Meet Nthato Moagi, Founder of CRSP dsgn, who won EdTechX Johannesburg in 2019 and went on to place bronze in the EdTechX Global Startup Super League. Since then they have gone on to achieve overwhelming progress, setting up a non-profit foundation as well as piloting new robotics and coding curriculum that will be rolled out nationally in South Africa in the next few years. We had the chance to sit down with Nthato this week to hear more about what he has achieved…
What was the inspiration behind starting CRSP dsgn?
The inspiration for CRSP dsgn was born from an epiphany that I had in 2014, while completing my studies in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. I was born and raised in one of the largest and most famous townships in the world, called Soweto. While growing up in the township, I developed an interest for robotics and space travel, but my parents couldn’t afford to get me any robotics toys to stimulate my interests. Fast forward 10 years later, and I found myself studying Mechatronics as a part of my Engineering studies. It was at this point that I realised that I could design and develop all of the robotics toys that I wanted to play with as a child. I decided to perform some market research by looking into what was currently available. I was shocked to see that the cost of these types of educational robotics toys were still very high. The price points made the toys inaccessible to many children in South Africa, and the rest of the developing world. I realised that the onus lay upon me to develop an invention that would allow my younger self to have the opportunity that I lacked, no matter where they came from. This was when I decided to begin development of the Low Cost Educational Robotics Toy (LCERT) as my Systems Engineering thesis project. After completing my studies, I worked in the Aerospace & Defence industry from 2015–2017, and this is when I decided to expand the LCERT from an idea, into an actual business.
Tell us a little bit more about the product:
Our flagship product is the CRSP ROBO Educational Robotics Toy. This product is based on developments derived from the LCERT, and it has gone through more than 2 years of intense user testing and validation with thousands of learners and teachers in the South African schooling system. The CRSP ROBO kit is made up of four elements which enable it to become a fully fledged end-to-end STEAM solution for the 21st century-focused classroom in the developing world. The first element includes the colour-coded user-configurable modular electronic blocks, which enable learners from a very young age to design and build different robotics inventions. These blocks are compatible with recycled materials as well as other standard building blocks, which enables children to use them with most toys and resources that they may already have.
The second element includes the visual coding interface which allows the learners to program the electronic blocks using drag-and-drop block-based, as well as text-based coding approaches. The third element includes the project-based activities which we have developed over the years based on work that CRSP dsgn has done with the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) and Department of Basic Education in South Africa, Centre for Curriculum Redesign (CCR), as well as Microsoft Education, amongst others. The last element includes an online LMS (Learning Management System), which is currently being developed and tested to enable educators and learners to access and share content in and outside of the classroom.
After 3 years of intense user-centered design and development in South Africa, we believe that we are on the verge of successfully developing CRSP ROBO into a product that offers a premium and contextually relevant educational robotics experience at an affordable price point.
What is the ultimate goal for CRSP dsgn?
At CRSP dsgn, our mission is to spark the curiosity of the next generation of STEAM innovators in Africa and the rest of the developing world, by providing them with access to affordable quality educational STEAM resources which equip them with a growth mindset. CRSP stands for “Combating Real Social Problems”, and we believe that each child can be raised and developed into “social innovator” that can solve social issues through the innovative use of design and technology.
By developing an affordable educational robotics solution, we believe that we can democratise access to quality STEAM education to many children in the developing world. But it is not just about our CRSP ROBO solution. We hope that our introduction of CRSP ROBO will inspire and motivate other incumbents in the EdTech space to aim for more accessible price points and contextually product designs, in order to increase accessibility, and ultimately achieve widespread adoption of 21st century learning in the developing world.
What has been the hardest thing about getting CRSP dsgn off the ground?
