An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Leif Jentoft (co-founder) of RightHand Robotics, which was honored in our:
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in Somerville
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Somerville
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Somerville
Tell us the origin story of RightHand Robotics – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
We spun out of a research team competing in a DARPA challenge about a decade ago. The challenge was how to pick up roadside bombs in “unstructured environments” where there is a lot of variation (i.e. you’ve never seen the object before, and unlike a factory, you don’t control the surroundings).
You can’t take something you’ve spent years building and ask people if they want it – no one wants to tell you your baby is ugly. So we spent the first year of the company really trying to get inside the heads of possible customers who could use the technology and understand what keeps them up at night. We needed to understand if we could solve an important problem.
We found that problem-solution match in warehouse order-fulfillment. When you order online, if the order arrives late or incorrect, it’s a terrible experience and retailers lose their customers. At the same time, explosive growth and labor challenges make it really hard to deliver a good experience – there was over 37% average turnover in the US even before the COVID pandemic. So, that’s what we decided to solve with robotics.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Howard Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor, said that entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunities beyond resources controlled. It’s hard to do something that’s never been done before, and to break it up into manageable milestones so you don’t try to boil the ocean but instead can connect a growing team and make an impact solving it. To me, that has been the biggest hurdle, but once you overcome it, it’s very gratifying to get to the other side and actually accomplish the goal.
What does the future hold for RightHand Robotics?
There are three bullets on the postcard above my desk:
- Build the best solution for an important customer need
- Build a great place to work, where people can see the impact of their hard work on worthwhile problems and can develop and grow
- Build a strong business to support this economically
If we deliver these, I’ll be happy indeed!
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Somerville?
Somerville is an awesome place to build a company – there’s a great talent pool from the surrounding universities and tech companies. There’s a good balance between the “scrappy” startup space (like the 1930s-era post office that is our headquarters ) where you can prove out a business, and the surrounding environment that’s attractive to live and work. There are a number of other great companies in the area including Formlabs, Tulip, and Owl Labs, so it’s definitely the place to be if you’re in tech.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Choose a problem that matters, not only to your customers, but also to you. You’ll spend the same effort trying to launch a company either way, so find something worth solving and fall in love with the problem rather than a specific solution to it.