Many promising companies run out of work from university researchers, or even graduates who have discovered a new innovation. But the transition from a technology-oriented research group to a product-oriented startup is not easy to make; luckily, three experts in the field attended TC Sessions: Robotics to discuss a few ways to get through it successfully.
Milo Werner is a new general partner at MIT’s The Engine, an accelerator and fund focused on tough tech. Joyce Sidopoulos is a co-founder of MassRobotics, a community and advocacy group for the industry’s startup ecosystem. And Pieter Abbeel is a professor at UC Berkeley and co-founder of Covariant, which is designing a new generation of warehouse robots (he also just launched won the ACM Prize — belated congratulations, Peter).
Our panel started with some of the most obvious technical considerations founders need to consider when transitioning from research to a mass production process. (Quotations have been slightly edited for clarity and continuity.)
“When the technologists design the product themselves, they just want it to work, right? But if you’re actually going to produce, the manufacturer will say, we can’t put that board on top, we can’t mount it that way. So you really have to think about manufacturing and designing for manufacturing from the very beginning,” said Sidopoulos.
Werner pointed out that the tolerances, precision and monitoring will never be as good as your own lab, so be prepared to accept that – as well as compromises on cost. “The reality is that you go through a series of iterations once you go into production to reduce costs and manage upswing,” she said.
“In a research lab you just try to get a prototype to work. And often you can write a paper that gets a lot of visibility and excitement when you show something for the first time – it can work!” said Abbeel. “Then you go to something in production … And suddenly it is not the fact that once you can make it work that matters – it is the consistency, the fact that it always works. So chasing the kind of high nines of performance and reliability, I think this is probably the biggest difference. ”
As the demands of the business change, the business itself must change to meet them. Werner pointed out that many founders, who have worked in the area for four to eight years, have a passion and familiarity with the material that is hard to match – but that can be a barrier to building a team.
“The part they often have to deal with is that they have to build a great team, and that team has to be as strong or stronger than them,” she said. “Coming from the academic, institutional space, it can be a very individual contribution ideology. And moving to the corporate space, it’s completely team-oriented. And you are only as strong as your team.”
“I totally agree with that,” said Sidopoulos. “We notice that there is a lot of time, the co-founders are passionate about what they do. But then they have to bring in, you really have to bring in a strong business person because how do you sell this thing? How do you put it in a pitch deck? You are not taught that when you are in technical school. Finding the right people and the right combination. It’s like getting married, right? You are going to marry someone with whom you will spend a lot of time. And so you have to make sure you have the same goals, the same mission, the same work ethic.”
Werner pointed out that it’s always wise to hire for the need – and joining a community of like-minded people can help a founder build their network and get a sense of where others are in the process.
Abbeel told a story about a casual relationship that Covariant built:
Our first lead investor, Amplify, had a partner that they made available five hours a week, who had a lot of operational experience in sales, on the business development side, many previous startups, where he had worked full time, and now he was a venture capitalist” , he said. “And he brought all that operational experience into what we were doing. And we soon discovered that five o’clock wasn’t [enough]… we wanted more! Over time, we got him so excited to join us as our COO! It’s a great example of someone who most likely wouldn’t have been in our natural network, but came our way in a way that it was actually possible to get to know each other really well, for several months before we actually started working together full-time. With a completely different set of experiences and skills — so valuable.”
If only all founders were so lucky! It’s not exactly advice, but it does show that it pays to iron while the iron is hot.
Finding a suitable product market was another topic we touched on, and each panelist had variations on the idea of focusing quickly.
“We get a lot of startups that have a great technology that can really solve a lot of problems … if you’re not focused on one solution, for one industry, you spread yourself too thin,” said Sidopoulos. “You really have to know your customer, what their challenge is, what they want to solve and what they are willing to pay for. Put that focus on one, make it happen – then you have a story, then you have someone using your technology. Then turn to another case. It also really helps with investing.”
Abbeel pointed out that this can also be extended to the timeline. Sure, you might be able to solve problem Y in six months and problem Z in 18 months — but what’s problem X you can solve tomorrow? Someone out there wants to pay you for that, even if you plan on having something much better later on.
“That was an eye-opener for us,” he said. “Because many others were also very enthusiastic about robots, but in a sense it was enthusiasm for the future of the company. It was not an excitement for the day of the company. For us that was really the big factor in our decision -making, who is enthusiastic about robots nowadays? “
Werner even recommended working with a major strategic company in the industry, as their in-depth knowledge (and pockets) can help you build that first use case. Even companies like Tesla (where she worked for The Engine) started partnering with bigger ones to test and prove their product.
“You kind of use your partner to reduce the risk of your technology,” she said. “Once you’ve reduced the risks of that technology, you can build on that and move on.”
But, she cautioned, be careful not to fall into the trap of over-specializing or relying too much on the partner’s resources, or you’ll find yourself dependent and tied to their roadmap rather than your own.
That’s just a handful of the topics we covered today — you can watch the rest of the panel for free here.