Powering the Heart of a Robot

A NEF conversation with WiBotic CEO Ben Waters

Incubator labs are popping up at research universities across the U.S., including the University of Washington where tech incubator CoMotion is the centerpiece of the university’s innovation district. A shining star in CoMotion’s startup universe is WiBotic, maker of wireless charging solutions for robots and robot fleets (and recent recipient of $2.5M in investor funding). Led by CEO and electrical engineer Ben Waters and co-founder Joshua Smith, WiBotic is pioneering autonomously charging capabilities for aerial, aquatic and mobile robots. Waters sat down with NEF to share WiBotic’s origin story, how the company’s innovation is giving wireless charging power to swarms of robots, and how he balances roles of engineer and CEO.

Q. Why a ‘wireless charging solution’?

As an electrical engineering undergraduate major at Columbia, I attended a talk given by a professor who was wanting to work on wireless power – few companies were working on it at the time, but I thought it was really cool. That summer I had an internship with an engineering consulting company that does big commercial building projects and they live and die by the national electric code. It got me thinking: “Wow, if wireless power becomes this popular area, it’s going to impact all of that stuff. Because you’ll no longer plug in, but rather, everyone will be on wireless.”

Then I had an internship at Intel and they were very interested in wireless for phones and the wireless charging pad concept. But as we were learning more about the core technology, we realized there were a lot of great things you can do to make it very flexible for devices that really need wireless charging.

I was excited about applications for making implanted medical devices, such as Ventricular Assist Device heart pumps, lighter, more flexible, portable and accessible from far away. But as I got further into it while pursuing my PhD at University of Washington (UW), my research colleagues and I realized it was a challenging business model and the medical device industry wasn’t quite ready for it.

It got me thinking: “Wow, if wireless power becomes this popular area, it’s going to impact all of that stuff. Because you’ll no longer plug in, but rather, everyone will be on wireless.”

So, we were scratching our heads for other applications that need wireless charging. If medical devices wasn’t right, what is? Robotic companies came into the lab and saw we had a flexible, high-power charging system and asked us, “Does it work with robots?”

As we started thinking about robotics as an industry that would be applicable, we began understanding requirements of fully autonomous robotic systems – think underwater systems for defense, industrial surveillance, manufacturing, drones…

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

We set out to solve that problem and grew the company.

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

Q. Are you surprised by where you ended up, considering your early focus on medical devices?

Yes, I am. The main reason I was interested in medical supplies is it was a clear need for charging. It solved a problem. But with robotics we feel the same motivation – there’s a real opportunity to facilitate the entire robotics market and allow those systems to grow and allow companies building them to focus on the application or service and rely on existing infrastructure to grow quickly.

Q. A lot of people can succeed in engineering or business, but the idea of someone being able to translate an innovation into something commercially viable – that’s rare. How are you making that happen?

There were a lot of influences in my life that gave me a great appreciation for the importance of teamwork and enabling others. I played a lot of sports growing up and learned what it meant to be on a team… you can’t win a game on your own. My mom worked in corporate HR for a long time and oversaw writing “great place to work” applications for a lot of big companies down in Silicon Valley. I had some internships with some of those companies and was amazed with how important culture is to the executives.

So instead of being heads-down focused on my own thing, I spent time figuring out how to mentor others and figured if I could help someone else find a topic they were excited about and make their own, then the success of all the projects in the lab would be amplified. When I saw that, I thought, “Okay, there is really something to this whole culture of leadership and balancing the work you have as an engineer with work you have as facilitating the output of others.”

I talked to as many people as I could to find what I didn’t know, being curious and always putting myself in a place to keep the learning curve steep, not allowing myself to get comfortable with the things I know how to do, but pushing myself and knowing what’s important for the company as a whole, and what’s important for me to be doing.

When I saw that, I thought, “Okay, there is really something to this whole culture of leadership and balancing the work you have as an engineer with work you have as facilitating the output of others.”

Q. How do you stay technically sharp while leading the company?

Our growth and R&D comes from our ability to innovate and engineer very well. At first it was very difficult to balance engineering and the business side. I felt like we didn’t have a big team so I felt like a lot of responsibility for both fell on me. I had the PhD and thought, “I have the knowledge, I have to do it.”

