Small Business Spotlight: BirdBrain Technologies, LLC
Tom Lauwers founded BirdBrain Technologies, LLC in Pittsburgh, Pa, in 2010 after earning his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. BirdBrain’s flagship products are the Finch Robot and Hummingbird Robotics Kit, used in educational settings worldwide.
What does your business specialize in and who are your clients?
BirdBrain Technologies came to be during my Ph.D. program at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, working out of a lab called the CREATE Lab. I was specifically working on educational robotics research and developing new robotics tools to use in education. Two of those tools became the core products of my company: the Finch Robot and the Hummingbird Robotics Kit.
Finch, now used from kindergarten through early college, came out of research into developing a robot from the ground up to support computer science education. Hummingbird, used from third grade through high school, came out of a program where we were trying to develop alternative robotic activity.
We also have an e-commerce website where customers can buy our product. More than 90 percent of our sales are to educational institutions, including schools, museums, libraries, after-school workshop providers, universities, and summer camps. Our customers are 80 percent national and 20 percent international, and 15 percent of our overall customer base is in Pennsylvania.
What does your company do differently that sets it apart?
Our biggest competitor is LEGO — they have a robotics kit that’s very popular at the middle school level. There are some differences in how our products work, and the main difference is our focus on education. LEGO is mostly a consumer company, and most competitors devote marketing money to sell to parents buying educational toys. That’s not us. We are very specifically an education company, so we aim to maximize the impact of our products in a classroom setting, or any setting where you’ve got a teacher. Instead of a consumer company with an educational division, we are an education company.
We also consider ourselves a social enterprise, and we generally try to be good corporate citizens. The biggest thing we do in that vein is our loan program, where schools and libraries can apply to borrow the Finch robot. Annual loan recipients will get anywhere form 10-50 Finch robots for a period of time to use however they like for free.
What resources/advantages does Pennsylvania offer to your growing business?
Overall, Pennsylvania offers quite a few advantages to our business, some specific to robotics, and some to education and technology. DCED’s Keystone Innovation Zones (KIZ) program has been important for us in funding some of our work, as well as the Research & Development Tax Credit.
“Cost of living has also been very helpful for me, as opposed to starting a business in Boston or the Silicon Valley. My business is bootstrap; cost of living was more important than venture capital money or finding a lot of investment money — not that you can’t do that here.”
Specific to Western Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh, we benefit from the renowned educational institutions and robotics centers. That has been invaluable to me in terms of advice. When I was just starting out, I got advice through networks in the area. Through CMU and a cluster of companies here, it has been very easy for me to access people with this specific experience. That was a huge advantage — it’s rare in most areas.
How does quality of life affect your business operations?
My quality of life is fantastic. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 as an undergraduate, and every year this city gets better. It’s not just that Pittsburgh is now getting recognized for its high quality of life, its new restaurants, and trails by the rivers. Objectively, it is better now, and that’s powerful in terms of recruitment. But it’s also just nice to live in a place that is improving over time. Seeing constant improvement is great — and solidifies the fact that I found the right home for my business.
The Small Business Spotlight is a monthly series posted on the second Saturday of the month which highlights businesses and their owners who are positively impacting their local community.
Tom Lauwers is founder and chief roboticist at BirdBrain Technologies, located in Pittsburgh, Pa. He seeks to design educational tools that catalyze positive making, coding, and engineering learning experiences in the classroom. Lauwers received a Ph.D. in robotics in 2010 from Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, in part for his work designing the Finch robot and Hummingbird robotics kit. He lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, two kids, and a cat.