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Kids Get Hands-On With Robots at This Brooklyn Business

·Siemond Chan

For kids, robots can be fun -- and educational, too. Many modern educators believe that getting kids involved in tinkering and building is the most powerful way to engage them in the world of science and technology. These days an increasing amount of entrepreneurs and businesses are recognizing the potential value of this in the marketplace. Brooklyn Robot Foundry is one of them.

Located in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the Foundry provides workshops that aim to "inspire and motivate kids about the fun of building" by teaching the engineering concepts behind how robots move and work. The Foundry offers after-school programs for children in pre-K through 5th grade, as well as weekend classes and summer sessions. The Robot Girls Club allows parents to build robots with their daughters in a workshop environment; there are plans to expand this program to include boys in the near future.


The Foundry's two co-founders, Jenny Young and Dave VanEsselstyn, met while working at an educational software company. Young has her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and VanEsselstyn has his Ph.D. in Education Technology from Columbia. The two friends wanted to create a space where different types of kids with similar interests could meet and learn together. The Foundry made quite a splash when it debuted at the World Maker Faire New York 2012 — "the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth" — and it has been growing ever since.

We had the opportunity to visit the Foundry and sit down with Young last week.

Can you tell us about the genesis of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry?

Dave and I worked together for four years at a software company that designs education software that assess the reading level of children and such. I decided to leave and try something else. Part of the reason I wanted to leave is because I am very much a hands-on person. In New York City, finding a job for a mechanical engineer is kind of tricky, so the past eight years of my career were mostly business related. So I quit, hoping that I could start something on my own. But I really didn't know what it was going to be.

We [she and Dave VanEsselstyn] went to lunch a week after I quit my job at the software company. Dave told me he had this idea for a really long time — since when he was at Columbia. He was doing a lot of stuff with LEGO robotics, and he saw how much you can inspire and how excited kids were when you bring in a little robot. And he got the kids to solve different problems on their own, and that is something that really inspired him. He thought, "This is a great way for people to learn. Jenny, do you want to do something where we can inspire kids through hands-on learning?" I am not actually sure if he was pitching this idea; I think it was more like, "This is an idea I had…" That sounded like the best thing ever to me. That was around April, two years ago.


See photos of the visit to the Robot Foundry >

We sat down and brainstormed — "What is the best way for us to do this?” — knowing that we wanted to get started slowly. We don't have any funding; it's just our own money and we wanted to try it in little steps and see if anyone else thought this was a good idea. Is anyone even going to sign up their kids? Is this something we can make any money at? So we took a bunch of baby steps and got to the point where we are at now, which looks like something people want.

How did the Foundry get started?

What we started with was just weekend classes because we were both working. I was working a consulting gig, and Dave still has a real job he goes to five days a week. The only amount of time we have is on the weekends, so let's try a couple of pop-up classes. We went to Maker Faire two years ago, having never done anything. We had done a lot of business planning and a lot of research, but we have never run a class. We brought along a robot arena, we brought some little test robots, and we had some hands-on activities for the kids. Somehow they liked our concept so much that we got upgraded to a prime location with an awesome booth. We talked to people at the fair and we sold out three of our classes in the first day. We had no idea… we had done some research on pricing… Then we sold out all the classes! People were super ecstatic.

We started doing pop-up classes on weekends at my machine shop down the street. They let us borrow their chairs and folding tables. We brought a bunch of screwdrivers and wrenches and some robot parts. For capital investment, it was pretty low… We put in $10,000 of our own money in the first year. It worked out — things are selling out.

See photos from the New York City FIRST Robotics Competition >

What are some hurdles you faced?

First hurdle is a commercial lease, especially in New York City. Residential leases are great — they are in the people's favor, not the landlord's. Commercial leases are in the landlord's favor, not the businesses'. We know the classes are selling out and it was going really well, so we started looking for a permanent space. When you are new and you can't really prove that you know what you are doing or you had more than a year or more of constant revenue stream, they don't want to rent to you. If they do, they'll probably give you a 10-year lease. A 10-year lease, if you don't have an idea if this is going to work, is a very scary thing.

There are not a lot of other companies in the U.S. that are robot-building for kids. We had a really hard time talking to insurance companies and [getting them] to insure us. We use screwdrivers, wire cutters and pliers; it's not really dangerous. It's much less dangerous than rock climbing or even Karate. When you tell them, "We are going to teach robotics to children…” they'll just give you this blank stare and they ask you questions like, "Won't the children eat the robot parts and die?" I probably talked to 20 insurance companies before anyone would even consider insuring us. There was a point when we thought, this isn't doable if we can't find anyone to insure us, and we did a very good job in explaining why this isn't dangerous. It's just that people did not know what to do with that information.

What’s your assessment two years later?

We are not rolling in dough or anything like that, but we are making enough to pay all the employees, to buy all the stock and slowly expand. Financially, it's going well. From a community perspective, it's going really well. We get a lot of positive feedback. We have already sold out the key weeks of summer sessions. We sold out of those sessions in February, and we had only posted them mid- or late January, and we have done zero advertising. I think the majority of our traffic came from word of mouth, which is pretty remarkable.