Angel Investor for Robotics
School teachers depend on funding and are constantly thinking about creative ways of getting it. What trends can be taken advantage of? What emerging resources are available? An avenue that deserves further exploration is donations from local businesses. Businesses often have more funds available to donate than individuals and investment firms understand the importance of funding. Recently, Edco had a high school club that received funding from an investment firm. Space Angels, a firm that specializes in space exploration, donated $5,000 to John Dewey High School’s robotics club in Brooklyn, New York. Edco interviewed Justus Kilian, a Principal at Space Angels, about the Space Angel’s relationship with John Dewey High School and how other schools can receive similar funding.
Specifically, Space Angels gave John Dewey a matching grant up to $5,000. Every dollar raised was met with an additional dollar from the Angels. Their reason for giving the donation was because they wanted to introduce kids to the space industry and get them excited about a possible career in it post college. Also, FIRST is mentioned several times in this interview. If you are in robotics, you likely know that FIRST Robotics inspires young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
Austin: Who reached out to who? Did you find John Dewey High School or was it the other way around?
Justus: New York City has a regional FIRST team. They oversee 500 different high school teams and they understand which schools need support and can absorb support. I worked with them and told them, “We are looking to support a team over the long-term. Particularly schools that are having fundraising challenges.” They matched us with John Dewey.
Austin: What do you mean by supporting them over the “long-term?”
Justus: Multiple years. This was a great year because FIRST’s theme was space but we’ll keep fundraising for the school’s robotics program each year.
Austin: How long have the Space Angels had this relationship with high schools?
Justus: We just started this year.
Austin: Congratulations. How can other robotics clubs get the attention of the Space Angels?
Justus: We are still a small organization. This one school is probably all we are going to focus on. But we are excited about working with FIRST robotics on more of a regional and potentially national level. Blue Origins is helping support this. There is an organization called Teachers in Space. And a company we invested in called Because Learning. They make STEM education and connect the principles that are developed in FIRST robotics and take that to applying to space-based technology. Is there an opportunity during summers or off-season for students to apply their skills more directly to the real world? That’s still being developed. We’re trying to find the next level.
Austin: That’s a cool aspiration.
Austin: What is your communication with John Dewey? Is there a teacher there heading the robotics club who is your point of contact?
Justus: Yes. His name is Filippo Dispenza. He teaches STEM engineering class and he has led the robotics team for over 8 years.
Austin: You said earlier that there are over 500 FIRST teams and that you were looking for ones that “could absorb funding.” Can you tell me more about how you chose John Dewey specifically?
Justus: I asked the people who knew the schools better. I asked FIRST regional advisors. The qualifiers we were looking for were a school with a dedicated resource, someone full time, a point person. We didn’t want part-time leadership. We wanted someone dedicated. We also wanted a program where it wasn’t their first or second season. They had shown commitment to FIRST. They are planning on sticking around so we can have a long-term relationship. Also, we are looking for a team that was underprivileged or under-resourced, that had a critical gap in fundraising. There are great schools that would be willing to work with us but don’t need a lot of money. They would have just liked the brand and access to space companies and that sort of stuff. We were looking for a critical need.
Austin: That’s noble of you to have considered. What was John Dewey’s critical gap? What made you label them “under-resourced?”
Justus: There was a cut in public funding. They have a $60,000 annual budget for this work. Every year in the past the school has provided a part of their budget to the team to help them compete and this year they are providing $0.
Austin: How did John Dewey get the few donations that it did in order to match yours?
Justus: We did a couple of tactics. We wrote an article about why this all matters, the intentionality behind it, why talent is important in space, and why we are focused. That’s on our website. You can look at SpaceAngels.com and there is an article. We published the article and started the campaign on #GivingTuesday. We’d already had commitments lined up. A number of our members have a vested interest in these space companies and they recognize the need for talent and so they are aspirational and want to support. A lot of fundraising was offline. Online was a channel to receive donations. Then we did a matching part. We said, “Anyone who contributes, we’ll contribute too.”
Austin: So you had connections in the industry already and people who would be interested in making these donations, then you wrote an article, reached out, and that was enough for John Dewey to receive $5,000 which you matched?
Justus: Donations got us to $10,000. We got two donations of $5,000 each. Then we matched $5,000 and that brought us to $15,000. I put my own money in. We had a couple others who donated. That took us to $16,600.
Austin: How will students raise the remaining $10,000 for their goal?
Justus: (laughs) That’s tough. What’s interesting is our goal in this campaign was $10,000. We blew past that. We did better. But for the campaign on Edco we said $25,000. We were hoping that we built the momentum and then were able to reach out on social media to more broadly get people to say, “Oh, they already have a lot. Let me get behind this.” That did not work at all. So there is still $10,000 we need to raise. We may not get all of it and that means only a handful of kids will be able to participate. We are planning to reach out to family members to ask them to participate so we are planning on that campaign after the season starts off. Then we are partnering with FIRST. We already built the story about why this matters and why John Dewey is in need and so we’ll try to leverage their corporate connections and raise more.
Justus: The money is entirely for the STC and FRC competitions. STC will build two or three robots and compete in three tournaments. There will probably be fifteen to twenty students who get to do that. For FRC, which is much bigger and more complex, they will build a whole arena. They’ll build one robot and another as backup. Then they will compete in two regional tournaments to qualify for national championships. If they qualify they go to the international championships. This would be up to thirty students supporting the team, iterating on design, and trying to come up with best approach. There are thousands of these teams trying to solve this problem so you are trying to find the best solution in the world. The more students you have involved, the more experiments you can run, the better chance you have of getting to that level. So, the money goes to registration fees, robot parts, and course parts. Students buy their own t-shirts and subsidize some of their travel expenses.
