We interview Costas Sisamos, founder of ENGINO, a company dedicated to provide robotics tools to allow children learn how to develop robotics.
About the ENGINO company…
Tell us a little about your professional career up to now and how you have started Engino. How did you develop the initial idea?
I started as a mechanical engineer. I got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College in London to work in my father’s factory that had professional refrigerators. After one year, I decided that I was more interested in social sciences and I decided to change studies. I gave exams again and went to the University of Cyprus to study Educational Sciences. I worked for about 10 years as a primary school teacher. Due to my previous degrees in Mechanical Engineering, I was appointed by the Ministry as the coordinator of the Design and Technology course, a course we have here in Cyprus similar
how to make technological models faster and more precisely so that they can implement mechanisms and solve the problems posed by their teacher
to STEM. During the 2 years that I was the coordinator, I taught many students in different schools and I also taught the teachers how to teach the lesson.
From there a need arose, a problem that the students faced: how to make technological models faster and more precisely so that they can implement mechanisms and solve the problems posed by their teacher. That’s where the idea for plastic connectors came from. At that time, I started looking for funding. There were not many options in 2004.
The Ministry of Commerce of Cyprus had started a plan for the hatcheries of new ideas: Business Incubators. I prepared a business plan (that I didn’t know how since I wasn’t in business), I applied it and it passed. We got some initial funding and they forced me to resign as a teacher to implement this idea. It took us 3 years to design the idea with me working alone in the beginning because there was not enough funding to work with employees. At a time when startups in Europe were getting millions, we were getting in Cyprus 100-150 thousand. With hard work for 3 years, the first Engino accessories came out and we started selling worldwide.
Today, we have the factory here (i.e., in Cyprus), research, development, about 50 employees, and we export to 50 countries.
How would you describe Engino to someone who hasn’t encountered it? How do you attract skilled staff in your company?
The first question they ask us when we go to exhibitions to show our product is “How are you different from Lego?”. When someone sees a plastic accessory with holes, he assumes unfortunately that it is either a copy of Lego or something similar. For us, Engino’s technology is very different, because with very few components it allows the connection in all directions of the three-dimensional space allowing students to build very easily and quickly. We wouldn’t call Engino a game. We consider it – and indeed it is – a teaching tool for engineering design thinking. And as such a tool, it is designed to be applicable in a classroom environment, so that students can make their own models and modify them within a few minutes. The degree of variation is associated with the degree of creativity. Engino allows a great degree of variation, which neither Lego nor other similar constructional systems can allow, because Engino was originally designed for this purpose.
[…] the subject of robotics comes as a wedge in an existing volume of teaching material that has not been removed […]
Concerning our staff, we may be one of the few companies in Cyprus and in Europe that we have such a diversified team to work because we develop everything from scratch. We have the product development department for the design of plastic parts and injection molds, the educational research for the teaching curriculum, and the hardware development department for the design of hardware and firmware. We have the software development department that has made the whole code. We have our own in-house programming code; we do not use ready-made programs like Scratch. We also have graphics design that makes the packaging and the instructions. And currently we are evolving in a new direction of Learning Management System (LMS) to make a transition from physical to digital due to the accelerated need of home learning because of the Covid lockdown.
Robotics, Society & Education…
When creating new educational robots, do you approach people, like teachers, students, parents, etc. to get their opinion on what they would like to have?
For the first 5-6 years of Engino, we didn’t have to ask because I was the teacher who had indicated specific needs, as had been also pointed out by the other teachers, and I tried to find solutions to those needs. But the last 4-5 years, because it’s been 15 years since we started and I’m no longer in the field of education to personally experience the problems, we use focus groups to determine the needs, based on our cycle, the travel abroad, the contacts we have with representatives, and the ministries of education in many countries. We also study the competition, because in order to develop a specific solution presupposes an existing problem. So, we try to give our own solutions to these problems. Thus, we have to balance between overcoming the competition and their solutions to problems and creating solutions to problems that we ourselves see to exist, either as individual teachers or as a team or through the contacts we have with various countries.
What type of robots (ready-made, to be assembled by students, or to DIY by students?) do you think that your customers prefer and why?
Very good question and difficult to answer, because we had exactly the same question about 1.5 years ago, when we lost a great offer from the Ministry of Education of Cyprus that did not want to buy Engino – which was a fully constructional system – and wanted to buy ready-made robots. I asked why they gave almost the same money to buy a ready-made plug-and-play robot that has limited capabilities instead of getting the Enginο. Because with Engino they can make anything they imagine, from home to car to crane, and additionally it has activities for engineering design, open thinking, and problem solving, that you do not have the ability to develop to the same degree with ready-made products. The answer was, which I did not take into account before, that unfortunately they have only 8 courses to teach robotics because they have the rest curriculum to teach.
