Want to Teleport to work this year?
There’s a reason why the Remarkable Accelerator has such a bold name. In part it’s the Remarkable ideas behind each of the program’s tech4good startups. But mostly, it’s the Remarkable people making these ideas a reality. With applications closing soon for the 2018 program, we want to share these Remarkable Stories. This is Marita’s.
Walking into Marita Cheng’s Richmond apartment in Melbourne’s sought-after inner east, you might be fooled into thinking this is the ordinary home of an ordinary 28-year-old. Take a swift left at the front door, one step into the garage, and ‘BAM’, there they are. A hundred telepresence robots, each 1.7 metres in height, standing idle, ready to change the world we live in. What’s most unbelievable about that last sentence, is that it’s true.
Marita’s startup aubot has created Teleport, a robot that allows people to be anywhere in the world through telepresence. And it’s hard not to get giddy when Marita explains that soon we’ll all start seeing these robots in offices, classrooms, even museums.
“The first time you see a Teleport out and about, you’ll probably want to take a selfie with it and put it on Instagram,” Marita said. “When you see a second one, you might do the same thing. But once you’ve seen your third, they’ll just become part of the environment.”
At the heart of the idea is social inclusion. Marita and her team designed Teleport in particular for people with disabilities and mobility issues to allow them to work and study remotely.
“Through these robots a young child in hospital will be able to go to school, even for an hour a day, to go to that maths class, or spend time with friends at lunch,” Marita said. A key part of achieving that is a user focused robot, which is affordable and easy to use.
“You can control the robot using your Chrome browser, or Android phone or tablet,” Marita explained. “It’s like playing a video game – Angry Birds or Super Mario Brothers. It’s fun and easy to control, but there’s an actual physical reaction that happens in the real world from the gestures you’re making on the phone.”
So where did aubot start? It started in a Cairns housing commission. This is where Marita grew up with her brother and single mother, who worked as a hotel cleaner to fund and foster her children’s education.
“When I was very young I believed that robots were going to be the future,” Marita said. “I thought it was strange that we didn’t already have robots in our homes, because we have the internet – and it’s incredible. Why can’t we apply those computer systems and have things be easier as a result?”
“I decided then that I wanted to be part of that robotics revolution, I wanted to bring robotics to the people. Ever since then I’ve thought, ‘robotics revolutions, don’t take off without me!’ And now I’m in the middle of it.”
Her vision for aubot remains the same as when she was a girl, to put a robot in every home “kind of like the Jetsons”. But it was more than the wonder of technology that lured Marita away from a career in medicine, which she initially planned to study, and into mechatronics engineering. It was the people of the digital revolution that inspired her most.
“When I was growing up I would read my brother’s old editions of Time Magazine, and I was fascinated by the profiles I read,” Marita said. “The Google guys. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac. I thought, wow, with technology, you can achieve things on a huge scale. But you don’t have to be a certain age, you don’t need to have a lot of money at the start, you just need creativity, you just need to think differently, you need to work hard and bring something to the world that the world hasn’t seen before.”
“I wanted to do something like that. But I hadn’t seen anyone who had really done anything like that before. I didn’t even know the name for it.”
In her first year at Melbourne University Marita had a feeling that she wanted to do more, and so she started her first company, Nudge. It was a pre-smartphone reminder service, which prompted people to take their prescription medicine through SMS or a phone call.
By her second year, she wanted to do even more and make a bigger impact. That’s when she started Robogals – an international student-run organisation that aims to engage young women in studying engineering through interactive workshops.
“With the support of Melbourne University we started Robogals with three friends,” Marita said. “Within three weeks we had 60 members, within another three weeks we taught our first school, and within three months we had taught 120 girls.”
Ten years later Robogals has chapters at 31 universities across Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States, Japan, China, South Africa, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
For Marita, the most rewarding part is seeing emerging female tech4good entrepreneurs, she tells the story of a Tasmanian teenager who built a robot that could be controlled by eyebrow movements for people with quadriplegia.
The past few years have been rather big ones for Marita. In 2016 the aubot team shipped their first robot – a moment Marita describes as a great one.
And in 2017 Marita developed the business further as part of the Remarkable program – Australia’s first accelerator for startups using technology to improve the lives for people with disabilities.
A partnership between the Telstra Foundation and Cerebral Palsy Alliance, the 16-week program has been tailored for startups looking to build sustainable enterprises that have a big social impact.
Marita is now encouraging other budding tech4good entrepreneurs to sign-up for the 2018 Remarkable program.
“The team that run Remarkable are just so motivated,” Marita said. “I think that if you give things love and care, they grow, and the Remarkable team have given us a lot of love.”