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The uphill journey of building a startup: Fabrica AI’s founders share key lessons

 

Tue, 03/19/2024 - 12:00

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Building a startup isn't easy — leaving school and building a startup at the age of 24 without prior experience is even more challenging. These startup founders share the lessons learnt since embarking on their entrepreneurial journeys three years ago. 

In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic confined Cambridge University engineering student Keefe Wayne Teo to remote classes at home, the robotics aficionado caught a different kind of bug – an entrepreneurial one.   

The 24-year-old roboticist put his master’s degree studies on hold and set up a company with two friends. 

“I wanted to be able to do what I want to the fullest extent, and be challenged to the fullest extent,” said Keefe. “That gives me purpose.”  

Keefe and his original co-founders who all met in Cambridge’s Hackbridge society, worked on developing an autonomous tiling robot, a niche area in the building and construction industry.  

Then, a wrench was thrown into the plans. 

The two co-founders exited for corporate jobs leaving Keefe in a dilemma – to complete his master's degree or press on with Fabrica? 

That’s when he called upon fellow Cambridge engineering student Jakub Suchánek, to join him in the business venture. “I was at the dentists when he called”, joked Jakub, who had already been toying with the idea of starting his own company at that time.  

“Usually in a startup, on average, you don’t make more money than just working (in a big corporate). But I feel like there’s a lot more stuff that you can change in the world by creating a new company.”
 
Without reservation, Jakub joined Keefe at Fabrica as the company’s CEO, and a few weeks later, brought in Ronald Luc, a fellow Cambridge schoolmate as the company’s CTO. Together, they set a new direction for the company – creating a software platform to design robots through simulation.  


(L to R) Co-founder of Fabrica AI Keefe Wayne Teo; co-founder and CEO, Jakub Suchánek; and co-founder and CTO Ronald Luc on a hike in Europe.

“Currently it usually takes three to fifteen years to develop a new robot, “said Jakub, “The only way to evaluate such design concepts is to build it and see how it works. We want to make it possible to ask design questions in simulation and then see how it behaves in the real world.”  

They applied this idea to building a tile-grouting robot, with an eye to marketing it to construction companies in labour-tight countries. Three years on, this robot, which can boost productivity by up to five times, is being piloted on construction sites across Singapore managed by companies like Woh Hup and BHCC Construction.  

The startup, which has raised over US$2.3 million, now has a 20-person team in its Singapore office.  

Keefe and Jakub share four key lessons from their entrepreneurial journey here: 

Lesson 1: The motivation to make an impact

Every startup begins with an idea to solve a problem. For Fabrica, turbo-charging the speed of creating a tile-grouting robot addresses labour constraints and costs faced by the construction industry in manpower-strapped countries.  

Beyond improving productivity, robot development has another impact.

“Speeding up robotic development is particularly impactful as it opens up a lot of new options for humanity, such as helping humans accomplish tasks they’re not good at and expanding into areas like outer space,” said Jakub, Fabrica AI’s chief executive. 

All three partners are engineering whizzes, having won multiple awards at international science Olympiads and competitions like NASA SpaceApps. But inventing a grouting robot was the most complicated challenge yet.  

“We were over-optimistic: we expected the robot to be done within half a year. It turned out we took three years,” said Jakub. 

Despite the delay, they did not return to their studies. They threw in their lot with Fabrica, driven by their conviction that they had a strong business idea.  

The encouragement of their business and ecosystem partners was critical, too. 

Lesson 2: Lean in on the right connections  

Strong partnerships have been instrumental in getting Fabrica to where it is today. 

Through Keefe’s contacts with the Building Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA), Fabrica connected with construction companies which welcomed them to demonstrate use cases for its robot.