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 collaborative innovation hub and 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 working on wireless power – few companies were working on it at the time, but I thought it was really exciting. 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. Learning about that line of work got me thinking: “Wow, if wireless power becomes this popular area, it’s going to impact a lot more than just how we charge devices. Because you’ll no longer plug in, everyone will be on wireless, both for power and data.”

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 learned 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 identifying real-world applications that needed this flexibility. A great opportunity came up to make implanted medical devices, such as Ventricular Assist Device heart pumps, lighter, more flexible, portable and accessible from far away. While pursuing my PhD at the University of Washington (UW), my research colleagues and I thought about commercializing that technology in the medical device industry, but realized it was a challenging business model at the time, so we continued the work in the research lab.

Nonetheless, we continued scratching our heads for other commercial applications that needed flexible wireless charging. If medical devices weren’t quite right, what is? Shortly thereafter, 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 and no. The main reason I was interested in medical devices was a clear need for flexible wireless charging. It solved a problem that inhibited patient quality of life. 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 entirely heads-down focused on my own thing in graduate school, 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 it their own, then the success of all the projects in the lab would be amplified. When I saw that first-hand, 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.

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

Our growth and R&D comes from our ability to innovate and engineer quickly and purposefully. 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. It was tempting to think, “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 wrote my dissertation and I got married. Probably could have planned that a bit better, but 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 technically creative leaders who were good at product development and turning it into something customers asked for and needed. I could contribute to technical directions but when it came to how we productized it, 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 the team be inspired and excited about what they’re working on. I need no personal recognition – it’s my job to focus on the team, our customers 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 American 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, safer or enables 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 may have brought 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 situational thinking 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

Engineering Summer Fun

Summer pushes the mercury higher, makes the days longer and because we’re NEF, gives us plenty of reminders about why engineering is awesome. Every four years, the world tunes in to watch the best athletes in the world compete in the Olympic Games. So until the Games in Tokyo in 2020, athletes are training hard and from fluid dynamics to biomechanics, engineering principles are everywhere as the athlete get into top shape and look for every advantage. Check out this amazing video series exploring engineering’s impact on competitive sports. It was put together for the 2012 games, but it’s still relevant – and fascinating. Chances are you’ll be watching most athletic competitions from the comfort of your couch, with the AC keeping you cool. Engineer Willis Haviland Carrier designed the first modern air-conditioning system in 1902.

Head out to your own backyard to help kids to engineer a whole summer’s worth of fun with ideas from this site including how-tos for baking soda powered boats, a Nerf battle zone, and so much more. If you’re looking for something with a little more adrenaline, there are an abundance of scream-worthy roller coasters making their debuts at amusement parks across the country. Of course there’s also LEGOLAND which celebrates the construction toy that’s inspired generations of engineers. When you need to cool off in the nearest pool, take a moment to honor the man who invented the modern diving board in 1949. Ray Rude, an engineer who spent part of his career at Lockheed Aircraft Company, used an airplane wing for his first diving board. And of course you can’t have all that fun without a little sustenance. Summer is the perfect time to engineer the perfect burger, traditional or veggie, followed by some homemade ice cream, perhaps using the recipe from one of our nation’s Founding Fathers and engineer Thomas Jefferson.

June 2017

BUILDING BRIDGES AND MAKING A DIFFERENCE

When you cross a bridge, or several bridges, to get to work, or school, or the doctor’s office, you probably don’t give it much thought. But for people in many parts of the world, just one bridge can make all the difference. If you’ve seen the IMAX film “Dream Big,” you may already recognize Avery Bang. She’s the Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity and she’s an engineer on a mission.

In Bang’s 11 years with B2P, she has seen first-hand how infrastructure means more than just convenience. We talked to her about creativity, failure, and the life-changing power of engineering.

Building Bridges, Making a Difference

Avery Bang, Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity, talks about the human element of engineering and building a bridge to the future where all people have access to opportunity.

Q. What or who inspired you to become an engineer?

My dad is a civil engineer and worked on civil works projects throughout his career, including bridges. Our typical family vacations were not what you would call “typical.” We all piled into our car and visited public works projects. It was great because as a young kid I got to see the underbelly of engineering and grew up having a strong appreciation for it. I saw how important engineering is for everything.

Q. How can engineering structures, like the bridges built by Bridges to Prosperity, change people’s lives?

The built environment is the single most important part of our daily lives – the way we get to and from places, where we sleep, how we learn – and its engineers who create this environment. In the developed world, the everyday contributions of engineers go unnoticed because a working infrastructure is already in place, but in developing countries, that’s not the case.

Working in a place like Haiti, everything so bare – you don’t live in a house with insulation and bedrooms or have roads that resemble anything we would be familiar with in the U.S. When you work in an environment where there is not a lot already in place, to have something new is really obvious. Something so simple as a bridge in these developing landscapes can be the single most important part of the infrastructure and gives you an appreciation for the difference engineering can make in peoples’ lives. You can provide isolated communities with access essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities.

When you see engineering in a place where it is noticed and appreciated and people show up to volunteer because they know it is going to make a difference, it makes engineering very human.

Q. You have a double-major in art and engineering. What role does creativity play in engineering?

Creativity is vital. In engineering, you are doing two things – identifying problems and solving them. Creativity is at the crux of problem solving. Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

It is important for society to see engineers as creative and the work of engineers as purposeful. As soon as we shift that perception, we will draw greater numbers of talented, young people. For me, engineering is creative, it’s human. It has hardly anything to do with a calculator.

Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

Q. What have you learned from your mistakes in working in various communities around the globe?

I think failure is an important part of any career. As an entrepreneur, I believe in fail often and fail fast. At Bridges to Prosperity, we’re also good about naming our failures publicly and trying to learn from them. Along the way, we’ve learned different aspects of keeping people safe and now we have solid standards in place. We also know there is no one-size-fits-all solution and our bridge designs need to be locally relevant. We’ve had the humility to say we don’t know everything and it’s actually helped us grow and learn faster. We would not be where we are today without recognizing our failure along the way. That’s how engineering works – you fail, you learn and then you improve!

Q. What advice do you have for other young engineers on finding their passion and purpose?

Have a long attention span because finding something purposeful takes time and commitment. It’s a marathon so don’t be afraid to spend a decade working your way up in one place and be persistent when you find a purpose. Any truly meaningful work is going to be hard. We need engineers who are willing to put in the time and who will think and dream big.


All photos credit Bridges to Prosperity.

MAY 2017

ChemE + JD = Engineer++

Engineers and attorneys could learn a lot from each other, and Vanessa Adriana Nadal should know. She’s both.

Nadal is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and an attorney who earned her J.D. at Fordham University School of Law. She says engineers and lawyers have more in common than you might think, “Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.”

NEF spoke with Nadal from her family’s current home in London (where her husband, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is filming “Mary Poppins Returns”) about what engineers and attorneys can learn from each other, and the cyclical beauty of art, inspiration, and STEM.