Innovation starts with understanding market needs, says robotics entrepreneur Mark Mak of Roborn Technology
From Gundam fan to robotics entrepreneur, Mark Mak taps into the essence of robotics innovation.
Mark Mak is the chief technology officer and co-founder of Hong Kong-based robotics startup Roborn. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Roborn—which offers robotic solutions for various industries—has created a temperature-detection robot that can check for signs of a fever and is currently being used in government buildings in Hong Kong. The firm has also invented the first 5G motion control humanoid robot in China.
Oasis (OS): How did your passion for Japanese anime Gundam lead you to launch a robotics startup?
Mark Mak (MM): When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by Japanese anime like Gundam, which inspired me to develop robots to help people in need. Shortly after I graduated from secondary school, I thought about what I should do for my career. Though robotics is my passion, it was pretty challenging to work in the field at that time, as there used to be limited use cases in the market, and the level of robots was far from users’ expectations. Therefore, I had to give up my dream of developing robots at that time. However, I chose to study electronics engineering, hoping that one day I could fulfill my goal.
After graduating from university, I pursued a master’s degree in electronics and computer engineering. By that time, I had already started to develop and design an array of smart home appliances, and in 2008, I even created a robotic vacuum cleaner that was later exported to the US. Yet, some of these products were not doing well in the market, mainly due to the lack of marketing. That’s why I decided to pursue an MBA degree to understand customers’ needs better.
I founded Roborn in 2017. My company currently provides robotic solutions and humanoid robots to help with crisis management such as pandemics and air pollution. Other applications could range from surveillance and security to disinfection and body temperature measurement.
OS: Did you experience any prejudice for your passion when you first started?
MM: Before starting my MBA, I was not that talkative but thanks to proper training, I managed to improve my language and presentation skills, becoming not only an engineer but also an entrepreneur. Some people traditionally tend to judge scientists or engineers, thinking that they don’t know how to present themselves. I was trying to overcome this by learning to be more outgoing. I use my right brain to generate innovations, and my left brain for marketing work. But the key comes down to equipping yourself with a different mindset when it comes to changes and challenges.
When I told everybody that I would start a robotics company, nobody believed that I could realize my dream. At the very beginning, friends and family were not that supportive, but they were soon surprised by my achievements. My professional background in robotics and entrepreneurship has also given me an edge. As an entrepreneur, I need to find funding to support the business, which is challenging. However, as I cover the engineer and designer roles, we can sustain our business in a more effective and cost-saving manner. We manage to design ten robots every year, whereas other companies have only developed one or two per year.
OS: How has your company managed to grow?
MM: The business model of Roborn is different from other robotics companies. Some robots from other firms in the market run on a set of standard tasks, which forces users to adapt to the robots, making it a painful experience for customers. For Roborn, we tailor-make every robot. For example, if there is a corridor around 60 centimeters wide, some robots in the market could not fit in or pass through it, but we will develop a solution.
I designed our team structure and implanted a knowledge transfer system to handle projects more effectively. For instance, it only took us 15 days to develop the proof of concept of PEP 3000, a robot that detects body temperature and the first signs of fever.
OS: What was one memorable moment you experienced while building robots for your company?
MM: Two memorable moments come to mind. The first one was the first-ever 5G humanoid robot launched in China. In 2018, there wasn’t any 5G network in Hong Kong, so I needed to go to Beijing to work with the China Mobile Research Institute, a research arm of China Mobile, which provided a 5G environment to design my robots. We only had three months to complete the whole design as well as building the network infrastructure. It was a big challenge, and I couldn’t bring my team with me, as the 5G lab was a highly restricted area at the time. I almost didn’t sleep and worked nearly 18 hours per day.
Last January was another challenging moment when the Hong Kong government started to work on containment measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19. I realized the importance of gate control and body temperature control. It was during Chinese New Year, and nobody wanted to go to work. But still, our team managed to build the PEP 3000 in 15 days.
OS: What’s one of the greatest pieces of advice you’ve received about innovation?
MM: When it comes to innovation, understanding the market is essential. The second thing is to keep going. Once you get the direction you need, people may not understand you, but just go for it.