[…] with Engino they can make anything they imagine, from home to car to crane, and additionally it has activities for engineering design […]
So, the subject of robotics comes as a wedge in an existing volume of teaching material that has not been removed, and in these 8 courses they have to teach mainly coding and not engineering design, STEM, mechanisms, and so on. They didn’t want students to waste time building models because they assumed that students would have a hard time and teachers would have to learn how to build and plan models; they wanted an easy and quick solution. And so, we lost an offer 2 years ago. Last year, a similar offer was made for a higher level robot and they again preferred a plug-and-play one. I found my former colleagues who were now decision makers in the Ministry. I asked them why now that they tried a platform and saw that the possibilities were limited, they prefer another platform that will have the same limitations. They had again exactly the same explanation. I realized that, unfortunately or fortunately, there is a need in education for plug-and-play robots because they still do not see STEM as a holistic approach, the analytical curriculum is not easy to change cause everyone defends their lessons, and no one really wants to be educated and leave the narrow context, their comfort zone, of what they teach.
Thus, we started 1.5 years ago a new research program for the construction of a plug-and-play robot, which is called GINOBOT. It will be on the market in the coming months.
But since the nature of our company is the expandability, we have put many innovations with Engino geometries so that this plug-and-play robot can be extended both mechanically with components and electronically with sensors. So, this new product comes to meet the need for something ready-made so that students can deal mainly with programming, but also gives the possibility of expansion so that they can proceed with problem solving constructions and more complex programming. However, there is still a need for a more constructional system because the possibilities remain much greater when you have 200 independent components instead of 50 independent components. Now, we are trying to see how these 2 different systems can complement – rather than cannibalize – each other.
Which type of robots your company wishes to focus in the future and why?
GINOBOT is the product that we will focus on, but this doesn’t mean that the rest will be downgraded because we believe that education needs them. And if it doesn’t need them now it will need them in three years as the educational world understands the needs for STEM more holistically and what STEM really is. Because, unfortunately, there is a confusion that STEM is robotics but it is not exactly that, robotics is just a small part of STEM. Moreover, we have another program to develop tangible design robotics for pre-schoolers. So, we will have a range of robotic products that will start from the age of 3 until university.
What does your company need to promote further at EU level the use of educational robots?
It is very difficult to convince that someone from Cyprus can develop an innovative product which can compete with a giant like Lego, and unfortunately this wrong prejudice hinders sales growth and, in the long run, deprives from children the opportunity to learn with a product designed specifically for them.
We see that the way to convince the ministries and the teachers to implement our systems is through laboratories, where they can come in contact with the product, train on it, and try it. This is also difficult because there are not so many workshops and usually the pedagogical institutes that demonstrate new technologies are restricted to well-known technologies, such as Lego or those that are advertised enough to come out.
we are trying to find teachers who are more open-minded
Moreover, the teachers are pressured with the program they have to teach and only few are pioneers enough to go out of their way to learn new technologies. Thus, for marketing purposes we are trying to find teachers who are more open-minded and they want to try something different, so that they can write some articles and studies after trying Engino. Additionally, we have sent some Engino sets to Universities (in Sweden, Patra, Cyprus, etc.) so that the students can try them in practice and write some scientific publications, in order for Engino to be more known in the scientific community.
Company’s achievements & future…
What is the biggest need/challenge/void in your company at the scale you have been able to achieve?
The biggest problem right now is that the whole traditional market has collapsed and this is likely to be continuing. In most countries, our customers who were selling toys are closed and since they have stock already, they cannot dare to buy more products, especially those that are new and innovative and they have an even higher risk of selling. Additionally, at the same time that the market has collapsed completely, the schools that were evolving into a good clientele for us, such as Dubai, have gone in another direction which is home schooling and how to teach their conventional courses as a main priority. They will not focus on learning how to teach robotics when they have difficulties in teaching their basic subjects. So, that took us back a little. That’s why we started investing in our own eLearning platform with some innovative solutions that could work as home schooling even in a non-school environment at home.
It seems you reach over more than one market, from constructing toys to solar energy and wireless robotics. How did you do that? How did you define the new markets? What did you have to learn to diversify?
Since we consider Engino a tool for teaching engineering design, ingenuity, creativity, and technology, if one interprets it more broadly, any tools and other channels that can achieve similar goals they can fall under Engino’s umbrella. Even 3D printing or virtual reality glasses along with software and applications could be developed by the company at some point. We don’t see it only as a game, we are a learning system. Our learning philosophy is above the system and can be applied to other peripheral products that are needed as technology evolves based on the emerging needs in schools and at home. In 5 years, every child will have 3D printer and virtual reality glasses at home, so we should go a little further than the needs of the consumer. And we hope that instead of spending their hours on playing war games they will spend them to learn technology.
Where do you go from here in the future?
The future from now includes eLearning, new games for pre-schoolers, and new technologies that can gradually be introduced in Engino. But since the future as it is now is uncertain (i.e. due to Covid), we move on with hope and uncertainty.
by Sophia Almpani, EDUMOTIVA/INBOTS project, June 2020