Robotics startups need to focus on developing and delivering products that solve business problems, but they should also be aware of the ability of automation to improve people’s lives, according to Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna Robotics.
Theobald has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through his graduate work at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Theobald developed Web-based control algorithms for a precursor to the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
He has also served as principal investigator for many projects funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Army, and the Office of Naval Research, among other agencies.
Theobald holds more than 70 patents and helped develop the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR), the QC Bot for logistics, and other logistics platforms.
Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna has more than 20 years of experience in developing cost-effective solutions for the healthcare, educational, materials handling, and government sectors.
Vecna is a 2018 RBR50 company and has won honors including the DHL and Dell Robotics Innovation Challenge and the Northrop Grumman Information Systems Annual Suppliers Excellence Award. The company has not taken outside investment.
In 2014, Theobald co-founded and is currently president of MassRobotics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of the robotics industry globally and in Massachusetts. He also co-created VecnaCares, a Vecna charity that is dedicated to improving health outcomes and access to quality care around the world.
Joanne Pransky, associate editor for Industrial Robot Journal, recently chatted with Theobald about his experiences and ethical approach to automation.
This interview is available for free to Robotics Business Review readers until Nov. 30, 2018. Here is an excerpt:
Pransky: You never took other money or investment capital. Did you just go with your gut? What was your secret all these years, especially during the tough times? How did you do that?
Theobald: We’ve taken a different approach than most. There are few companies that have accomplished what we’ve accomplished in the way that we’ve accomplished it.
Some people would argue that we’ve done it in the hardest possible way, and maybe that’s true. I tend not to choose the easiest way to do things all the time. However, through lots of small investments over the years, we have built something of great value.
My approach was that I really wanted to solve the real problems at a fundamental level rather than try to take an approach where I could make a quick buck.
I felt strongly that businesses should not just be successful and profitable, but they should also be socially responsible. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was telling myself – like we’ve seen many times – that I needed to be a billionaire before I can start giving back. My feeling was that every company should have a policy based on giving back from day one and build it into the company’s DNA.
That was one of the fundamental tenets of everything I did. Quite frankly, I would have been much happier just working for another company if I could have found a company that I could really invest in and believe in. Prior to Vecna, I worked for several different companies, but after a while working for others, I started to get frustrated because what I saw in most of these organizations was a profit myopia.
It’s very important to me how what we’re doing impacts people and impacts the larger world, and whether we’re truly providing value to our customers or just extracting money from them. I really wanted to work for a company that was not only doing really cool stuff and building amazing tech but that also had a soul, a conscience and a greater purpose.
I looked around a lot. Ultimately, I just couldn’t find an organization that I really wanted to be a part of. That was the genesis of Vecna.
Pransky: How does that philosophy affect Vecna’s bottom line?
Theobald: One concrete way that Vecna implemented this – beyond just thinking deeply about the products we’re building and how they will impact the world – was to implement a community service program where we encouraged employees to spend four of their 40-hour workweek doing community service projects of their choosing.
Initially, I got a tremendous amount of pushback on that, sometimes from employees who didn’t understand why that made sense, but more importantly from people out of MIT’s Sloan School and Harvard and business advisors, all saying, “You’re crazy, you can’t do that. You can’t run a company that way; it’ll never work.”
We were doing a lot of consulting at the time, and a lot of our revenue was coming in by billing by the hour. One could make an argument that we were giving up a substantial amount of potential revenue because we could be billing that extra four hours in a week.
When you start to look at profit margins, it probably takes the first 25 hours out of the week to get to break even anyway. A naive spreadsheet calculation would show that maybe we were giving up 30%, 40%, or 50% of our profit by allowing people to do community service instead of billing four more hours.
But the reality is that it is a naive calculation because that’s not what happens in real life. In real life, what happens is you build this esprit de corps; you have a team of people who are highly dedicated.
