Sandy Enoch with Marty: ‘coding can be creative and fun’ (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Sandy Enoch, inventor, robotics company owner
It was a football tournament with a difference that helped kickstart an idea that Sandy Enoch had been harbouring for some time. His department at Edinburgh University had acquired a number of robots for research purposes and they were being used at various public-facing events and workshops.
“They could dance and kick a ball,” he says. “We had a robot football team, Edinferno, which we entered in the RoboCup. It’s very popular. My flat mate went to a tournament in Brazil.”
Enoch, who was finishing a Phd in ‘walking robots’, could see that this was more than a bit of fun and that there was an opportunity to turn them into an educational business that would be entertaining as well as useful.
“The demos we were doing showed what a good tool robots could be in getting children interested in science and technology, and particularly in coding,” he says.
But he knew that encouraging children to go down that route meant engaging at their level. He also knew that if schools were to buy into the idea he had to make the robots more affordable than the expensive versions being used by the university.
He launched Robotical to develop a child-friendly device, originally called Archie until a copyright issue meant a change of name to Marty, chosen from suggestions on Twitter.
“We targeted the education market over the toy market which is extremely competitive, seasonal and operates on tiny margins. The education market fits very well for us as it is a more considered purchase.”
That was five years ago and since then the company has made in-roads into schools around the UK and overseas. Just a month before the lockdown was declared in March last year the firm moved out of its small office above a shop and took a lease on his sister’s former dance studio in an undistinguished corner of Leith, just off Pilrig Street. Thankfully, the landlord agreed to a rent holiday that helped ease the bills.
The two spacious rooms, accessed via a stairwell squeezed between a car repair workshop, will give the company ample room to grow.
“It is not a salubrious location but it is quite central,” he says. The workshops will be home to most of the 11 staff and he has plans to introduce more product development and a mock school set-up to test out the product and the learning programmes that go with it.
‘I am a huge nerd. Robotics was always going to be a part of the future I wanted to make for myself’
Enoch says inventions always interested him. As a teenager he designed websites and was fascinated by science fiction.
“There is something in robotics that melds the real world with technology and I find that an exciting area to explore,” he says.
“I am a huge nerd and read lots of sci-fi books. Robotics was always going to be a part of the future I wanted to make for myself.”
After university he spent some time working in a patent office, handling the various inventions that clients brought to the company. “I realised that I wanted to be at the other side of the desk, bringing in my ideas,” he says.
Robotical launched in 2016 and has raised about £1 million from angel investors and crowdfunding. Enoch is about to announce a campaign to raise a further £400,000.
The firm has so far sold 7,000 Marty robots in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong and last month appointed a head of North America for a big push into a potential huge new market.
“It is crazy trying to hire right now. There is a huge shortage of highly skilled people,” says Enoch.
He would have liked the robots to be manufactured in the UK, but found immense difficulty sourcing an electronics firm that would supply components on such a small scale. Hence, they are made in China.
A re-engineered version of Marty is bluetooth enabled and has improvements to the batteries. It cannot talk, but it does make “responsive” sounds that indicate behavioural patterns.
The key market is primary school children and Enoch is planning an impact study into how it is being perceived and whether it is fulfilling its role in encouraging more children to study coding and other STEM subjects, but the signs are that Marty has become a firm favourite in the classroom.
“Some of them see it like a friend or a pet and get quite attached to it,” he says. “One parent told us their son brought Marty to the breakfast table every morning, and we hear about children taking them to bed.
“One girl went on to study robotics at university saying she had been motivated by using Marty at school.
“Most important is that kids realise that coding is about problem solving and that it can be creative and fun.”
Occupation: Inventor, founder & CEO of Robotical
Birthplace: Shetland Isles, raised in Aberdeen
Age : 35
Education: MEng robotics from Heriot Watt, MSc computational neuroscience and PhD in
robotics, both from University of edinburgh
Career highlights: Science communicator at the Edinburgh science festival; 1yr as trainee patent attorney; Freelance web developer when I was a teenager.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
Asimo the robot – there’s something magical about seeing a humanoid robot
in real life. My P7 teacher Mr Robb. And my family of course.
What did you hope to be when you were young?
Astronaut or inventor
How do you relax?
DIY and gardening, playing computer games, reading sci fi novels
Do you carry cash?
Not unless I have to
What have you learned about yourself?
I’m good at underestimating how long things will take. I’m also quite
stubborn, my 5th year group project at uni was to make a walking robot and
we didn’t really succeed. I kept trying to make walking robots after
Optimist or pessimist?
Ice cream from Mary’s Milk bar, always three scoops
What other activities do you engage in?
Gardening and diy, hanging out with the family, and playing computer games
with my flatmate. I like a nice craft beer festival
What do you find frustrating and what annoys you?
Climate change inaction, and noisy eaters.
Do you have any claims to fame?
I was once on the Channel 5 gameshow brainteaser. I lost.
What is your business motto?
Bring learning to life.
Name three people, living or dead, who would make the perfect dinner party guests
Three authors: Iain M Banks, Isaac Asimov and Pierce Brown