#NewSpaceAfrica Column – XinaBox Is Reinventing STEM Learning And Rapid Product Development

With the Internet of Things (IoT) and modular electronics companies poised to transform the future of learning and rapid product development, it is not uncommon to stumble upon unique innovations which involve startups developing products to match the growing market. However, what is extraordinary is to find IoT and electronic products that are a perfect fit for space experiments and rapid electronic development, while maintaining a reusable lego-style module within a relatively affordable budget for school kids to play around as well.

Such a unique innovation describes XinaBox, a modular electronics platform and IoT kit for rapid prototyping, making of products, learning and carrying out experiments in space as a payload.

XinaBox xChips
XinaBox xChips Photo Credits: Gergana Young

XinaBox (pronounced as X-in-a-box) is a modular electronics and IoT development company based in South Africa and Ireland. The company offers “Do it yourself” (DIY) platforms and reusable plug-and-play electronic kits known as “xChips” for the rapid development of products and learning without soldering, wiring, breadboarding, or hardware knowledge.

The broad range of xChip modules from XinaBox encompasses processor boards, cores, sensors, power, communication, output, control and storage devices; as well as a variety of supporting functions including LoRa, Bluetooth and WiFi, OLED displays, capacitive touch sensing, proximity sensing, temperature sensing, humidity sensing, universal digital and analogue input modules and many others.

The xChips allow for seamless integration with single board computers (SBC), embedded systems and other hardware programming environments. Some of the xChips are developed for building weather stations and science experiments in Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) onboard small satellites.

The underlying idea behind XinaBox is to allow individuals with little or no hardware experience to play and build electronics as well as IoT products on the go.

The XinaBox journey from 2015

Bjarke Gotfredsen, centre, demonstrates XinaBox
Bjarke Gotfredsen, centre, demonstrates XinaBox to South African President Ramaphosa, with Elsie Kansa, Head World Economic Forum Africa, left, looking on

Bjarke Gotfredsen and Judi Sandrock founded XinaBox in 2015, with Daniel Berman joining as co-founder in 2017.

Bjarke and Judi have technical backgrounds in technology and engineering, as well as executive-level managerial experience. They had earlier in 2008 founded Meta Economic Development Organisation (MEDO) – a South African non-profit development organization implementing bespoke entrepreneurship and secondary level STEM education programmes.

Their initial target was to leverage space science to motivate students in high schools across South Africa to pursue STEM careers.

Commenting on why they chose space, Bjarke says in a Knowledge Podcast at Wharton Business School: “We were hired to try to figure out if we could create some excitement in the high schools for STEM. My co-founder [Judi Sandrock] and I decided, ‘We have to find something that’s really interesting’. And we decided space is the stuff. We decided that we have to come up with a way that high school students could build satellites, and we had to figure out a way they could do that without requiring a lab or a lot of investment for the different schools since many schools in South Africa don’t have that kind of funding”.

“We were using space as an inspiration. So we couldn’t have a STEM program going out to schools where we were talking about space without ever going to launch anything in space, because that would be insincere, and you know youngsters are not fooled by that kind of stuff,” Judi explained in an interview with Space in Africa.

“So what we did was to refocus the STEM program to get some scale. Soldering electronics together and solving engineering models weren’t generating the impact we needed to have. We realized we needed to innovate, and that is how XinaBox was invented. We wanted children to build the same devices we would send into space”, she added.

Judi said they had earlier paid a California-based startup in 2016 for the in-orbit delivery of a cube satellite. However, the cube satellite has not yet been launched due to launch provider logistical challenges. Nonetheless, the initial effort to launch a privately owned satellite helped XinaBox to have the right footing in the industry as a disruptor from a largely unexplored sub-segment of the industry.

Scaling the company

Daniel Berman front left engaging with students at Soneike High School on the data collected by XinaBox sensors and displayed on the dashboard.
Daniel Berman front left engaging with students at Soneike High School on the data collected by XinaBox sensors and displayed on the dashboard.

One of the most notable drivers for innovation has been the need for something that is yet unborn. XinaBox shares a similar innovation story, born out of a need to find unique and affordable tools for teaching and learning STEM.

As commonly found in successful innovation stories, XinaBox quickly scaled its innovation to a product-market fit while putting in place business structures to align its operations.

In November 2017, Daniel joined the company as a co-founder, bringing complimentary corporate and entrepreneurial experience.

XinaBox has been self-funded and grew rapidly through bootstrapping of sales and personal investment of its co-founders. Over the past 6 months, the company has grown its order volume by 150% and is on track to accelerate this growth with the introduction of up to 200 different modular xChips.

Expanding the product ranges and inventory.