Then it got hard to manage.

In May 2015, all in the same month, WiBotic moved into an office space, I presented my dissertation and I got married. I realized I had to stop spending all my time engineering and I started considering who I needed to hire, and that was scary because you see the impact to the budget.

But I pursued hiring people who were good at product development and turning it into something customers could use. I could contribute technical competencies but when it came to how we productized it, and ultimately as those people leaned more on the power tech side, they were able to drive forward a lot of things. That really helped me understand where I can contribute to the engineering side.

And on the business side, while I stepped away from implementation, I focused on facilitating their output, helping them be on the right path. Ultimately my job as CEO is to help them be inspired and excited about what they’re working on. I need no personal recognition – it’s my job to focus on the team and the company’s growth.

Q. What role does CoMotion have in WiBotic’s success?

Innovation and inspiring people to be a part of startups comes from having people rooted in the universities providing guidance.

I grew up next to Stanford and if you go there, regardless of your major, you meet people and you start a company and that’s just what you do. They put you in touch with investors, mentors and advisors.

That’s what I think has been a big contribution of CoMotion over the last several years. They have technology managers sending emails to engineers and offering advice and support, and as students start to talk more about that in the labs and professors establish companies and you see people turning a research project into a company… that culture catches on and inspires other people to do more of the same.

When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective or safer or enabling something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What makes you optimistic about being an American engineer?

I’ve been very inspired by the entire process, including the amount of work and thought that went into our strategy and financing and the diligence our investors did on our company. If WiBotic reflects other companies in terms of the way they go about it, I believe there will be a lot of great companies that start-up. When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective or safer or enabling something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What else do you want us to know?

It’s been quite a journey for me in discovering that what got you success for the first month of the company to the first year to second year and beyond isn’t the thing that continues to bring success. There’s always a sense of thinking situationally and understanding where you are. And that’s been the most exciting piece of leading a small company and working with smart people.


For more information on WiBotic, visit www.wibotic.com and follow on Twitter @WiBotic

To learn more about UW CoMotion, visit comotion.uw.edu and follow on Twitter @UWCoMotion

Q&A with Rube Goldberg Toy Designer Todd Anderson and Jennifer George

Mention Rube Goldberg to almost anyone and you’re likely to be met with a smile and probably a story about how they loved learning about the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his complicated, zany invention cartoons.

Now, Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

How are Rube Goldberg activity sets unique?

Todd Anderson (TA): We approached this with the aspects of humor and motion in mind. There’s always a task to complete, always in a humorous and complex way. Our toys have real personality and humor as opposed to just the linear aspect of other building kits.

Jennifer George (JG): We also approached the design so that there would actually be trial and error figured into the build; otherwise there is no learning curve. In that sense, the experience is more like that of a real engineer.

TA: When I talked to NPD (National Panel Diary), they classify a STEM toy “as one that possesses a variable that when changed produces a different outcome.” In our kits, changing one variable can produce many different outcomes.

JG: This humorous and whimsical approach to understanding STEM makes the Rube Goldberg play sets unique. Our mission was to get children to tinker, experiment, test and to actively engage them to problem solve. Trial and error untimely gets you to your end goal and success.

Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

What motivated RGI to move into the toy industry?

JG: Actually, Rube Goldberg has been in the toy industry since the 1960s, just without his name attached. Mousetrap, which is based on my grandfather’s cartoons, has sold almost 70 million units since its arrival on the market. There were also hobby kits and puzzles when my grandfather was alive. But when Target approached us to create a STEM-friendly toy, we jumped at the chance.

Tell us about how you tested the toys with real kids before you began marketing them. What did you learn from that process?

TA: We had access to panels and focus groups of kids; some of these were tested with kids of employees of Spin Master as take-home prototypes. This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions.

JG: And if you get stuck, we launched a series of “How-to” videos on YouTube to support the consumer and make the overall experience as positive as possible.

TA: In one of our focus groups, a parent was quoted as saying “To my surprise, my son became quickly determined to do the project himself. He worked through the challenging phase and could really celebrate in the success.” This was great to see active engagement like that in our toys.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

Which set is your favorite, and why?

