People often ask how old you need to be to get started with robotics. The truth is we’ve seen students as young as 6 years old assembling and controlling our BiBli robots and the ages seem to just get younger and younger.
My friend Alex recently sent me a video of his daughter who had won some acclaim at her school in Brooklyn as part of her attempt to determine if robots can do everyday tasks.
I love how excited she is but also how she asks an important questions.
How will robots integrate into our lives?
What limitations are there and how can they be overcome with solid engineering?
These are just some of the questions this next generations of makers, coders and robotics gurus have to answer.
ROBAUTO has always been about creating artificial intelligence and robotics for and by the people. We believe that these powerful new technologies should be accessible to anyone regardless of income, education, skill level or background.
Robots are fun but as it turns out they may also be able to help us quite a bit. In fact we’ve already seen some amazing breakthroughs in education, healthcare and autism using robotics – and the industry is really still in it’s infancy.
This collaborative process is part of our mission. We want to build robots that are low-cost and powerful but which also reflect the personalities and needs of the people who ultimately will use them. We hope this lowers costs and also speeds up the innovation process. In essence we want to ‘automate’ robotics development (“ROB-AUTO”).
Yesterday 13,059 people came to our website and to this Kickstarter campaign. This is a new record for our small startup! We are so thankful to our backers and it is truly encouraging to see. It is also a testament to what lots of people can do when they share a common vision.
Above: Above: An early BiBli prototype. The world’s lowest cost A.I. social robot. Built by and for K-12 students.
Robotics and artificial intelligence belong in the hands of the global community, not big corporations or governments.
There is something so powerful and unstoppable about people willing to step out and say…
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.
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.
To say being an entrepreneur is painful is an understatement. Sure, not every business needs to be brutal. I can think of many types of services businesses that can be started easily, and grown consistently over time at a very manageable pace.
But that pace isn’t usually what produces real breakthroughs. The technologies and concepts that change our world and ultimately scale to drive whole industries and jobs rarely come with mediocre effort. That’s because they are based on crazy ideas that usually the current structure isn’t ready for yet.
It takes a large amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy to break through and drive innovation. It takes lots of people and lots of time.
It takes chunks of people’s lives. Chunks that they rarely get back.
Every once in a while someone remarks to me about how awesome it must be to have been a founder of multiple startups. I can tell they are imagining it all – me flush with investor funding and swarms of creative partners and team members – going from press meetings and award banquets while a team works tirelessly on the next big thing in between massive doses of coffee.
And I do have a great life. A dream life really. Only made possible through being an entrepreneur.
But honestly, it’s never been like what most people imagine. Honestly it’s been years of immense physical and emotional pain. I have seen foreclosure, near bankruptcy, issues with employees, divorce, poor health, bad deals and everything in between.
Even in times of great success it’s been hard.
(I once had to borrow $20 from a customer to pay my airport parking after an important meeting with FedEx!)
But just as I’m usually about to break out the dreaded ‘resume’ and throw in the towel on some venture – the business starts to work. Money flows from someone (other than me) into the business bank account. It’s always a salient moment. I remember each day clearly. That is such a great feeling.
And with that flow of currency comes some retribution for times gone by. With that flow comes the most sure investment of all – a company that you own and control that is growing under your guidance. A moving, working organism that not only makes money but impacts the world. There is a real power in that first transaction and there is even more power in the first $1 Million. But entrepreneurs never get their lives back.
But this isn’t a blog post about me. It is actually a blog post about my friend Gaelan Brown. Gaelan is crazy. He’s also tougher and braver than I am. He believes the world can be changed and in fact he’s already changed it significantly. He tries things that are nearly impossible.
A funny little fact is that Gaelan and I worked on the weekends as skiing Bear and Moose mascots at the Canyon Ski Area in Park City to get free food and ski tickets. But Gaelan is no ski bum.
