One internationally acclaimed high-school roboticist turned his passion for science into a successful startup.
When three 18-year-old kids from the Czech Republic developed a robot that was sophisticated enough to open a beer bottle and pour the liquid into a glass in 2009—subsequently winning Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—it was only the beginning of their careers as gifted makers.
Today, two of those plucky students, Marek Votroubek and Petr Bubeníček, own the world’s largest 3D photo bank of products.
“The victory in Intel ISEF opened for us the door into the real business, not just by the publicity of this competition but by work results and experience that won us the award,” Votroubek said. “The transition from a school project to real business was very easy.”
Each year more than 1,700 student finalists earn the right to attend the Intel ISEF as a result of winning a local, regional or national Intel ISEF-affiliated fair. Votroubek was a finalist, and his team won $3,000. It was a springboard to his startup, 3Doid.
3Doid uses its own specialized machines and proprietary algorithms to create 360-degree 3D photos known as 3doids. The fully automated machines capture a total of 324 photos from 9 different heights in order to piece together the 3doid.
The maximum resolution is twice that of Full HD at 4MPx, so the photos don’t lose their focus when magnified or rotated. This makes 3doids an ideal option for companies that sell products online. Most of the major Czech online stores use 3doids, and Votroubek said there are major benefits to going this route.
Because few manufacturers release actual product photos, opting instead for photorealistic renderings, retailers are forced to use the same images as their competitors. This is further complicated if the images are fuzzy or only taken from one point of view.
“The customer normally engages more with the product because he can view it from any angle. If the product is worse than he expected, he can buy a better one,” said Votroubek.
Using 3doids gives retailers an advantage, too. The number of people who purchased a product was approximately 27 percent higher on websites that had 3doids than on those with 2D images, according to Peep Laja, founder of ConversionXL, a company specializing in conversion optimization and data-driven growth for businesses.
The idea for 3doids came from Bubeníček’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that produced plastic automobile parts. These parts vary in shape and are often hard to piece together. 3doids provide a means of showing the intricate details from every angle, ensuring a perfect fit each time.
The startup eventually shifted to photographing electronics. What sets the company apart, however, is that it’s able to capture images even before the product hits the market.
“When it goes from manufacturer through the official country distribution to the e-shop, we shoot it,” Votroubek explained. “So, when the product is available for sale, there is also a 3doid ready. Now, we are starting to cooperate with manufacturers to be able to shoot it when it leaves their building.”
3doid continues to innovate and grow, and Votroubek credits the group’s ISEF win with getting the ball rolling.
“Basically, preparation for Intel ISEF taught me to work effectively and quickly,” he said. “If it had not been for Intel ISEF, I would still be doing what I do now but with a delay of five years. Almost every one of my inventions stands on something I have invented before: robots for the ISEF competition.”
As a kid, Votroubek was a LEGO fanatic who loved to figure out how various machines worked. By the time he hit secondary school, his chemistry and physics teacher Martina Kunderová noticed his technical prowess. She suggested that he and Bubeníček enter the competition.
The result was the beer-pouring EiMSA Robot. Its primary capabilities, however, had little to do with cracking open a cold one.
The robot was built to search for objects and manipulate them according to the needs of the operator. It “perceives” through a digital camera that sends pictures into a computer where they are processed. This is how the robot searches for the pre-defined object.
When the requested object is found, the computer sends orders into its engines’ control centers. The motion is driven by electric engines from AKU-drills that move eight wheels and an arm that’s been adapted to grasp various objects.
This impressive machine beat out 320 other projects from 56 countries. Votroubek said his team’s project knowledge set them apart.
“Contrary to other teams, we knew our project into the smallest detail, as we spent hundreds of hours working on it,” he said. “We could easily explain to the jury why parts used in the construction of EiMSAR are used the way they are.”
Votroubek maintains this same level of passionate know-how with all his projects. Aside from the 3Doid venture, he also works on an EDWIN cylinder mower that enables homeowners to cut the perfect lawn and an experimental eight-wheel wheelchair that can move through rough terrain, using hydraulic cylinders to walk the stairs.
Overall, Votroubek repudiates idling and procrastination, opting instead for the breakneck pace of innovation. The way he sees it, he can rest when the work is completed.
“I try to work at full speed while I have ideas. I can rest in five, 10 years,” said Votroubek. “Or I can just keep my projects going.”
Katerina Bousova contributed to this story.