ZuTa Labs, a startup based in Israel, has come out with the world’s first Robotic Printer. A viral hit on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, the product also won the “Best of Innovation” Award at CES 2015. The Robotic Printer is slated for worldwide release later this year.
Leaders League. What gave rise to the initial idea of a Robotic Printer? Was it a product that evolved before taking its current form?
Tuvia Elbaum. During my ten years of experience as an entrepreneur, I have had to move around a lot. I have had to work out of coffee shops, on the train, at parks, like a lot of people today. I had to go up to the odd barman or the lobby receptionist asking him to print a document for me. It annoyed me that in spite of having internet connectivity on my phone or my laptop, I still had no way to print a document on the move. Without being able to find a solution for this online, I came up with an idea to create a truly mobile printer by making the cartridge move around on paper. So my team and I took a remote controlled car, removed the body , and attached a printing cartridge to create the first working prototype. We tested different wheel sizes to perfect the movement of our working model, until we were confident that we had something substantial in our hands. Later this went on to become part of our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, along with a design of the actual Robotic Printer, which was still in its development phase.
Leaders League. The product was hailed as a Kickstarter sweetheart. Was the viral nature of the campaign organic, or did you use some differentiated marketing tactics?
T. E. Before the campaign we never knew if people liked our product or believed in it as much as we did. So in order to test it in public, we just created a simple video with a couple of friends and put it on the platform, without spending a lot of money or creating a differentiated campaign for customer acquisition, like a number of Kickstarter campaigns do nowadays. However, people really liked the product, so it got a lot of funding quite quickly. Within the first twenty four hours, it was already the second most popular product on the platform. Every week, Kickstarter comes out with a newsletter, and our product got featured on it. That gave it a further push, and by this time we were receiving a lot of attention from the people and the press, who showered support. Somehow our product had gone viral. It was 100% word-of-mouth publicity, and it was fascinating to realize that our proof-of-concept and our plans to create the actual product had somehow convinced many people that the Robotic Printer was something that they really wanted, even if much work still remained to be done.
Leaders League. Why did you choose crowdfunding to gather seed capital, as opposed to other financing methods? Do you plan on getting funded in the future?
T. E. It was less financing and more of seeing how many people were interested in the idea. Creating the actual product would require a lot of time and capital, and we just wanted to make sure that there was interest in it. The crowdfunding campaign was more of a way to learn about the market and spread word about the product. We targeted the people who really wanted to invest a little money in order to facilitate innovation, and it turned out to be a real learning experience for us about the process of innovation. Additionally, we raised capital from some investors to fund the R&D work over the past two years. Right now, we have interest from all over the world, and in the future, we would probably need to scale up really fast in order to meet customer demand. As a company creating a product which we believe will revolutionize the whole printing industry, if we charge 2.5x the production cost for every unit, we can generate enough money to make two more of our products. So for us, the generation of funds in the future would be an organic process. It is also important to grow smartly and not just at an exponential rate. This will require an injection of capital, and thus we might have to consider third party financing at a later stage.
Leaders League. How did winning at the CES 2015 create a larger marketplace for your product?
T. E. We had two main goals for CES – To gain visibility/meet our Kickstarter backers and to start talking to retailers who would be pushing our products at a later stage. The response was phenomenal. The first day of CES 2015 was such an amazing experience that by the end of the day, we had already decided to film a video showing people’s reactions to the printer at our tiny table. We were also able to meet not only top retailers from North America, but also from Europe and Asia. Just participating in CES was the best decision, and it was a great victory for us overall.
Leaders League. With so many companies moving to completely digitalized communication, do you think this product will still find relevance 5 years from now?
T. E. The printing pattern has changed over the past few years. People have become more environmentally aware and they don’t print the way they used to ten years ago. They are more conscious about wasting paper or ink, which is expensive. Yet, people still find the need to print a document or two in simple use cases. Sometimes you would just need to print out your itinerary, plane tickets, or a receipt to attach to your Amazon package while returning it. It is at times like these, that our Robotic Printer will bring value to its users.
Leaders League. What is the way ahead for your product once it is out in the market?
T.E. We believe that our Robotic Printer will help revive a $37 billion printing market which hasn’t seen a lot of innovation, just like GoPro helped revive the camera industry 6 years ago, at a time when Kodak was filing for bankruptcy owing to the rising popularity of camera phones. Users will be able to relate to our product in very personal ways. They will contribute to the enrichment of the product by finding new and innovative uses for it, in the same way that GoPro users created interesting use-cases – like bikers documenting their trips or dog owners recording their dogs’ lives. Once the product is released to the public, and we have enough users, we will open it up to the developers in the market so they can create apps for it and find new ways to interact with their Robotic Printers. It could be a game, an educational app that helps kids to write and code, or an app for architects. The possibilities are endless. In the next five to ten years, the way we print now is going to change radically, with the revolution led by the ZuTa Robotic Printer.
L.L. How has being in Israel shaped the course of your journey as an entrepreneur?
T.E. Having grown up in a country that has faced some terror in the past, we Israelis cherish every moment of our lives and seize every opportunity we can. It shapes who we are as people and we have this itch which makes us move forward. Sometimes, I end up working twenty four hours a day to make up for the time difference between Silicon Valley, where I am based, and Jerusalem where the rest of the team is located.
Ten years ago, when I started my first company, there was not much happening in cities like Jerusalem, in terms of startup growth. Offices of big tech companies like Intel and Cisco had not yet sprung up. Since then, a lot has changed. A lot of Israeli cities, including my hometown of Jerusalem, have developed into hotbeds of entrepreneurial activity - with accelerators promoting new startups, governments providing grants and various organizations holding meetups for like-minded entrepreneurs. For me, the journey so far has been extraordinary, and I owe a lot of it to the fact that I grew up in Israel in the ‘90s.