One of the biggest challenges that we have faced as a hardware startup founded in Africa, is access to funding for prototyping and development. This issue has had additional complexity for us as a company due to the open source nature of our design. Almost all hardware-based investors, incubators and accelerators in South Africa demand a patent as a prerequisite for success. This is likely due to the fact that the market is built to create proprietary technologies that can be licensed out or (in rare cases) sold at premium prices in specialist/niche markets.
We have had to learn to manoeuvre this big obstacle by remaining lean, and establishing strategic relationships in the education sector in South Africa, and other key markets around the world. Even though we have had to sacrifice time, we made sure that we carried out an extensive user-centered design approach in order to ensure that ended up with a solution that was the most appropriate for South African classrooms.
Looking back to the day you founded CRSP, what piece of advice would you give to yourself?
Move overseas, raise money, AND THEN come back home to build.
It sounds simple, but the advice would have really saved us a few years in development time. When we started CRSP dsgn, we were driven by the motivation to democratize access to quality STEAM resources for all children in Africa. I thought that we needed to stay in Africa to pull it off, but now I’ve realized that we did not have to. It’s easier to raise money outside of Africa, and many investors see the economic value in backing startups founded by Africans who are solving African problems, that also have the potential of benefiting the rest of the developing world.
We were lucky enough to win the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Award in 2016, which saw us receive R 1.2million (80,000 USD) of funding to kick-start the development of CRSP ROBO/LCERT. This is a very small amount of funding when compared to what other international hardware startups raise in their early stages, but we believed that it would be adequate to allow us to produce our MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and complete user testing and validation. We however realized, as we continued iterating and refining our design, that we were trading speed for cost.
Not having enough funding to prototype and test rapidly meant that we had to take a longer amount of time to reach a point where we were ready to launch. There are a number of things that we learnt that enabled us to operate in a lean manner, but in a hardware startup, you cannot avoid the high cost of development. We decided that the best way to differentiate ourselves is to focus on factors that make us unique such as our socially conscious brand and vision, pedagogical approach and specific insights into the African market.
What has the response been since winning the EdTechX Africa Ecosystem and pitching in the Global Startup Super League?
There has been a great response since we won our award at the EdTech X Global Startup Super League competition. The award gave us international recognition and validation that there’s a market beyond Africa. After the competition, we managed to meet with a few venture capitalists in London, which turned out to be a great opportunity to gain an understanding of what European-based investors look for when investing in African startups.
Soon after returning home from the EdTechX competition, we were able to conclude another round of fundraising in order to conclude our DFM efforts, procure injection moulds and initiate small to medium scale production in 2020. We were planning to raise equity funding to do this, but being able to secure grant funding instead has enabled us to perform this first stage of production without setting a pre-mature valuation yet. We have also been approached by a few local investors, and we are currently preparing to initiate our first round of equity fundraising (i.e. pre-seed/seed) after we launch the CRSP ROBO kit in Q2 2020.
The media reception back in South Africa was also amazing. The story of our achievement was published in a few newspapers, and we were invited to do a few TV and radio interviews throughout the year. We leveraged this increased visibility to communicate our core vision, increase our brand awareness, and drive pre-orders in our home market.
How do you think the support in your country has helped you grow?
The support that we have received in South Africa has helped us grow from idea stage to the pre-production stage that we are at now. Even though our local investment environment is not , we have been able to access grant funding which has enabled us to grow. One of our biggest supporters and funders is the SAB Foundation. They believed in our vision very early on in the journey in 2016. They run an annual competition in South Africa, where they search for social innovations that seek to solve Africa’s problem. In 2016, they awarded us first place at the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards, and we received funding to kick-start the development of the CRSP ROBO/LCERT. They have continued to support our growth by granting us additional funding to allow us to prepare for small-medium scale production.
Over the years, we also have built strong relationships with key education partners in South Africa. When we started CRSP dsgn in 2016, there weren’t many conversations taking place in South Africa around robotics and coding in education. Fast forward to the present moment, and there are many organizations and startups emerging to join the trend towards introducing robotics and coding into South African classrooms. We were fortunate to establish close partnerships with forward thinking South African organizations such as the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), Department of Basic Education and The Innovation Hub early on, and these relationships enabled us to become one of the pioneers in our market.
