Our alumni of the month series looks into the lives of some of EU’s most successful graduates. This month we showcase our alumnus Fabrice Goffin.
At EU, Fabrice Goffin was surrounded by students who came from family-owned businesses. Goffin’s own father worked for a chemical company and this only made him more determined that one day, he too would own his own business.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from EU in 1993, Goffin was ready to get out and start his professional career. The CEO and co-founder of Zora Robotics, landed his first job as a social secretary in Brussels. A job he describes as “terribly boring”. Goffin then moved onto the World Trade Center Association in Antwerp; a decision that would see him rise to the ranks of director. Allowing him to travel frequently to World Trade Center locations around the world, including New York, Malaysia and Chile.
Some years later in Doha, Qatar, Goffin met the man who would turn out to be his business partner, Deblieck Tommy.
“We didn’t know each other, but we had the same passion… We both had a passion for Star Wars when we were little, and we thought, shouldn’t we try to do something in robotics? It all started with our passion and R2D2. We thought, what can we do with a robot? Can we take over the world? Can we do something strange?”
The two decided to pursue their passion together, in addition to their full-time career. The concept began with robots in hotels. But the hotels weren’t interested, no matter how many meetings or pitches the pair gave.
“At the beginning, we thought we’d bring the robots into hotels as a virtual concierge. We would have a robot welcoming people in several languages – our robots are talking in 19 languages currently – but the hotels were not really interested five years ago. We went to plenty, plenty, plenty of hotels. I had many meetings. The hotels said that they wanted real humans to talk to real humans.”
While they were experimenting with ideas, money and time were running short. It became obvious that in order for Zora Robotics to really succeed, the pair would have to take a leap of faith and choose between the safety for their current careers or passion.
They chose passion. After this momentous decision, time passed with much effort from the pair and little interest from anyone else – until they received a phone call from the head doctor at a university hospital.
A doctor had heard of the duo’s work on humanoid robots and had an idea – the robots could be the perfect interactive tool to help motivate patients. The hope was to find a solution to help young recovering burn survivors who were having trouble staying motivated to continue their rehabilitation. This unique collaboration would result in the creation of Zora.
This little robot, only 57 centimeters tall, started jumping around and people couldn’t help but be amused and follow along.
“They [the burn victims] had the same reaction we had when going to see the first Star Wars movies when we were a child.”
No less than one week later, the robots were featured on TV and another phone call came in. This time with the idea that Zora could help the elderly become more active.
“In high technology, who would have thought that the first people to be in contact with robots would be those over 80! People who don’t know how to use a smartphone are now working with humanoid robots, the technology of the twenty-first century.”
Zorabots’ second robot, Pepper, is the first robot capable of recognizing principle human emotions. It uses this knowledge to adapt to the different behaviors and moods of its users. Pepper also has a face recognition system that allows it to identify any patients or clients that it has stored in its system. Taller than Zora, Pepper stands at 1 meter and 20 centimeters and holds a tablet. Pepper is currently being used in airports, shops, pharmacies and hospitals. Pepper is able to welcome customers, give directions, provide information about new products and and answer any questions about medication.
Currently, Zora Robotics is working on the first robots to be delivered to people’s homes.
“We believe the future is smart homes. Where everything is connected with the Internet of Things. When I was at CES in Las Vegas two weeks ago, I asked: “do you have a butler at home?” Most reactions were “no, of course not, we’re not billionaires.” But I believe that within the next five years, everybody will have a butler at home.”
While Goffin doesn’t believe that everyone will be billionaires in five years, he does believe that everyone will have some form of a “butler” at home. This brings us to James, the 100% Belgian made robot, who will shortly be introduced by Zorabots.
“When I talk to James, I can ask him if I still have milk in my fridge, to be an alarm system… to check the weather outside… to keep an eye on my office while I’m gone… that little robot is connected to everything, to my home, and can execute repetitive tasks that I don’t want to do. I can even ask him to start up my car 15 minutes before I leave home!”
Billy is another robot currently being rolled out by Zorabots – a smart flowerpot. Following Zora Robotics’ dedication to social responsibility.
“One of the biggest problems with humans now is loneliness. Especially with the elderly… who spend days, weeks, even months alone at home. They have the TV, they go out, but for the most part, nothing. They are lonely. This is one of the biggest problems that you have. We want to give that person meaning in life. With the robot we give them something to care of. The flowerpot has a face and talks, it’s the tamagotchi for the elderly… the flowerpot knows what flower is inside and will ask a few times a day, to “please give me water”, and “please move me into the light”. The most important thing for older people to live longer, is to take care of something, so we invented the smart flowerpot, with a flower that needs care.”
Zora Robotics is now a world leader in humanoids – human robots, distributing them to nearly every continent in the world.
“We really are a world leader in humanoid robots. Most people think that when we talk about robotics, that everything is happening in Japan but that’s not true. We are selling robots in Japan. We are selling software in Japan. We even have the Japanese government, who bought 75 of our robots about six months ago, to put in elderly homes.”
Today, with four specialized robots in production, it’s amazing to see what Zora Robotics has achieved thanks to the Goffin’s passion and his determined and dedicated business partner. When companies develop products or services that are this innovative, they tend to face more challenges than typical business endeavors. We asked Goffin how he stayed the course when confronted with adversity:
“If you believe in yourself and believe that you can do something that others cannot, you will succeed. I had a partner and that helped a lot. When I had a doubt, he came to inspire me and when he had doubts, I was there for him. One would pull the other back up. If you are alone it is not always easy. But no matter what, you have to go for what you believe in.”
And finally, Goffin explains the most important qualities of an entrepreneur;
“Think out of the box. In order to be an entrepreneur, the most important quality is self-confidence but you have to draw the line – too much self-confidence can be dangerous. Believe in yourself, your future and your capacities.”
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