The Kenya based Startup, BRCK, is composed of an all-African team of software developers, engineers and technologists who have come together to create a connectivity device that is receiving great praise as one of the ‘ones to watch’. As the company’s name may indicate, the device is the size of a brick, and thus, easily movable. BRCK ensures that even in the most remote locations in Africa, one is able to connect to multiple networks and have ample electricity during even the worst blackout.
KITE Invest: BRCK has recently just had its production launch, what has the reception been like to this point?
Philip Walton: The reception to BRCK has been very exciting in a number of different ways. First, we have seen a wide geographic response from both developed and emerging markets. It has been quite surprising for us to see so many people in very developed nations who struggle with reliable connectivity. Although the use cases are slightly different than what we find in Africa, there is considerable interest globally in both mobile and fixed uses of BRCK for resilient Internet connection. Second, we have been very encouraged by the number of organizations that have attempted something similar on their own due to the severity of the pain that comes from lack of connectivity. While their efforts were never intended for commercialization, it has been very reassuring to hear so many stories of people who have wanted a device like BRCK to better enable their own initiatives and efforts. Finally, we have seen an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea of developing hardware in Africa. There is a real need for technology that is well adapted to our environments and challenges and hopefully BRCK will be an inspiration to others to base their engineering and manufacturing in Africa.
KITE: Please explain in brief the product itself – the cost-production ratio, is it one device per person, per classroom, etc.
PW: The BRCK is a rugged ethernet, wifi, and 3G router with an 8-hour battery life. Designed to seamlessly switch between multiple types of internet connections, the BRCK provides a single connection point that can easily failover between terrestrial and cellular internet sources. The physical design of the BRCK is based upon our experiences in East Africa dealing with rough roads and harsh environmental conditions. We have specifically focused on the physical ruggedness and environmental sealing of the device. In addition to considerations on physical resiliency, we spent a tremendous amount of our engineering efforts on designing smart charging circuits that allow the BRCK to be easily charged from power sources ranging from a single solar panel to a car battery. We also added in substantial circuit protections to ensure that the BRCK doesn’t get damaged from power spikes and unregulated power. Finally, we added in a dedicated Arduino microcontroller that is exposed through a 50-pin connection on the bottom of the BRCK. This unique aspect of the BRCK allows for various devices (the Internet of Things or IoT) to be connected to a BRCK and relay their information back to the cloud. We are seeing a lot of opportunities around monitoring power systems, weather conditions, and even water wells using this IoT aspect of the BRCK.
The BRCK is designed to be both a personal hotspot as well as a device that can connect up to 20 users. For an individual exploring the remote reaches of Africa, we are likely to see a 1 to 1 ratio between users and BRCKs. However, in a classroom setting, we are looking at a 20 to 1 (or possibly even higher) ratio between student devices and BRCKs. Effectively this works out to 1 BRCK per classroom based upon the number of computing devices (e.g. tablets) that are typically allocated to a class.
KITE: As BRCK grows the company is moving forward from just provided electric and internet capabilities, but is also strategically aligning itself with content & tech partners and implementation partners in BRCK+ED Education Anytime, Anywhere. Please shed some light on BRCK+ED and what can be expected from the collaboration in the near future.
PW: Although we always saw education as a potential market for BRCK, we quickly realized that a majority of the inbound inquiries in our sales pipeline were for the education market. We started to consider more carefully how we could best position BRCK to be an effective tool at bringing connectivity into the rural African education context. Initially we focused on just the connectivity side of the equation but we quickly realized that the BRCK’s ability to share locally hosted content made it an ideal tool for facilitating both connectivity and content distribution. Working with a variety of partners in the region we began to pilot the BRCK as a single connection point for multiple wifi tablets within a classroom. This not only reduced the cost of data – by only requiring content to be downloaded once – but it also allowed for much cheaper wifi-only tablets to be used.
As we continued to increase our focus on education, we were approached by Mozilla to work with them to bring the third-leg of the computing stack (application functionality) to these rural schools. We designed the BRCK Pi MRTR (our nomenclature for the integrated accessories that connect to a BRCK) as a complete micro-server that physically integrates with a BRCK (using the 50-pin connector) sharing both power and connectivity between the two devices. This single unit then becomes an extremely powerful computing platform that will allow for both static content and local applications to be hosted and shared with devices connected to the BRCK. Mozilla’s focus is to bring web development training and deployment tools to the rural classroom – teaching students how to build their own applications. Using the power of the Raspberry Pi, students will be able to learn, develop, and deploy their applications on the single, integrated computing stack. We believe that this capability opens a huge realm of possibilities for delivering new computing capabilities and services into environments that have little to no connectivity. We are also working with the team at the iHub UX lab to reconsider what the computing user experience should be in the rural, education context.