Through a number of shared pilots with the abovementioned stakeholders over the years, we have been able to gather adaptations and insights to allow us to develop a model for the effective implementation of educational robotics in schools within the unique context of South Africa, and African schools at large. Through our non-profit foundation, our work has informed the upcoming policy developments that are being planned by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, which means that we are already having a positive impact on the education landscape even before we officially launch our product to the masses.
Why start in South Africa? What is the state of STEM education in South Africa at the moment?
South Africa was ranked 137th out of 139 countries for the overall quality of its education system, and 137th out of 139 countries for the quality of its Maths and Science education in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Competitiveness Index. Furthermore, upon assessing South African schools, we learned that more than 87% of public schools lacked access to quality educational resources that may be used to facilitate engaging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.
South Africa is the perfect place to develop a product like the CRSP ROBO. Our country sits at an interesting position where it has all the right ingredients to facilitate the development of solutions that are relevant for both developed and developing (emerging) world markets. Due to the high rate of inequality and the dire state of STEAM education in South Africa, it may be deduced that if CRSP dsgn’s solutions and model are proven to be effective locally, then they have high potential to succeed (almost) everywhere else in the developing world.
How has technology helped advance your product to reach your market/audience?
In South Africa, there aren’t many hardware startups that have gone through the entire product development process. CRSP dsgn’s founding team comes from the Aerospace and Defence industry, where long development cycles and specialist manufacturing at low volumes are the norm. The experience we possessed enabled us to start developing our products at CRSP dsgn, but we needed to learn about the nuances that were related to developing consumer electronics in higher volumes. Through the use of technologies like YouTube, we could access videos from organisations such as HAX, Hardware Pioneers and Y Combinator amongst others, to gain insights and skills from other hardware startups that had come before us. I personally believe that YouTube is one of the best EdTech tools of our generation. In CRSP dsgn, it allowed us to transcend our borders to enable us to gain virtual mentorship, support and guidance during our product development journey.
In 2019, a representative from UNESCO reached out to us having researched potential partners working in robotics education from the African context and having found that we fit the exact mandate. We were identified as one of the only hardware-focused EdTech startups in Africa, that were focused on getting children to use robotics and AI to solve Africa’s social problems. We were then invited to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and this is where we had the incredible honour and opportunity to meet with the Honourable Audrey Azoulay who is the Director-General of UNESCO, as well as numerous ambassadors from various African countries. Once again, technology enables us to transcend our borders in order to become discovered by larger organisations that can help us extend our social impact and market penetration beyond our home market.
Finally, Who inspires you?
I am inspired by Africans, especially the young social entrepreneurs that I have met and heard about throughout my startup journey over the last 5 years. They continue to make me believe that we can build profitable and sustainable businesses that can actually solve the social issues that have plagued Africa for a long time. While Silicon Valley is largely driven by solutionism and technologies that (sometimes) exhibit dehumanising effects, startups that are emerging out of Africa are actually solving REAL social problems that affect the daily lives of billions of people.
If I had to pick one person as my inspiration, it would have to be Elon Musk (mostly because he is originally from South African! 😅). As cliche as it may sound, he has been one of my greatest inspirations since 2009 when I made the decision to pursue Engineering as a career. After exiting from PayPal, Elon could’ve created any other internet business that would have prioritised profit over purpose, but he chose to solve the BIG social problems that he identified at the time as critical to moving humanity forward. I believe that this is the power of social entrepreneurship at its best. Elon’s success has enabled new industries in renewable energy, electric mobility and space transportation to be born. He has successfully challenged the status quo in these previously inaccessible industries, and democratised access for the masses. We, at CRSP dsgn, are just following in his footsteps, in our own unique way.