JG: The Acrobat Challenge! It was the first one designed and the first prototype that I could have in my hands and build myself. But I’m also a big fan of the Speeding Car Challenge because it’s very satisfying when the car moves – and the chicken makes me smile.

TA: I also love the Speeding Car because of the finale. When the car zooms off, it’s a great sense of accomplishment.

THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR HOLIDAY WISH LIST

Hoverboards aren’t just a hot item on wish lists. They’re also a hot topic, from rules about where you can and can’t take one to concerns about safety.

Forget riding your new hoverboard through New York City streets or Quicken Loans Arena where the Cleveland Cavaliers play. And if you’re headed to the airport, be sure you check travel regulations. They vary from airline to airline, and you can bet there will be changes as the travel season heats up.

Then there’s the crash and burn factor – or factors – in this case. Some hoverboarders report spontaneous combustion during use or charging and you can find plenty of videos online showing how easy it is to fall off a hoverboard. We’d link to them, but then we’d have to include an “adult language” warning.

While hoverboards are teaching plenty of people some important lessons in gravity, drones are helping thousands of others defy it. With hundreds of thousands of new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the air this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), isn’t so sure about the trend and is reviewing recommendations for keeping track of who’s got what in the air. So before you launch that UAS from Santa, make sure know whether you need to register as a pilot. The proposed registration would be done online and is pretty easy, for those of you who want to dig deeper, here’s the report.

And whether they’re zooming through the skies or zipping down the street, it’s nice to know that as Americans celebrate the season, they’re celebrating engineering, too.

ENGINEERING CHANGES LIVES

Albert Manero is using the power of engineering to make life better for children who need prosthetic limbs. Manero is the keynote speaker at the Nov. 9 NEF Orlando regional dialogue and Executive Director of Limbitless Solutions.

Prosthetic arms can cost about $40,000, and access for children is limited in part because they grow so quickly. For many kids like 7-year-old Alex Pring, that means a prosthesis is out of reach. That’s where groups like Limbitless Solutions come in, with a mission, in part, to “use additive manufacturing to advance personalized bionics and solutions for disabilities. We believe that no family should have to pay for their child to receive an arm.”

Alex got a Limbitless Solutions arm earlier this year, and he got famous, as a viral video showed actor and star of “Iron Man” movies Robert Downey, Jr. delivering the new arm. As Alex grows, his arm can be adjusted for a cost of about $100 to create new 3D-printed parts.

Participants at the Nov. 9 NEF Orlando regional dialogue will hear more about the life-changing power of engineering as Manero, who is a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Central Florida, delivers the keynote at the dialogue hosted by UCF.

Stories like this one demonstrate the power of engineering and the importance of the NEF mission to find solutions to the challenges facing American engineering – the 3C’s – how many engineers our country needs (capacity), what skills they require (capabilities), and how they affect our way of life and world leadership (competitiveness). As Manero says on his website, “Let’s show students that engineering is a tool to change the world.”

SPOTLIGHT ON THE 3C’S: COMPETITIVENESS

This month, our series on the 3C’s – capacity, capability, and competitiveness – focuses on competitiveness. The engineering community must work more creatively and collaboratively – alongside political leaders and media – and make the case for the essential role engineering plays in fueling our economy, bolstering national security, and advancing U.S. leadership.

1-Ga Tech Dean May photo for Nov newsletterDr. Gary S. May, dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology

[NEF dialogues] serve as an industry and government affirmation that engineering is key to long-term economic growth.  Innovation requires public and private sector investment operating synergistically. These dialogues ensure we are on the same page as we go forward and foster awareness of social, economic and cultural forces which affect engineering’s future, such as student demographics and global demands. We need to make sure those issues are raised from all who have a vested interest in our nation’s economic well-being, which is directly tied to engineering.

 

Cassidy_5531e[4][2]C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Reasearch Alliance

Since engineering is inherent in modern-day problem solving, the NEF dialogues add fuel to a larger conversation about our nation’s future and the well-being of humankind. They also point the way to the action steps we must take. As a result, the collective follow-up to the dialogues is just as important – we have to work to turn conversation into change.