Austin: What percentage of money goes to travel and registration fees? What percentage is not the robot itself?
Justus: The majority goes to travel fees. Thirty students that go will need a bus and hotel – those are literally the biggest expenses. More than 50%.
Austin: Ideally, we need to find a way to build the robot so it can travel itself and bring the kids!
Justus: (laughs) As a student, part of the motivation to do this STEM and learn these skills and give up nights and weekends is that you get to see the robot compete. Right? If you lose that, it’s hard.
Austin: As someone who receives pitches often, can you tell me the qualities a good pitch should have?
Justus: There needs to be a clear vision. Why are you doing this? There needs to be a problem statement. “There is an issue and there is a solution and we are solving it by this.” Those are the most important things. Then you need credibility for your team. Whoever they are, they have to have the experience, resources, and expertise to do what they say they’ll do. Then they need a timeline. They need to set-up milestones to achieve.
Austin: If a school is new and doesn’t have the credibility or legacy, what do they do in the meantime? Scramble hard for the X years needed before they can justify the attention of someone like you?
Justus: This is the same thing with early stage startups. There are grants you can get to help de-risk your technology. That said, you have to hustle. You have to convince somebody to take a bet on you. That gives you traction to prove you are able to do what you say you are able to. After that, you can level up and get the attention of more established partners.
Austin: Have you received memorable pitches?
Justus: We’ve invested in over 20 companies so each was memorable because they made a lot of sense. There are a lot more that are ridiculous and don’t make sense. Those are memorable for different reasons.
Justus: It started as an after school program and it was informal. It was between two schools and one shut down and John Dewey brought it into their school more formally. They had a track record and it seemed important. Filippo Dispenza took it up as a personal passion, he was an advocate. He got the school to do it and did the fundraising for it.
Austin: Wow. What a guy.
Justus: Yea, good guy. There is a huge story behind him. Big heart. Works hard for these kids to make it happen. Awesome guy.
Austin: Tell me about the good feeling you get knowing that you are supporting robotics and space travel?
Justus: (pause) I feel fortunate in this life to have had an education, opportunity, and employment. When I think about the job I want to do and people I want to work with, it’s about trying to create similar opportunities for students. I think science and technology is one of the best ways to do that. It gives me a personal sense of fulfillment and joy. STEM education is helping us solve the most challenging problems humanity faces.
Austin: That’s a heck of a sentence. Do you have any words to share about your feelings about education in general?
Justus: (pause) Education is the foundation for being able to participate in society. It is more important now than ever, particularly, critical reasoning skills and the ability to question. Technology has helped democratize access to education. Schools and institutions are becoming less relevant. The ability to self-motivate and self-teach is become increasingly important.
Austin: What does the next ten years in space technology look like?
Justus: I can give you five years out. Ten years might be tough. 2017 was the year that commercial launch providers outpaced government. 2018 has the been the year that small launches are being launched at a higher frequency. 2019 is the year of commercial space travel. Yesterday, we saw Richard Branson flying Virgin Galactic to space for the first time. That will accelerate next year with SpaceX launching commercial crew, Boeing launching commercial crew, and they’ll start taking private people as well. People are going to space next year. It’s already happening. 2020 is going to be the year of commercial lunar services. Where companies that are partnered with NASA take payloads and experiments and research and commercial opportunities to space in a long-term, sustainable way. The Moon will be closer than it ever has been. Beyond 2020, we’ll see SpaceX’s global internet come online, StarLink. We’ll see very large reusable rockets that can fly hundreds of people. We’ll build critical infrastructure in space. When you push farther out, five to ten years, it’s reasonable that we’ll have sent a person to Mars. If you think to the 1960s, Apollo mission, we went from never having launched a rocket to putting a person on the Moon in ten years. We are way beyond that.
Austin: Am I right to believe that there will be hype around space in the next few years? I’m thinking about when airplanes came out and how exciting they were to travel on, or even the idea of them even if you never got the chance to ride.
Justus: I hope. I can’t think of anything more exciting. Space in the 1960s united the world around what was possible. We’ll see that recapture the imagination again in the next decade. This time hopefully it’s a long term lasting thing, not a one off government program. It’ll be a sustained business and economy.
Austin: Last thing, give a message to kids, not necessarily at John Dewey, but any kid interested in space.
Justus: You don’t only have to study STEM. There are opportunities to work in space whether you be in business or HR. Whether you are on the legal side. All of these skills are relevant. If you thought going to space camp and being a part of what’s happening in space is impossible, it’s not.
End of interview.
We thank Justus for giving us the opportunity to speak with him and share what we found with teams that use Edco. Not everyone has access to funding like this, but we do have some great resources on our site to help you run a more successful fundraiser.
If you are part of a successful fundraising team, or you simply have a great story to share, we would love to hear from you and have you utilize Edco for your team’s fundraiser. Our job is not only to get funding for schools but we also want to celebrate the successful fundraisers and share their stories with the community so everyone can benefit from the insights. Together we will provide our kids with all of the education opportunities their curious imaginations demand.
The John Dewey FRC Team 333 in action!