Most of the people at Vecna are people who are giving back to the community already – everything from coaching sports teams to building houses at Habitat for Humanity, working at soup kitchens or mentoring high school students in the First Robotics Teams, the list goes on and on – and they’re people that are doing those things anyway.
In practice, therefore, what happens is most of the people aren’t stopping their work at 36 hours to go do their community service; they’re doing their community service in addition to their weekly 40/45 or 50 hours sometimes because they’re highly dedicated.
But there are some people that do the 36 hours of work and do the 4 hours of community service – and that’s great too. In a sense, that’s exactly what they signed up for. And a work-life balance pays back in spades.
When you have a whole group of employees at a soup kitchen working together outside of the work environment, the stress of the client breathing down your neck is gone, and it builds a team that can really produce when we need to produce.
I’d say that the return on investment has far outpaced any potential revenue lost for us. And the whole other side of the equation, of course, is that doing good things pays off in other ways too. It’s great for public relations.
Our customers love the fact that when they choose us over a competitor, they can feel good that they’re investing in a company that’s making the community and the world a better place. That’s not why we do it, but it’s nice that you get that payback as well.
I would say that much of our success as a company is traceable directly to our commitment to these ideals. There are a lot of key people on our team that we probably would have lost along the way had we not had this benefit. They love this benefit, and though they have received offers from other companies — sometimes significantly higher than what we can afford to pay — they say, “No, I’m staying at Vecna because I feel really good about what we’re doing here.”
Pransky: Do you think you would’ve gone for crowdfunding if that was available 20 years ago when you started out or do you think it would have helped or hindered you in getting to where you are now?
Theobald: That’s an area that I’m very interested in exploring. It very well could have been something helpful because a lot of times, crowdfunding is less focused on “Am I going to get 2X or 3X or 4X back from it?” but much more on “Hey, I believe in this, so I want to put my money behind it.”
It’s very possible that it would’ve worked out for us to bring in crowdfunding that was compatible with both our commitment to social responsibility in making the world a better place as well as the idea that we weren’t ready to say when we’d be able to turn a profit on the robotic side. It certainly would have been interesting had we told people 20 years ago that we’d be profitable in 20 years because you’re not going to get any VC or angel investors interested in that.
Pransky: What is your favorite Vecna robot and why?
Theobald: There are two answers to that. One is that it’s all the same robot because what we did – which is very unique in the industry – is we built one robot brain that can basically drive any piece of equipment, whether it’s a huge forklift or a little teeny RC20 robot.
We run the same software on all of them. That provides many huge advantages. One is that our software gets a lot more air time and testing than software that’s written for one specific piece of hardware. This was one of the things that was really hard to do, but provides massive value to our customers because of the robustness and flexibility of our automation systems.
The other answer is I love them all, though right now, we’re certainly getting a lot of press for our large tuggers that are being used at FedEx.
We’re also getting a tremendous amount of interest in our very small robots, which are the most cost-effective robots on the market. The RC20s are just really cute too. They sort of run around, a whole bunch of them almost in a flock-like motion, so it’s kind of fun.
Pransky: How will 70-year-old Daniel’s life be different, thanks to the work that Daniel will have worked on?
Theobald: Here’s a brief answer to that: A group of executives came over from Japan to visit Vecna several years ago. Japan had just begun investing very heavily in humanoid robots to take care of grandma and grandpa because they’ve got a graying workforce problem. I scratched my head at that and said:
Hey, I think you’re thinking about this problem wrong. Trying to build robots that are going to help grandpa in and out of the bathtub, on and off the toilet, and in and out of bed is a great thought and long-term vision, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be much better to develop robots to do all that boring, unfulfilling factory work so human beings can take care of human beings?
That’s more my approach: Let’s let robots do the stuff that doesn’t matter so that we can spend our time taking care of each other. It’s ridiculous for your child to be off assembling iPhones while you’re talking to a robot for companionship. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. Let the robots build the iPhones; let’s hang out together.