Published in San Diego Union-Tribune, August 17, 2015
From Robby the Robot (“Forbidden Planet”) to C-3PO (“Star Wars”) to T-800 (“The Terminator”), we have always been fascinated by robots.
San Diego is fast becoming the center of a growing robotics industry, and on a recent visit to the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars, we saw a glimpse into that future.
Ten companies from seven countries are the first participants in the four-month program that started at the end of May and concludes with a Demo Day in September. The companies each received an investment of $120,000 ($100,000 from Qualcomm and $20,000 from Techstars) in the form of a convertible note plus business, design and technical assistance.
Here are the stories of two of the CEOs.
Myers, 27, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Carbon Robotics, carbon.ai, grew up in Cambridge, England. “When I was growing up, I loved to take things apart and put them back together. I had a Lego room in which I spent hours,” she said. Since she viewed the U.S. as more entrepreneurial than England, she attended Duke University, where she met her co-founder, Dan Corkum. At Duke, she took her first robotics course and taught herself to write software by reading programming books.
The company’s first product is KATIA, which stands for “kick ass trainable intelligent arm” — with the capabilities of an industrial robot at the price of a laptop. KATIA will be able to be transformed from a 3-D printer to a camera rig within seconds, and Myers said many applications would be available without additional programming.
Myers’ inspiration for KATIA came from her father, who became ill when she was a child. “He was confined to a wheelchair before he passed away, and that changed how people interacted with him and how he could navigate around our house. I would rig things up so he wouldn’t have to ask for help,” she said.
Myers wants to explore manufacturing KATIA in San Diego and Tijuana. The ability to do cross-border manufacturing is a strength that the region brings to the robotics industry.
Tommei, 31, CEO and co-founder of Solenica, solenica.com, grew up in Rome, where the company is based. Her father was an engineer, and he taught her to write code. At the University of Rome, she studied bioinformatics.
“In Italy, it’s common to have women in academia. What is less common is to have a woman as the inventor and CEO of a technology startup,” she said.
Solenica’s first product is Lucy, a desktop-sized sphere that harvests sunlight and bends it anywhere you choose. You put Lucy near a window or in another place with a view of the sun and point its nose toward the ceiling of the room you want to light up. When the reflected sunlight hits the ceiling it scatters all around, creating a natural glow that evenly distributes the illumination in the room. In Italian, Luce means light.
The inspiration for Lucy came from Tommei’s experience of living in Cambridge, England, where she earned her Ph.D. “I had moved from Rome and suddenly I was exposed to very little sunlight. My happiness and my productivity went down. I was tired all the time, and a doctor told me that I had winter depression. He said it would go away when summer came,” she said.
She started to build a prototype to harness the sunlight at the same time that she was accepted to Singularity University, which focuses on providing educational programs that address big problems. At a Startup Weekend in Rome, she met her co-founders, Alessio Paoletti, who designed Lucy, and Mattia Di Stasi, the company’s business and marketing strategist.
“In Italy we have only a small ecosystem for startups and it’s even harder for hardware startups. You have to find everything for yourself. There is very little support. Here it is paradise. You have people who want you to be successful, and they support you along the way,” she said.
San Diego excels
Robotics is a highly interdisciplinary field that requires experts in electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, design and other fields.
“San Diego excels in these areas. We are good at the hard stuff, and this program is an example of putting it all together,” said Ping Wang, Ph.D., director of technology for the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator.
Hopefully, the program will continue. “We are still working to determine if the program will continue in 2016 and in what form,” said Houman Haghighi, operations manager for Qualcomm Ventures. “It is Qualcomm’s goal to continue to be a leader in the robotics space and to foster innovation.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” — HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But of course in San Diego, it appears we actually can.
Rule No. 430
Who wudda thunk — the fantasy becomes reality.