Czech company RoboTwin s.r.o. uses motion tracking as an alternative to classic automation.
The story of RoboTwin s.r.o., a Czech start-up developing industrial automation through motion tracking and imitation, seems to have all the ingredients for a happy ending. But no start-up can hope to traverse the gulf between the lab and the market alone. The support of the EIT and EIT Manufacturing was instrumental to the start-up’s success.
Many roads lead to entrepreneurship. For some people, it's a calling. Megi Mejdrechová, a Czech engineer, does not see herself as one of those people. If you had asked her just a few years ago, she probably would have said that nothing about entrepreneurship appealed to her. She enjoys the analytical and technical nature of the engineering field. "I really love technical tasks, development, solving challenges, and making something work," said Mejdrechová. And yet, in 2020, she ended up co-founding RoboTwin, where she is also CTO. Mejdrechová now builds on the technology she developed during her studies.
One question was instrumental in her decision to make the leap: was she creating anything useful? Something that improves industry, the environment, or people’s lives? “After graduating I had the chance to work on my own innovation, which I believe has the potential to make the manufacturing industry a better and safer place," said Mejdrechová. The power to follow her own beliefs and create a positive impact eventually made entrepreneurship attractive to her.
Being a young woman in the male-dominated high-tech field seemed to add to the challenge. However, Mejdrechová does not see it that way: “I think it can be an advantage. You’re more visible, people are interested, and you can be part of a powerful women co-founder community which is very supportive and welcoming.”
How a university student can change an industry
In 2019, a Czech spray painting company approached the Czech Technical University. The company’s purely manual processes meant that employees would spray paint products by hand – a laborious, dirty, and unhealthy job. The process was un-scalable and the company had to decline orders due to lack of workers. Since they could not find a suitable solution on the market, they turned to academia. It turned out that most small and medium-sized paint shops, 250 in Czechia alone, still manually paint using a spray gun. Many want to robotise their production, but the specialised nature of their work meant that it was too expensive and inefficient.
Mejdrechová, who was a student at the Czech Technical University at the time, took up the challenge of developing a solution. She set out to help automate a manufacturing industry still reliant on a human workforce. If she was successful, she could reduce the number of hours painters spend in unhealthy or even toxic environments doing repetitive tasks. “I was very excited about this topic and took this very seriously. It was simply not acceptable to me that so many people are still working in such conditions,” said Mejdrechová.
She designed a way to robotise small-scale industrial painting easily and efficiently. “With the support of my supervisor, I tried out this motion tracking-based approach," explains Mejdrechová. "We consulted with the paint shop, which helped me a lot to focus on a user-friendly solution”. Eventually, a prototype was successfully tested in a painting cell. It is on this technology that RoboTwin’s solution is based.
An alternative approach to automation
Many industries have long developed and adopted automation techniques. One classic example is robots working at conveyor belts. This approach to automation replaces trained workers with “generalist” robots. For specialised tasks, such as spray painting or coating, this means replacing experienced and skilled specialists. The robot that’s replacing them has no knowledge of the task and the programmer is unable to create a suitable programme (since there is no one to tell them how).
RoboTwin provides an alternative approach to automation based on motion tracking and imitation. While an experienced worker demonstrates how the paint job is done on the first product in the series, RoboTwin tracks their motion and processes this data into a robotics programme. The robot is then able to imitate their exact motions and can finish the other products in the series.
Jumpstarting a promising venture
As a student researcher, Mejdrechová never gave much thought to technology transfer or the gap between technology and industrial practice. But she received a lot of positive feedback from paint shops and heard how much they wanted her solution to actually be available on the market. She then realised that her solution would probably not get that chance unless she took the initiative. “Eventually, it was my friend who convinced me that no one else but me, who brought the project up to the stage of a prototype, has the highest chance to push it towards a successful end,” remembers Mejdrechová.
Mejdrechová formed a team of three and joined EIT Jumpstarter, where they ended up winning the Grand Final. With their technology’s potential confirmed, they officially established RoboTwin s.r.o. The lessons and support from EIT Jumpstarter turned out to be invaluable for RoboTwin.
Looking back, participating in the EIT Jumpstarter programme was a game changing experience for us. It helped us validate our plans in the early stage and gave us very good advice on what to focus on further.
Megi Mejdrechová, Co-founder and CTO of RoboTwin s.r.o
The team noticed that gathering feedback from their customers didn't just improve their tech. It helped them build relationships. Mejdrachová's advice today for anyone who wants to start a project is to first draw on the expertise of seasoned experts. “To create an informed outlook, it is necessary to find mentors and experts that are willing to help," said Mejdrachová. "We were lucky to gain support from EIT Manufacturing CLC East. Their support is priceless”.
EIT Manufacturing is one of EIT’s nine Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which bring together businesses, research centres, and universities to strengthen cooperation in the European manufacturing ecosystem. EIT Manufacturing’s Co-Location Center (CLC) East, based in Vienna, is one of six innovation hubs. It services seven countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
Getting noticed at Discover Vienna
In 2022, the RoboTwin team spent five days in Vienna as part of the Discover Vienna: Manufacturing Edition programme during the ViennaUP’22 start-up festival. They found themselves surrounded by other promising start-ups from Central and Eastern Europe. The team took part in the festival's networking and meet-and-greets with corporate representatives, incubators, and successful founders, as well as a pitching competition. "Discover Vienna broadened our horizons tremendously. We exchanged experiences with other start-ups sharing our difficult path and got some very practical tips,” says Mejdrechová. “Especially since RoboTwin is a very young start-up, we value opportunities to present ourselves and validate our plan while pitching in front of an expert jury. My stay in Vienna was very enriching”.
During Discover Vienna, RoboTwin competed in BoostUp! East, the regional edition of EIT Manufacturing’s competition for start-ups and scale-ups. They took home first prize in the SwitchOn category – the competition for early-stage start-ups.
As part of the Discover Vienna: Manufacturing Edition, RoboTwin received two-month's worth of support from EIT Manufacturing. EIT Manufacturing tailored its support to RoboTwin, focusing on the development and deliverables of a business development strategy. That included their business plan, profit and loss sheet, cashflow sheet, and their pitch deck.
EIT Manufacturing has experience with business creation; they know the European market and understand the needs of a high-tech start-up. We trust them and discuss our doubts openly and to the point.
Megi Mejdrechová, Co-founder and CTO of RoboTwin s.r.o
In 2022, RoboTwin was selected for, and went on to win EIT Manufacturing RIS LEADERS. LEADERS is a competition under the Regional Innovation Scheme (RIS) for women innovators in manufacturing, operating in European countries with moderate to modest levels of innovation.
Closing the gap between prototype and market
RoboTwin applied for EIT Manufacturing’s Call for Proposals 2023. The Call supports innovative manufacturing-related projects in the prototype stage, helping them put their products on the market within a year. According to Mejdrechová, the Call for Proposals 2023 is an incredible fit for RoboTwin. “Our vision is to build an outstanding product that not only extends our prototype and fulfills the market’s needs, but is something that initiates our journey towards a sustainable company," said Mejdrechová. Participants in RoboTwin's consortium provide the start-up their experience and expertise.
Mejdrechová firmly believes that the future for RoboTwin is bright. “Every year I spent working on our project was more exciting than the previous one," said Mejdrechová. "I believe that, thanks to the various means of support from EIT Manufacturing, we have everything to keep this trend going in 2023. The provided funding could give us an exceptional boost to achieve our goals and fulfill our dream: to bring RoboTwin to market and enable the automation of difficult, unhealthy, and repetitive jobs in manufacturing all over the world.”