 

Olin Headshots Richard K. MillerDr. Rick Miller, president of the Olin College of Engineering 

There is broad consensus that science- and engineering-based innovation drive economic growth and job creation. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if we can’t figure out new ways to educate technological leaders, America’s prosperity and reputation as an innovation groundbreaker could be called into question. Only through collaboration and dialogue can we form the coalitions among business, academia and government to confront this challenge. I’m optimistic we’ll succeed.

 

 

 

 

FOUR MORE REGIONAL DIALOGUES WILL ADD TO NEF’S COMMUNITY OF ACTION

The next slate of NEF regional dialogues starts this fall in Orlando, Florida, hosted by the University of Central Florida on Nov. 9. UCF’s vision “is to educate the next generation of engineers and scientists and perform impactful research that advances the technologies of the 21st century.”  The keynote speaker will be Albert Manero, a UCF doctoral student in mechanical engineering and executive director of Limbitless Solutions where he “leads the team to develop and distribute new arms, and encourage children to dream big dreams in engineering.” On February 2, Oklahoma State University hosts the Stillwater, Oklahoma regional dialogue. Dean Dr. Paul J. Tikalsky says OSU’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology is focused on ensuring graduates are “to understand the world in its broadest context.” Just a few weeks later, NEF will be in South Carolina where Clemson University will host a regional dialogue. Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science is following a strategic plan for “innovation through translation” meaning “transforming knowledge that creates high impact on society.” A Denver regional dialogue is being planned as well. Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, where the College of Engineering and Computational Sciences focuses its research on “improving people’s lives by attacking fundamental problems facing society.”

These four dialogues will bring the NEF dialogue count to 20 regional events across the country, focusing on the 3C’s – how many engineers our country needs (capacity), what skills they require (capabilities), and how they affect our way of life and world leadership (competitiveness). These 3C’s — capacity, capability and competitiveness — encourage us to see engineering holistically and the ideas generated at regional events are forming the foundation for a national cornerstone event.

3C’S SPOLIGHT ON CAPABILITY

This month, our series on the 3C’s focuses on capability. The 3C’s are challenges facing American engineering – capacity, capability, and competitiveness. Emerging, multi-disciplinary engineering and technology fields need a workforce trained to solve challenges in sustainability, climate change and evolving areas such as cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, cloud architecture, energy, and healthcare…

 

“Our goal is to graduate students who are well-rounded with a truly global perspective—to accomplish that, we need to provide our engineering students with a menu of academic and co-curricular opportunities…”

Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering Dr. Ian Robertson

 

“The greatest areas for advancement will be those that fall between traditional disciplines. That is where our greatest challenges lie and where we will need engineers and scientists who can work seamlessly across disciplines.”

Arizona State University President Dr. Michael M. Crow

 

“Universities need to create interdisciplinary education and experiences including project-based learning in a collaborative environment.  That is what will be required to solve tomorrow’s complex technical challenges.  And, to get the best ideas, this collaboration must produce graduates that reflect diverse backgrounds.”

Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation Inc. Keith Nosbusch

SPOTLIGHT ON CAPACITY

“We need to demonstrate that engineering is one of the best ways to help people and make a major difference in the world. If we can do that, we can begin to address the diversity problem.”

Olin College of Engineering President Dr. Rick Miller

 

“We need to be thinking of ways to improve a student’s awareness of the wonders of engineering, and create viable opportunities to act on their interests. We need to help them understand how exciting a career in engineering can be and fuel their dreams and aspirations with compelling stories such as self-driving cars, land, air and space robotics, medical devices, and smart urban infrastructure.”

Carnegie Mellon University Dean of Engineering Dr. James H. Garrett 

 

“We need to focus on encouraging students to “stay with it” and provide mentoring and role models. While majoring in a STEM field is rigorous, it is extremely rewarding.”

Georgia Institute of Technology Dean of the College of Engineering Dr. Gary S. May

 

“We live in a big world, with a lot of opportunities, a lot of issues, and a lot of complexity. We need to show students they can make a difference by becoming master learners who are capable of tackling any challenge.”

Arizona State University President Dr. Michael M. Crow