A new era of innovation

I love innovation.

I just love to see ideas turn into reality. I love this concept that if a group of people really work on a problem, they can sometimes solve it.

I also love robots. I don’t know why exactly, I just think they are so cool.

I remember watching the Jetsons with my sisters on a small black and white TV in the upstairs of our 100 year old Vermont home and just feeling such wonder. Robots that cleaned and cooked…flying cars. It all seemed so exciting.

Fast forward many years. The flying cars are here. Robots that clean and cook are here. It’s not exactly like the show but close. And moving quickly. Very quickly. Today a middle schooler can just as easily innovate as someone with 20 years of experience. And this is both an opportunity and a challenge.

My vision for founding ROBAUTO was to create a framework for people to innovate in robotics. The hope was that through this framework viable products would begin to emerge. And that we would be able to ‘automate’ the process of innovation to a degree. And it just may be working…

Meet Baby Bibli

Yesterday my friends and colleagues Wei Miao and Qi Liu came over to my apartment. They plopped what looked like a bunch of circuit boards and duct taped batteries onto my counter. They fired up the power and suddenly everything started to move and come alive. Beeps and jokes and roaming. It was fun.

Robots everywhere. Baby BiBli robots.

I could go into all the details of how after more than 2 years of working I was the proud guardian of a little family of semi-intelligent robots. I could talk about the countless hours, burned-out-boards and failed attempts. I could go into the hundreds of students, health care professionals and educators who have sat with us and helped us to design and build.  Instead if you are interested you can watch the TEDx talk here.

For the first time in my professional career, this wasn’t a product that a single team or person had designed and built. This wasn’t an app or a website or a software algorithm that we were hoping would catch on after an expensive launch.
Above: Robot emotions as designed by a 7th grader on the Autism Spectrum. 

This was a family of robots. And I say family because that is what they are. And they had been 100% crowdsourced. Designed by students, engineered by professionals and delivered via schools and public libraries. Where competitors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, we have spent less than $50,000. And in many cases we’re winning sales against these robotic giants.

The BiBlis converse with each other and with their owners. They invoke emotion and demand attention and respect. Yet, they are not much more complex than your laptop or iPhone. And they are cheap. Like… $99 cheap to a few fortunate pilot customers.

You’ll probably be hearing a lot about the BiBli family in 2016 and that has nothing to do with me. Honestly I have really done very little. Sure I spent many hours coding and configuring and testing the first version. Yes, I paid for parts and pieces and eyeballs and robot sweaters. But the BiBlis are not my idea.

They are OUR idea. 

The BiBlis are the product of our collective imagination. As it turns out we wanted a robot that was human but not too human. We wanted something that educated us and entertained us but it didn’t have to be too complex. We wanted something that was smart and had the ability to get smarter so that we as people could have access to A.I. and machine learning.

And we didn’t have much money to spend on a new robot for our kids.

This year the BiBlis will find themselves in multiple schools and libraries and homes around the world. They will start to work together to try to solve complex issues like communication and education and autism. The kids themselves will program them via an easy-to-use drag and drop interface. Together we’ll create curriculums and therapies and every other kind of robotic innovation.

They are multiplying faster than I can even keep up with and it’s amazing.

Over the past 2 years I’ve learned a lot about healthcare and education and robots.

But helping to bring the Baby BiBlis into the world has also completely changed my perspective on innovation.

Here are 5 things I have learned about the new age of innovation:

1. Innovation needs to come from the customer. No longer can we expect to come up with an idea or run a focus group and then sit with our engineering team and hope to come up with a successful product. We need to invite our customers to become stakeholders and get their help to solve their own problems.

2. We need to prototype, test and iterate much much faster and without so much initial investment. In today’s connected world we can easily get real-time feedback on pricing, product and positioning and we no longer should be ‘betting the farm’ on any single technology or idea.

3. Engineering and Entrepreneurship need to merge. There is no future for a coder who can’t pitch or clearly explain their technology. And there is no place for an entrepreneur who can’t design or code. We need to stop focusing so much on STEM in schools and really inspire kids to truly innovate. Kids should be able to invent their way through college, not borrow their way through. Or maybe in some cases they should skip college all together.

4. When we as innovators see a good idea we need to support it. This helps to democratize innovation. Even if the product is all pieced together, difficult to scale or half-finished. If something is new and useful and impactful we need to rally behind it on social media.  For example when you give a few bucks to this project you are fueling a whole new era of robotics and innovation.  And you are creating jobs for talented high school kids who do all of the assembly.