KITE: The team collectively is not new to Startup ventures, having formed or been a part of Ushahidi, Crowdmap and iHub. What are some of the lessons learned from the past companies that the team now applies to BRCK? What would you say are the top three most important aspects to a startup venture?
PW: Our management team consists of seasoned entrepreneurs who have built companies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. These experiences have contributed significantly to some of our strategic decisions in terms of how we are building the BRCK organization.
First, we decided that BRCK would be a physically-present company. In this day and age of remote workers it has very much become the norm to allow employees to operate from virtual environments across the globe. Although this has been exceptionally effective for organizations like Ushahidi, we felt that BRCK’s focus on physical hardware designed for the African continent required that all of our employees were working in Nairobi to experience the challenges that led us to build the BRCK. We also take our team on various expeditions across the continent to get them to experience first-hand what our users are experiencing in places like Ethiopia or Malawi. These trips are proving to be extremely insightful and helping us to continually improve our product for our target markets.
Second, we are focused on building BRCK organically and with as little capital as possible. Unfortunately hardware is expensive to build and we have and will continue to require outside capital, but we purposely choose to run our organization lean and ensure that we are building a sustainable operational footprint that does not maintain a long-term dependence upon outside capital. This is often challenging in terms of the resource capacity but we have all experienced the even greater challenge of trying to artificially grow an organization too quickly.
Finally, we are dedicated to keeping BRCK integrated within the tech community in Nairobi and across the continent. This model of community-center entrepreneurialism has proven to be very successful in the African context. We are a community-centered society and it only makes sense for our companies to maintain that same social center. What that means for BRCK is that we look to leverage the talents and services of other organizations in our community like iHUB UX and Angani (a Kenyan hosting service). It also means that we have spearheaded the effort to develop a new community space (similar to the iHub) focused entirely on hardware design, development, and manufacturing. The Gearbox is an initiative between BRCK, iHub, and other local hardware-oriented companies to grow the hardware tech sector in East Africa.
KITE: BRCK is clearly strongly tied to Africa, and particularly Africa’s youth. How does BRCK’s market-base factor into the company’s long-term business plan and goals? Does the company have intentions to go global?
PW: BRCK is, first and foremost, an African company focused on solving problems in Africa. This is our continent and our community and we believe very strongly in the idea that a rising tide raises all ships. It is also easier for us to effectively design and deliver solutions into an environment where we live and that we fully understand.
With that said, our aspirations are for BRCK to be a global company and a global brand that represents the ingenuity and resourcefulness of African technologist. We have already shipped to over 45 countries and we continue to experience a very high demand for BRCK in the developed world. Although we think of issues like unreliable power and connectivity being only emerging market problems, we are continually amazed by the stories we hear of people and organizations struggling with the same issues in the West. We also have significant interest from other emerging markets outside of Africa like Asia and the Pacific islands. Our perception is that people really do recognize that a technology that works effectively in Africa will work just as effectively in India, Papua New Guinea, or even the USA.
While we will continue to keep our primary focus on Africa in the near-term we are continually evaluating opportunities outside our region as they arise.
KITE:Looking at investment. Is BRCK seeking investors at this time, and if so, what is BRCK looking for, what are of the company will be addressed, and what is the return on investment of an investor(s)?
PW: BRCK completed a convertible-debt seed round for $1.2M in Q1 of 2013 and we are looking to follow that with a Series A round in Q1 of 2014. Our focus is on a $4M – $5M raise with no more than $2M in equity and the balance in debt and grants. As a hardware manufacturing company our biggest expense is the production of new devices. We have only been building BRCKs in 1,000 unit quantities and we are therefore not able to achieve proper economies of scale that will increase our margins and allow us to be more responsive to customer demand. We are focusing the majority of our next raise on increasing production and distribution of BRCKs. We will also use some of this next round of investment to increase our product portfolio with a device that is more powerful than the current BRCK (Supa BRCK) and a device that is cheaper than the current BRCK (Pico BRCK). Neither of these products require substantial engineering expenses to complete but they will dramatically increase our market access into the small to medium enterprise space and also into the IoT and sensors space.