XinaBox currently has a stock of over 70 different modular xChips ranging from cores to sensors, power, communication, output, control and storage components. The xChips are designed in-house in South Africa and then manufactured in China.

Daniel says the company is working to expand its product range to about 200 different modular xChips during 2020 to serve several growing user segments and also complement the existing product line.

“We have a very long list of new products in development, and many are very close to being finished and ready for release. We also have to obviously manage the other resources that we need to support the products in the market, because we are very focused on delivering value and seamless user experience. For example, we are launching a new bridge for the BBC Micro:bit computer – the first to give it convenient Wi-Fi functionality. This means the millions of children globally who already have a Micro:bit can now connect it to the cloud and learn about data science and IoT. We’ve also brought similar product innovations to bridge and extend functions in existing devices for makers and IoT developers”. The company is also developing other resources, content and tutorials to support its growing product ranges.

Taking on the International Market

The global market for almost everything is huge. However, it takes the ingenuity of a company and the competitive advantage of its product to successfully fit into the global value chain for any particular market.

Originally, the business was entirely in Africa and at the very inception, XinaBox was delivering STEM programs in South Africa and occasionally in other African countries.

While still a popular brand in the modular electronics market in South Africa, XinaBox has expanded to the global market through a network of international distributors. The company has distribution agreements with the UK-based RS Components (RS) and the US-based Mouser Electronics who are both global leaders in the electronics distribution space.

“We have two global distribution partners at the moment. They distribute XinaBox globally in every market they operate. They are really good at making sure that our product is available in stock and can be gotten overnight by customers at various cities in the world. We have people all over the world buying from our distributors. The distributors undertake the logistics of warehousing and distribution, as well as product promotions for sales on their websites”. Daniel explained.

Daniel notes that the company is about to onboard a third global distribution partner, to be made public in the next couple of weeks.

Currently, sales at the international market account for 85% of the company’s total order volume, and the company expects that to be over 90% within the next few months.

Beyond the Product; Building an Ecosystem

Beyond the xChips, XinaBox is bullish about becoming the centrepiece of the modular electronics and IoT industry across various application segments including STEM learning, rapid prototyping and electronics development. Beyond offering vertical ranges of products to compete with numerous tools in the market, the company is offering products that fit the missing puzzles in the market, while providing support resources and content for plugging its products into a wider range of available modular electronics and single board computers that already enjoy massive user bases.

“Instead of competing with the likes of Raspberry Pi, we thought that we could actually augment their usage and increase the number of uses for those single board computers, so that schools or individuals or companies who’ve already invested in those single board computers can maximise their investment, because they know they can do so much more by just adding XinaBox”, Daniel said.

The company is making a commitment to open sourcing its knowledge resources, design patterns and libraries, in a bid to support the wider STEM, modular electronics and IoT ecosystem. Daniel notes that the company is putting in place an open source ecosystem to make it easy for different user groups to leverage XinaBox beyond the common use cases.

“Everything on our site is open source and transparent. We are totally open about what the components in our xChips are. Nothing is locked down. We can’t and don’t limit how the xChips are used. If somebody comes up with ideas we never had, it doesn’t stop them from developing theirs. The libraries that we use and those we publish are similarly based on open source protocols. We’re not trying to lock down or keep people somehow confined within our ecosystem. We’re trying to play with as many other partners as possible, to help users have those easy experiences”, he explains.

Scaling STEM Learning in Classrooms and Connecting Students to Space.

While XinaBox quickly scaled to serve the wider modular electronics and IoT market, the company still delivers some STEM learning programs in Africa and continues to inspire next-generation space scientists, in collaboration with local and international partners.

Globally, the company is supporting institutions and programme administrators to leverage XinaBox in the delivery of STEM programs. Individuals and schools enjoy the luxury of adapting XinaBox in unique ways to fit their program goals. The company has a number of partners and customers in different parts of the world who are themselves delivering the STEM programmes.

One example of such collaborations is the global student ThinSat STEM satellite constellations. In 2016, XinaBox contracted with Virginia Space, an American state government entity promoting its spaceport, to develop components for students to use in building picosatellites. The project expanded to become the global student Thinsat Programme, funded by Virginia Space in partnership with Twiggs Space Lab, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and NASA Wallops Flight Facility, with XinaBox supplying the kits and content for building the picosatellites.

On 17 April 2019, the ThinSat Programme launched a constellation of 55 picosatellites into space, using XinaBox as the payload to study weather conditions and carry out scientific experiments in Extreme Low Earth Orbits. Sixteen schools in the Western Cape of South Africa participated in the programme, collaborating to develop one picosatellite. Seeing the kids excited and inspired to learn more about Space, and showing interest in STEM-related careers has been hugely rewarding for the XinaBox team.