An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Lael Odhner (co-founder) of RightHand Robotics, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of RightHand Robotics – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
We have been working on the problem of robotic grasping and manipulation for far longer than we have been a company. The co-founders, Yaro Tenzer, Leif Jentoft, and I, met in 2010 as research collaborators on a project for examining suspicious roadside debris for DARPA. While this was an interesting problem, we were particularly interested in pursuing civilian/commercial applications, and we started looking for a new market for our work. We were introduced to Mick Mountz, the founder of Kiva Systems, and co-founder Pete Wurman, and they were instrumental in steering us onto warehouse logistics as the problem of the future to solve. The warehouse is a surprisingly diverse environment. Unlike a factory, which makes the same product again and again, a warehouse will contain anywhere from hundreds to millions of distinct products which must be handled in a more or less uniform fulfillment process. That is a problem that requires cutting-edge AI and motion planning technology, as well as a highly robust robotic gripper that has the dexterity required to handle such a wide range of objects.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
One thing that surprised us when we started talking to customers is that our robot had to do more than just pick and place warehouse goods – most automation today requires the operator to use their intelligence to fill in dozens of little perceptual gaps in their warehouse workflow, so to operate autonomously, the robot must be able to do the same. For example, warehouse workers may be required to notify the system when a box that is supposed to be full of goods is actually empty, or if the barcode on an item is damaged and unable to be scanned. We have had to come up to speed on a lot of these side tasks in order to field a product that meets the customer’s needs. The best analogy is self-driving cars – navigating on an interstate highway on a sunny day may be straightforward, but the car isn’t ready for prime time until it can navigate road construction at night in light rain. We’re getting to that stage in warehouse picking.
What does the future hold for RightHand Robotics?
If we do our jobs right, few people will hear of us, but every warehouse out there will be using our robotic solution to move their product orders. We’d like to enable the explosive growth of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that will be required to meet the worldwide demand for online ordering, and we see autonomous manipulation as one of the key productivity multipliers needed to make sure that the labor force can keep up with the pace of progress. Doing the work of picking, scanning, and packing automatically will free up workers to pay attention to the bigger things, like reducing errors and improving the customer experience.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Somerville?
We are extremely grateful to be located in Somerville, Massachusetts. Boston is one of the few metropolitan hubs that makes it easy to start a robotics company. We have found that our employees come to us with a wealth of relevant experiences. Many have been serially involved with technology startups for the last 20 or 30 years. The city of Somerville also deserves special commendation for remaining friendly to startups, even while the market for office space and housing booms. We are located in Somerville, and not Boston or Cambridge, because the city made it easy to bring our unique mix of manufacturing and office jobs to a historic downtown district in Union Square. At a time when a lot of formerly “techy” neighborhoods like Kendall Square are now totally out of reach for the little guy, Somerville is filling a niche that the region depends upon for job creation.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Make a lot of friends. Become friends with your friends’ friends. Hire your friends. Make friends with your hires. Get to know your landlord, and your neighbors, and everyone else who connects to your fledgeling business. Make friends among your competitors. You never know – you could be working for them someday, or they for you. But don’t do it for that reason; do it because it’s difficult to do anything worthwhile, and you will need every reserve of positivity you can muster to get through the hard times.