He is an extremely experienced, well-educated and talented guy with a vision for a new world. After Infopia was well on it’s way he then went on to help pioneer the K-Cup revolution at Green Mountain Coffee before becoming one of the world’s top advocates for renewable energy. I remember asking him once about the K-Cup experience and he was so upset that while they were a huge money maker (recurring revenue) they weren’t recyclable. Gaelan is the type of passionate guy that is bothered by such a detail.
Fast forward. Today he’s 6-7 years into a technology that literally turns compost into energy.
Want proof? Below is a picture of someone heating a hot tub up to 120 degrees in the middle of winter but that’s just one application. The implications could be huge. It’s not a matter of if we’ll need this as a society – it’s when!
So why is it that Gaelan’s startup company doesn’t yet have major financial backing from big money investors and thousands of farms and compost sites calling him to get this game changing technology? It’s because change is hard. It comes slowly. It requires making that intimidating call you don’t want to make and finding a way to get on that plane. It requires believing you are on to something when pretty much everyone else thinks you are ‘out there’. It sometimes involves just waiting for the market to be ready.
Regardless of the trajectory it usually involves investing everything you have – literally. Don’t believe me? Ask my chiropractor and doctor and road bike and family and friends and pets and significant others. Ask them about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Ask Gaelan’s closest friends and family. They’ll all tell you it takes a toll.
But it’s worth it.
And after almost 20 years it’s all I know and while the struggle is ALWAYS momentus, the rewards are unfathomable. As an entrepreneur not only are you your own boss in every possible sense of the word – you are creating change that you can see in front of you. And no other profession gives you a life of endless possibilities.
But back to my friend Gaelan. All Gaelan really needs is for people to buy his book. It’s that simple. Sure he needs investors and team members and distribution partners, but really all he needs from you is a little support.
When you spend the $12.95 on Amazon, not only will you learn exactly how to create your own compost-powered hot water system, you’ll be supporting change. You’ll also get inspired about a generation of people like Gaelan who are working to see these impossibilities become possible.
He only gets $1 when you buy the book. And regardless he’ll be covering his mortgage for months before he sees any of the money. But it helps. It sends a message to Gaelan that people out there are listening and they have his back and that they believe that our world needs entrepreneurs out there figuring out really really hard problems.
Because entrepreneurship isn’t easy.
But it’s what makes the world go round and now, more than ever….
You’ve probably heard of the city of Boulder, Colorado – right? What about Longmont? It’s a sister city just a short drive north from Boulder. The drive itself is easy enough and also happens to be spectacular. Green plains. White capped peaks in the distance.
As you drive away from Boulder you start to realize this isn’t just farmland. Looming tech campuses emerge. IBM. Seagate. Qualcomm. It’s not the trendy hipster town of start-yuppy Boulder- but it’s right next door. And in a way it’s more real. Billion dollar hardware companies do something for a tech community that is hard to replicate.
Longmont is where I met people like Katherine Weadley and Elektra Greer. They can usually be found leading a group of teens around the Longmont Library where they run various outreach programs. Katherine has recently spearheaded an initiative to make the Library (and eventually all libraries) more accessible to those on the Autism Spectrum. ROBAUTO is honored to be working with them on that via the use of interactive robotics.
Elektra and Katherine were the ones that introduced me to people like Scott Converse of TinkerMill.
(I recently learned that Scott used to work for a little startup called Apple Computers.)
Now Scott’s acting on a vision of leveraging Longmont’s long history of hardware and technology innovation to make Longmont a hub for next-gen innovation. I’m talking about innovation for the people and by the people. This is a mission that is close to my heart so obviously it was very exciting to meet Scott and tour what is one of the most well-equipped and (fun) maker spaces in the country.
But as Scott was showing us the 3D printers and the laser cutters one thing really caught my eye. It was a plaque put on the bathroom door with an image of Brad Feld of the Foundry Group and a quote reminding TinkerMillers to not waste precious bathroom time.
Innovation happens everywhere these days. It even happens in the bathroom. And it especially happens when major VCs, educators, ex-execs, entrepreneurs and a ton of geeks (there are over 100 members) get together to make dreams into reality.
Expect to see some great innovations coming out of Longmont in the years and months to come!