I would greatly appreciate some guidance or ideas of more experienced entrepreneurs.
I am working on a complex startup that involves the development of a robot with complex software.
In order to get our idea ready, there is considerable work that needs to be completed.
I am fully aware that contacting VCs at early stages is not recommended. However, without the funds to work on the prototype it is difficult to do any type of customer discovery.
Should I still try to do customer discovery with just basic animations/drawings, etc? We are finding this task difficult... not a lot of feedback and almost nobody replies to our questions/emails.
Is there other funding avenues/ ways of truly reaching the customer without a prototype.
Any ideas/comments/etc would be appreciated
Of course you need a prototype. The question is, what kind of prototype? You mention customers, and that's the starting point. Who are you aiming to serve? What problem do they have? What evidence do you have that the problem is sufficiently widespread and sufficiently annoying that those customers would pay good money for a solution?
Your first prototype isn't the product you want to make, but the story "I can solve this problem, as experienced by these people, who want to trade money for an answer. For that, you don't need a robot and you don't need software, simple or complex. You need customer stories, and any credentials that make you the kind of person they would trust.
Of course, if you want to make a prototype widget, everybody's going to be happy to take a look when you're done. But very few people will be interested in what you don't have, and even fewer will be eager to push money into your hands.
Making a story is free. And if you can't sell the story, you can change it. When someone wants to buy your story, it's a whole lot easier to find someone else who'll invest in you to build a widget that makes the story come true.
The further away you are from a prototype, or the greater the amount of money it takes to get through prototype - then you are more in the "research and development" phase, and more like an academic project then an entrepreneurial project that can attract funding.
This is neither bad or good, but recognizing the R&D efforts required will change the kind of organization you are today, and thus dictate your activities and your funding requirements.
Most likely you should be allying yourself with a university program (and there are a great many University programs that support efforts like yours – collaboration between entrepreneurs and their research departments…).
And most important, unless a very special circumstance or opportunity arises, you are much more likely to be a better candidate for grant funding. There many kinds of grant funding that support efforts like yours, that are in the early development stages. Not all grant funding is "academic", or government. There are many prominent kinds of grant funding that come from private institutions (for instance the Gates foundation, or Google). The key is not shop your idea around or apply to every one, but to do a lot of research on the different kinds of funding sources, and choose the ones that are most appropriate for your idea.
Even better – ally yourself with a university or statewide government economic development agency whose mission isto give out grant funding for these kinds of projects that may bear fruit to 2,3,5 or 10 years from now. With a little bit of research, you'll find that there is significant amount of money for projects like yours, with fewer hoops to jump through, and fewer strings attached, if you go for grant funding, instead of venture funding at this point.