Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently spoke with Melonee Wise, co-founder and CEO of Fetch Robotics Inc. After building a Lego plotter at age 8, Wise went on to degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Wise spent her summers in internships at Alcoa, DaimlerChrysler, and Honeywell Aerospace and participated in the DARPA Urban Challenge. She later become manager of robot development at startup Willow Garage, which developed the Robot Operating System.
As co-founder of Unbounded Robotics, Melonee Wise supervised the development of a mobile manipulator. After Unbounded Robotics shut down in 2014, she co-founded Fetch Robotics, which has raised $20 million in Series A funding for its Fetch mobile manipulator and Freight autonomous mobile cart.
This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until July 31, 2016. Here’s a preview:
Pransky: From your bachelors through the Ph.D. level, you studied mechanical engineering, but you also proved equally talented at writing high-level software applications. Were there any new realizations on the software versus hardware front?
Wise: For my undergrad, I received a degree in mechanical engineering and in physics. My focus was very hardware-centered. I did nonlinear control, dynamics, and building robots and really focused from a hardware perspective. But as I moved into my Ph.D., I started doing more and more algorithmic things. At the university, I used a lot of MATLAB (Matrix Laboratory).
When I moved to Willow Garage and started working on autonomous cars, everything was in C and C++, and I had to learn how to program. That was an uphill battle for me. However, it came back around because when I finally started doing hardware again, with Unbounded and Fetch, I had to learn how to be a practicing mechanical engineer again.
So for me, it’s been this interesting lifecycle of doing programming and then doing hardware, and then back to programming again.
Pransky: In six short years, you’ve gone from the role of senior engineer to CEO of two companies. How much time do you spend now on the business side versus the engineering side, and what sort of decisions or daily tasks are you faced with? Did SoftBank or your other investors provide you with any of your business partners?
Wise: I have gone from a very technical role to a very high-level executive management role. At the beginning of both Unbounded and Fetch, I did a lot of mechanical design because we started with very small teams and the mechanical design wasn’t going to get done unless I did it.
At Fetch, we started from scratch. We had to rethink all sorts of things, including how we approached the hardware design and what we were doing. It actually led to some really big jumps in terms of the hardware, because we took some pretty big risks that worked out really well for us.
But I guess the crux of it is at some point, I had to stop being a mechanical engineer. This is unfortunate, because there’s just too much going on for me to properly do everything. Our other mechanical engineer took over all my work in that respect.
Today, I focus mainly on promoting the company so I do a lot of speaking events and press interviews. I also do a lot of shepherding company culture. When I first started down this off-the-road journey, I never realized how important company culture would become, and how much it can change the company. That’s something I focus on.
Acquiring good talent is another big focus. (Did I mention we’re hiring?) I also ensure that we can attract the right talent for the company. I interview people and then engage management so that we’re building up the management team at Fetch.
A lot of my job now is how do I build this company into what it means to be wildly successful. Then there’s a lot of other things such as networking, getting out there and making connections to companies that have innovation departments that are looking to get into robotics. I frame our company in a way that they can understand and see the value proposition of our business for their business.
It’s definitely a very different set of skills. I’m relatively lucky that I’m able to get out there and schmooze with the best of them. But it’s feeling like a big skill shift because it’s not what I was formally trained to do as a mechanical engineer.
Pransky: And what specific lessons did you learn from Unbounded that affected how you set up Fetch?
Wise: Unbounded lasted for 18 months, and that was an interesting life experience because in 18 months, I did everything a startup owner could do. I started a company. I got an angel investment. I got an acquisition offer. I failed with an acquisition offer. I got venture capital. I failed at closing it. I spun off of a company. I had a terrible spinoff agreement. I shut down a company.
All that definitely impacted how we went forward with Fetch. The mantra in Silicon Valley is “fail fast,” and my experience at Unbounded definitely fits that description. And it’s true that there is a lot of knowledge that can be gained from failure.
One of the biggest things that I think it imposed on me is when you start you’re pretty naïve at how much money it takes to do things as an entrepreneur. Having that experience with Unbounded really showed me that in order to dream big you have to have the capital to do it.
It’s already a big problem in the rare area of robotics that we’re in, because we’re building hardware. Not only do you have to have capital because it’s capitally intensive, you also have to have capital because we have huge amounts of software to write. We need huge amounts of software engineers. To pull all of that off, you need a lot of capital.
Pransky: What would be Fetch’s business plan for the next 10 years, or where do you see yourself 10 years from today?
Wise: I don’t know if I’ve ever planned any part of my life 10 years into the future. I’m lucky if I’m planning two years from now.
Fetch at that point has conquered a vertical in the logistics industry and is starting to move on into a secondary vertical. The time scale for robotics companies is in decades.
We’re moving extremely fast compared to all of the other robot companies that have been successful. Adept was more than 20 years old when it was acquired. Kiva was almost a decade old when it was acquired.
We’re talking about huge time scales for robotics companies, and I’m hoping that in the next couple of years we will have real robots in the real world doing real work. We’re already achieving that with Fetch, but to be very successful, it’s going to take a while to engage and start showing the kind of success people would look for if they were to compare us to an app company.
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