa. Silas Adekunle, a robotics enthusiast from Nigeria, is one such Africans. Here is his inspiring story including how he is using robotics to transform the education experience among young Africans.

Who is Silas Adekunle?

Adekunle is a Nigerian robotics entrepreneur. He is a graduate of UWE Bristol, England. He was formerly the co-founder as well as CEO of Reach Robotics, a UK-based gaming company founded in 2013 but has since closed down. Silas got into the limelight after inventing Mekamon, a 4-leged robot that employs augmented reality technology. The robot wowed global investors and tech companies like Apple Inc.

Silas is now the founder of Awarri, a company that advances the adoption of robotics technology and Artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa. In 2018, Financial Times featured him in its list of 100 black and minority ethnic individuals driving progress in the technology sector. In the same year, Silas Adekunle was featured in Forbes list of 30 Under 30 Europe.

Early Life

Adekunle was born in Nigeria. He was fortunate to be brought up in a well-off family. His father worked as a chemistry teacher and became a school principal at some point. His mother was a nurse. Even so, he did not have the technology exposure that is enjoyed by many children today. He recalls a time when someone came with a computer to his primary school. Any kid who wanted to see it at a close range was asked to pay a fee.

Right from a young age, Silas started showing interest in technology. In Lagos, he used to hang out with people who fixed radios and other electronics. While Adekunle was pursuing basic education, his mother got a job in the United Kingdom. So, as she worked abroad, communicating with her family was a huge challenge. If she couldn’t access a landline for some reason, Adekunle’s family would wait back in Nigeria with no idea of what was happening.

Journey To the UK

At around age 10, Silas Adekunle joined his mother in the UK and continued with education there. At home, he used to spend time learning more about robots on YouTube. Even in secondary school, his interest in tech was evident. He got into trouble one time after attempting to hack school computers and get over internet software that prevented students from playing online games. Even before Silas joined college, he had already made a choice to focus on robotics.

While studying robotics at UWE Bristol, UK, he started to work on a prototype (from hand-modeled plastic) for a gaming robot. It took him some months to build it from his dorm in Bristol. At the university, he cut his teeth in C++ programing language, which helped him to unlock new opportunities. It was there that Adekunle started to experiment with his first moving robot prototype that would later on become Mekamon.

Reach Robotics Company

In 2013, Silas met John Rees and Christopher Beck who were experienced in robotics. He showed them the prototype and also asked if they could help to develop it into a product. In the same year, the three co-founded the Reach Robotics company. Then, using Adekunle’s prototype, they started to design a robot. Some people who heard about what they were doing told them it was too complicated.

Reach Robotics co-founders (from L to R) John Rees , Silas Adekunle, and Chris Beck

Reach Robotics co-founders (from L to R) John Rees, Silas Adekunle, and Chris Beck [Photo credit: Cnbc]

Others said the robot would be too expensive and people would not buy it. Toy manufacturers whose projects had stalled also told the robotics experts that they needed to make it really cheap. But Silas Adekunle and his co-founders never got discouraged nor distracted by naysayers. They believed that there were still customers who would buy a more complex product. Indeed, they had an unshakable belief in themselves and their idea.

Some people believe that connections, resources, background, and luck create successful people. Although these factors influence the path to success, the key ingredient to success is self-belief. James Clear, a successful author and entrepreneur says,

“The biggest difference I’ve noticed between successful people and unsuccessful people isn’t intelligence or opportunity or resources. It’s the belief that they can make their goals happen.”

Mekamon Unveiled

In the fall of 2016, Reach Robotics unveiled a four-legged robot named Mekamon. It was dubbed the world’s first intelligent gaming robot. The company also developed an app for controlling the robot. The following year, the company produced 500 units and they were all sold out. Adekunle recalls,

“It was great to see your product in consumers’ hands and … for them to actually write in feedback.”

In July 2017, the company raised $7.5 million after it landed a major investment from a group led by two venture capital firms – iGlobe Partners and Korea Investment Partners. A few months later, Mekamon caught the attention of Apple Inc. The robot’s quality and ability to display emotions using subtly calibrated movements impressed Apple executives.

Silas Adekunle says, “When I went into robotics, I really loved motion.” So, he used motion in robotics to show emotional reactions from humans. For example, Silas, Beck, and Rees programmed Mekamon to make certain movements to show happiness, or anger when you don’t play with it. Also, stamping feet or sharp movements indicate aggression. The robot was designed with an inherent ability to perform personalized functions by customizing its features.

Subsequently, Apple offered Reach Robotics an exclusive deal of selling its robots in Apple’s stores both in the US and UK. Apple priced the four-legged robot at $300. Early customers were male techies. Many parents also bought the robot for their kids. Adekunle considered Apple’s deal as a huge stamp of approval for their product. He said,

“As a startup launching a product for the first time, and for them taking it on board, that is a huge badge of approval.”

Reach Robotics Closure

Unfortunately, Reach Robotics closed down in 2019 owing to inherent challenges associated with the consumer robotic sector. News about its closure was announced by Silas Adekunle on LinkedIn. The statement read in part:

“The consumer robotics sector is an inherently challenging space – especially for a start-up. Over the past six years, we have taken on this challenge with consistent passion and ingenuity. From the first trials of development to accelerators and funding rounds, we have fought to bring MekaMon to life and into the hands of the next generation of tech pioneers. Unfortunately, for Reach Robotics, in its current form at least, today marks the end of that journey.”

Awarri – Africa’s Robotics Enabler

After the closure of Reach Robotics, Adekunle did not abandon robotics altogether. He decided to use Mekamon to establish a robotics education ecosystem in Africa. To achieve that, he founded Awarri. This is an education initiative for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM).

Awarri seeks to expose educators and young people to robotics. It focuses on the adaptation and development of robotics technology in Africa. Through this company, Adekunle provides educational tools that help to prepare young people to develop tech solutions to address challenges in Africa. His mission is to empower young Africans to solve African problems.

Conclusion

Today, Silas Adekunle enjoys remarkable success in the world of robotics. Using his creativity and skillfulness, he has made creations that have wowed and impressed global investors and giant companies. As Adekunle continues to champion the robotics revolution in Africa, his story shows that anything is doable once you put your mind and energy into it. He is a testament that Africans have the ability to create solutions to the challenges facing Africa.

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