Hansol Hong said when he was a young boy growing up in South Korea, he wasn’t exposed to the kind of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) learning that he wished he had been – learning that was also fun.
So after he graduated from UCSD in 2010 with a degree in management sciences, he set out to do just that.
Hong in 2012 founded Robolink, a company that makes robotics kits that teach coding and engineering in fun and approachable ways for young kids and teenagers.
“Technology was really rising then and there was a job shortage at that time,” Hong said. “When I started in 2012, there were all these up-and-coming tech jobs but there was a lack of computer scientists and engineers. I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we teach tech at an early age and make it accessible?’”
Hong, who is 34, said he started thinking back to when he was younger “and how I hadn’t been exposed to anything like this, and how I wish I had been exposed to something fun (in STEM).”
Essential 21st Century Skill
He said coding is “an essential skill for the 21st century.”
With that mindset and knowing kids love robots, he started the company with a friend from college, Wesley Hsu. They began with what he called a “janky prototype” and started an afterschool program of robotics instruction.
Their original group of five students learning programming with robots became 20 kids, then 100 and then 200, Hong said.
The afterschool program had 20,000 San Diego County students at one time.
In the last three years Robolink has morphed into the company it is today, one that makes robot and drone kits with lesson plans and tutorials to be used by instructors in the classroom to help kids enjoy learning about technology.
Like science kits that school districts purchase for their teachers, Robolink’s items, including a self-driving car kit that teaches artificial intelligence, are a “STEM in a box” concept, Hong said.
Robolink items are being used in close to 2,000 schools nationwide, Hong said. He said the company targets upper elementary school age kids to high school students, typically fourth through 10th graders.
“All schools need to do is open the box, that comes with everything, and follow our instructions,” Hong said. “Within five minutes or so, students will be flying drones and doing interesting things.”
Hsu, whose parents are from Taiwan, grew up in Illinois. He is Robolink’s chief product officer, and works out of Chicago. Hsu tests out features and looks into how they can be improved. He designs many of the changes himself, with the ultimate goal of keeping learning fun and accessible, and preparing kids for the workforce.
“We’re helping kids get more comfortable with coding and technology,” Hsu said. “Kids have no problem using technology but we want to teach them about building their own and innovating their own products with their own ideas.”
Hong said research shows that only 20 to 30 percent of U.S. students have access to coding. He said that the importance of coding can be compared to cursive writing or learning Spanish in San Diego County.
“You can survive without knowing it, but once you learn it, life is going to be a lot easier and a lot better,” he said. “Whether you are in an engineering field or you’re an artist, coding and technology is everywhere.”
Hong said that while Robolink has a presence in Fullerton in Orange County, as well as in Oregon, Alabama and other states, it has not been able to get into schools in San Diego County, which he said he hopes will change in the future.
He said kits cost about $90 for its lowest price offering and that its most popular classroom set costs $2,000 and can be used over and over for classes with up to 30 students.
The company, which Hong said was cash-generating from the beginning and initially was funded through “bootstrapping of family and friends” has found great success. The business expects revenue of $2.8 million this year.
Hong said Robolink has six employees in the U.S., including Hsu, and six more employees in the company’s Korea division.
Hong went to a private preparatory high school in Danville in Northern California. He said his father, a business executive who had an office in San Jose, had Hong and his brother attend school in California.
He said he wasn’t exposed to coding until he was in college, “and that was way too late. For me, it’s like playing baseball or soccer at an early age,” Hong added. “If you’re exposed to it earlier, you will like it more.”
CEO: Hansol Hong
CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER: Wesley Hsu
HEADQUARTERS: Sorrento Valley, San Diego
BUSINESS: Robotics company
CONTACT: (858) 876-5123
NOTABLE: In 2016, the company raised $230,000 through Kickstarter, helping Robolink launch its first programmable drone.