RIYADH: As Saudi Arabia weans itself off a dependence on oil in favor of a more diversified and innovative economy and culture, there is a need for one asset above all: knowledge.
Specifically, knowledge of the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, and their practical application in daily life.
Computer scientist Mohammed Alsolami, 35, is on a mission to provide just that with his startup company Robotics LLC.
Alsolami founded Robotics in 2014 in the US state of Maryland, where he was conducting doctoral research into the use of Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things for crowd control, having already gained no less than three master’s degrees from multiple US institutions.
In 2019 he registered a sister company with the same name in Riyadh.
Alsolami is something of an ideas machine. He developed a wrist-worn device which guides an individual through crowded spaces, keeping them in contact with their friends and family while warning of over-congested areas — useful in Makkah during the Hajj season. He also created an ‘agri-tech’ sensor which provides home-growers and farmers with essential data as to when plants and crops need to be irrigated.
However, Alsolami’s present commercial focus is on the training of young people, aged eight to 22, in the construction and manipulation of robots.
His training programs, 12 days in duration, were first launched in Makkah with face-to-face classes of no more than 15 students, using curriculum licensed from Woz U — the tech training institute established by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — and other academic sources. All his courses are translated into Arabic, making them accessible to any young Saudi.
In 2020 Alsolami’s enterprise was hit by the COVID 19 epidemic, bringing live training sessions to a sudden halt. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he was able to launch his classes online and achieve much more rapid growth, with both trainers and trainees located across the Kingdom.
Robotics shifted its HQ to Riyadh and presently operates with nine full-time staff along with some forty freelance trainers. The company has delivered over 400 courses to both individual and institutional clients, the latter including the Kingdom’s Royal Commission schools.
Alsolami and his team are now working hard to make the courses fully automated. “The whole operation should be online by April of this year”, he told Arab News. “Clients will be able to select, pay for and take their course via an online dashboard, the only human contact being with the actual trainer, who will also be online.”
While grounding youngsters in AI and IoT, Alsolami’s courses develop important life skills such as teamwork and leadership — because building and programming a robot, for example to throw a ball, is normally a collaborative activity.
Because of Covid restrictions, trainees currently work individually, but hopefully once the epidemic has passed, they can form groups in a physical location to build a single, more ambitious robot and enter local and international robotics competitions as a team.
Currently delivering courses to about one thousand trainees per annum, Robotics has turnover of about SR1 million ($270,000). Revenue comes from two sources: course fees — SR1,000 per head — and the online sale of robotics kits, with the hardware currently being sourced from China.
“We’re now looking for pre-seed investment of about $1 million. That will help us to develop the online dashboard, build up our operation to 20,000 clients annually by mid-2025, and to produce our own robotics kits here in the Kingdom and on a much larger scale.”
Alsolami is confident of achieving this. Most parents he surveyed share his belief that educating young people in amateur robotics will help prepare them for the Kingdom’s future ‘smart’ economy.
“Education always pays the best interest”, Alsolami says. “And with Vision 2030, we at Robotics are focused on building the capacity and supporting the talent of our leaders of tomorrow. This is our KPI and our vision. And this is how we hope to serve our country and serve the world.”