by Kara Baskin
Hasier Larrea SM ’15 grew up in northern Spain, where he studied mechanical engineering. Coming to MIT was a culture shock — mainly due to housing costs.
“I learned about lack of space the hard way while looking for a studio apartment with a $500 budget,” he says with a laugh.
Larrea’s Boston-based company, Ori, relieves this pressure by making tight urban spaces more functional. His company maximizes small spaces through what he calls “architecture with super powers.”
“Think of an Ori system like a Swiss army knife,” Larrea explains. “It can function as a partition wall, a closet, a bedroom, a desk. We sell it to developers the way you’d sell a kitchen or a bathroom.”
A robotic system controlled by remote or app turns the structure into a retractable desk or bed, shelving, or a closet. It also functions as a wall, which contracts or expands based on need. Thanks to the wall function, a living room could shrink while a user sleeps—“bed mode,” in Ori terminology — or expand during a party (“lounge mode”).
“It’s a consequence of mass urbanization. People are moving from towns to cities, more and more, on a massive scale. The old way of building spaces is not going to keep up with the big demand, and robotics and technology creates a new way of looking at a space,” Larrea says.
Larrea launched the company at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship after developing the idea at the MIT Media Lab, where he earned a master’s degree. In the summer of 2015, Larrea and three Media Lab colleagues were accepted into the Trust Center’s Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator, now called MIT delta v, alongside ten other start-ups. The three-month program transformed his vision into a business.
“It was too good to be true,” Larrea recalls. “You get economic resources and entrepreneurial resources! We [learned how to] create a company that’s sustainable and develop what people want. I remember how in the first month we didn’t even touch the product or the technology. We just stopped the development for a few weeks and talked to people. I still remember the moment when we were told, ‘You can do online market research, read studies, but you need to go out there and talk to as many people as you can.’”
At the Trust Center, Larrea and his team were able to survey 300 studio renters to learn about their pain points. He found that there really was a market for Ori among space-constrained urban denizens. At the Trust Center, he says, the abstract and theoretical became practical and hands-on, propelling the team toward success.
“You have people working on things in the same building: bionic limbs for amputees, augmented reality, lego robots, autonomous cars, and apartments. There’s so much diversity of ideas. It was a big breakthrough for me to come to a place like MIT. In Spain, an engineering degree is theoretical. It was amazing to come to a place where people were building things. You learn more in five minutes with a prototype than in five months of sketches and discussions. I fell in love with the creative freedom,” he says.
Now, Ori has 14 pilot apartments in major cities including Boston, New York, Miami, Chicago, Vancouver, and San Francisco. Larrea works directly with real estate developers in each city to outfit model apartments with his product. In New York City, an Ori-outfitted apartment is merely a demo space; in Chicago, an Ori space is available for rent. In Boston, four Ori spaces are open for investor demos during the week; on the weekends, the space is available for rent as an Airbnb.
In March 2018, Ori started producing several hundred systems for outfitting in apartments in the United States and Canada. Apartments are rented based on market rates, with the cost of Ori figuring into the total. According to Larrea, his team has come a long way from simply dreaming of an apartment that could transform thanks to robotics. Thanks to the Trust Center, these futuristic, customizable apartments are a reality.
“Our biggest breakthrough at the Trust Center was the change of lens. We had been talking about 10 years from now. [Trust Center managing director] Bill Aulet taught us the 24 steps to create a product to launch in the market. It put us into the mindset of packaging an idea into a product that could get traction,” he says.