Bringing robots to Byhalia

Alex McClarty’s hometown in rural Mississippi has limited access to STEM education and career opportunities. With his company Sage Robotics, he wants to bring robot kits to area schools to increase the visibility of tech in rural communities.
 Alex McClarty’s hometown of Byhalia, Miss. has limited access to STEM education and career opportunities. With his company Sage Robotics, he wants to bring robot kits to area schools to increase the visibility of tech in rural communities.
 
Sage Robotics focuses on the design and distribution of open-source hardware, meaning any hardware or physical technology whose design is shared for others to use, modify and distribute.
 
Open source hardware democratizes innovation, which makes it a good fit for the middle and high school students who may be missing hands-on STEM education in their curriculum.
 
McClarty designs custom drone chassis or frames for students to build in their classrooms which teaches them basic engineering skills and encourages interest in technology.
 
While schools across the nation are beginning to implement large-scale STEM curriculum, rural areas like the 1,302-person town of Byhalia often fall behind.
 
A 2014 study conducted by the Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development found that only 22 percent of rural parents had ever heard of STEM and that rural districts were more likely to lack access to extracurricular activities that build interest and skills in STEM subjects.
 
In addition to that, rural areas tend to have a difficult time attracting and keeping qualified STEM educators. That’s where McClarty feels he’s most needed.
 
McClarty was first attracted to science in his own high school classroom and later earned a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Mississippi. He was inspired to start Sage Robotics in order to encourage tech visibility and interest so incoming students in his hometown might consider science and tech careers.
 
“My vision overall is to make Byhalia and Memphis more tech-oriented communities. I’m not saying I want us to be Silicon Valley, but I do want us to be more focused on using technology to advance and improve our current situation. I feel like we can be paving the way for students to start tech ventures down the road,” he said.
 
McClarty is currently in the development phase of his product and plans to outsource the supply of materials for the robot kits. As volume of products sold increases, McClarty intends to produce more Sage-branded hardware.
 
He’s learned that it’s not enough to deliver STEM hardware to communities in need. There has to be built-in programming as well.
 
“Some of the feedback I’m getting from educators is simply ‘Can you teach us how to use this?’ They don’t know how to use the robot kits. So that really speaks to the gap as well,” he said.
 
McClarty feels that his robot kits can both complement existing science and math curriculum and be utilized by after-school robotics clubs. Knowing that it will be difficult to scale Sage Robotics in Byhalia alone, McClarty is also looking at schools in the larger Memphis metropolitan area.
 
McClarty started his business in May 2016 and graduated in November from the Co.Starters, a pre-acceleration program housed at Memphis-based EPIcenter. “Because of Co.Starters, I was able to refine my methodology. A lot of what’s going on with me is uncertainty. This is terrain that I’ve never seen before. And that’s where having these programs and having a mentor comes in,” he said.
 
Taylor Sherbine, project manager at EPIcenter, is involved with the administration of Co.Starters for EPIcenter, of which McClarty is the first cohort.
 
EPIcenter plans to launch 8 cohorts in 2017 and expects to graduate between 80 and 100 aspiring entrepreneurs. Sherbine considers the Co.Starters program a strategic path forward to strengthen the entrepreneurial pipeline in Memphis.

“There are great organizations in Memphis that offer free or low-cost seminars to small business owners, but I think we need to provide resources even earlier in the stages of entrepreneurship. Co.Starters’ strength lies in helping people test their business assumptions and covering basic building blocks to get our entrepreneurs comfortable and ready to attend mid-level workshops,” Sherbine said.
 
With organizations like StartCo and EPIcenter providing investment dollars and expertise for tech companies, Sage Robotics can be a vital tool in building a foundation of engaged, qualified STEM entrepreneurs who are equally likely to be rural or urban, creating technology solutions to local problems with locally grown talent. 

Read more articles by Emily Rooker.

Emily Rooker hails from a small suburb in Michigan and attended college at Berklee College of Music. She is the Director of Community at Cowork Memphis, co-founder of The Lapel Project, active musician and freelance writer. Emily is passionate about community building, social activism, entrepreneurship, and living life like a tourist in Memphis.
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