I'm a VC at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV). Previously, I had a short-lived science career tinkering with photons and electrons at the smallest scales. Now I tinker with big ideas on how technology will shape society. I really love working, maybe because I'm still not sure what that means. I also love sports, food, and thinking about what lies beyond the bell curve.
This is where I share my stories. Twitter (@rgrchen) is where I think out loud.
On Wednesday, I dropped by the Robot Block Party put on by Andra Keay and the good folks at Silicon Valley Robotics. I thought I’d take some time to briefly recap the event. In case you weren’t able to drop by, I’m sharing some pictures I took below so you can see the sorts of things on display. Overall, it was a fun experience with a good dose of vibrancy. I’ve heard up to 1,500 people attended throughout the day to see the 40 demos, and the demographics ranged widely from students to children to enthusiasts and professionals.
Despite having a good time, I must admit that something bothered me while I was there. A couple years ago, I dug deep into the robotics space because I thought that we were seeing the birth of exciting next-generation robotics companies that would reshape the way our society lives and thinks. Companies like Rethink Robotics, Industrial Perception, and Redwood Robotics emerged to tackle factory and warehouse logistics. Willow Garage was gaining notoriety for being a center of robotics talent and innovation that spawned many of these companies. Meanwhile, Amazon had just acquired Kiva for $775M, driving even more entrepreneurial excitement. Where are these players now? Rethink had a well-publicized round of layoffs, and Willow Garage ceases to exist. Industrial Perception and Redwood Robotics were part of Google’s robotics shopping spree, and while acquisitions can inspire activity like Kiva’s did, Google’s purchases may have had the opposite effect. In one fell swoop, many of the most entrepreneurial and talented roboticists were shuttered away from the world. I often worry that this has caused the entire field to take a step back, or at least is a major progress inhibitor. No longer will the acquired talent build and support new technology for others to build upon, at least for now. What Google decides to do with the talent they purchased will have big ramifications for how the industry and field move forward. There’s potential for a positive outcome here. Perhaps these groups eventually leave Google with an understanding of best practice in building and operating a business, something Google is quite good at.
So why didn’t the aforementioned wave of robotics companies become massive game-changing corporations? The most obvious reason is that robotics is hard, but it’s certainly more than that. We are still at such an early stage in the field that the DNA of founding robotics teams often spawns overemphasis on technology and lack of focus on product. This naturally happens when a field is still so raw that its leaders are researchers and scientists consumed by building the best technology. And really, up to a certain point, these people are by far the most qualified to lead, given their deep understanding of the technology. Eventually, the mystique of exciting technologies attracts an infusion of new DNA that understands that markets value form and function more so than performance specs. The latter is something that you can grow over time. A customer’s patience and tolerance is not. The formation of this melting pot (petri dish?) of technologists and product minds then creates a huge multiplier effect for growth.
I’m still very optimistic about robotics. In fact, I believe we are witnessing the creation of said melting pot (petri dish…) right now. I point to trailblazing startups like 3D Robotics, Airware, and Anki among others, led by true makers, deep technical talent, and people that just understand what customers want. Automation in general has hit some high notes already. I would argue that Nest is in many ways a robotics company and point to their success thus far. In fact, they are perhaps a prime example of how product design can compel markets. So, I predict another wave of robotics companies to emerge, both in logistics and beyond. I can’t wait.
Whoa. What I intended to be a brief event recap turned into this. I’m going to stop now and just show some pictures, but feel free to tweet me (@rgrchen) if you want to chat.
A very real looking R2D2 with wear and tear and all
Using Oculus VR to immerse yourself into a virtual world created by Matterport. Talk about closing the loop…
Battle bots, pneubotics style. These bad boys from Otherlab are powered by air and are relatively low-cost while maintaining tons of strength and dexterity.
You make that orb thing fly by focusing your mind to generate beta waves (12-30 Hz brain activity)
Similar deal. You can make a magnetically floating flower spin by getting your mind into a meditative state (alpha and theta waves).
A NASA rover
SRI’s electrostatic gripper. This is the precursor to Grabit’s… grabber.
Egg decorator. Easter anyone?
Other Machine Co’s Othermill. Watch out 3D printers. What you build up, Othermill can mill down.
Neato Robotics’s Roomba competitor. What’s cool is the LIDAR system they built in.
I really like this post by Christian Ternus on diversity issues in the tech industry. It’s long, but you should at least skim it. What I like most is the empathy Christian exudes in his writing. The issue of diversity itself is a thorny one with plenty of gray area, and while I have strong thoughts about it, I’ll save them for another time. I’ll simply opine that initial conditions do matter. They matter in mathematics and physics, and they matter in life. Whether you think creating a level playing field is fair or not isn’t really the point here though. What matters is being empathetic and actively willing to see things from a different perspective like what Christian has proactively and conscientiously done. I meet a lot of people that think they are really smart (and actually they really are), but many don’t actively try to understand others’ opinions if they don’t match their own. I can’t help but to think that if we all are a bit more empathetic, we can empower one another in remarkable ways, even if we disagree.
To tie this back to the tech world, empathy is a hugely critical part of relationships between founders and investors. In my short time thus far as part of this dynamic, I’ve noticed a lot of people get that, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Investors sometimes forget that some founders really don’t care about money and just want to build something frickin’ cool and impactful. Some of the best founders I know are driven to build the companies they’re building simply because they’re pissed that a product or service doesn’t already exist. Founders sometimes forget that institutional investors have investors too. It’s not just about dollar signs, but VCs are obligated to generate returns for limited partners. I actually call this a constraint, but it’s one that others and I must operate under. It’s therefore imperative that entrepreneurs align with investors on expectations before bringing investors along for the ride, and once on that ride, both sides must maintain empathetic minds.
Do you wanna know just how much money I make?
I wanted to take a second to break some numbers down for you. I’m doing this to be transparent. To let you know what the life of producer/DJ looks like from the financial end. People often think there’s a huge amount of money in this scene. There is, but it is very concentrated and in the hands of a very, VERY few people. The vast majority are on similar numbers to me, running on fumes most of the time to make this thing work. We do it because we LOVE THE ABSOLUTE SHIT out of writing music, playing music and sharing music.”
After moving back into San Francisco and starting a new gig, I’ve recently started using Uber more than ever before. It’s easy, convenient, and saves my butt all the time when I’m rushing in between meetings. Uber rides (actually mostly UberX for me) are also always pretty educational. I usually spend most of the ride bantering with the driver and learning about his or her experience, while sneaking a few e-mails in here and there.
Given all the recent press about government sanctions against Uber, I thought it was appropriate timing to share some of the stories I heard. It really is a battlefield out there. I’ve heard recollections of how Uber drivers have been cut off, cornered away, and straight up blocked by taxis from riders. There’s cursing, gesturing, and some old-fashioned mean mugging. A story I heard a couple months back stuck out the most. One UberX driver, who loved his job, decided he was quitting the next week because of a particularly aggressive war tactic. Cab drivers were jotting down license plate numbers of UberX and Lyft drivers, compiling them into lists, and submitting them to insurance companies and government officials.
But you know what? Despite these war tactics, Uber drivers for the most part just don’t care. They see where the puck is headed and the value of the service, and they’ve decided that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” One driver I met had sold his medallion last year after spending decades working up to it and operating it. He said he didn’t really even need to work anymore, but he became an Uber driver anyway because he saw no point in remaining a part of the archaic taxi world. Now, I urge that people must be empathetic to taxi drivers because it’s not so simple to “just switch” to the Uber fleet. In fact, protecting taxi drivers by leveling the playing fields is the reason government officials usually cite for regulating against the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. I’m personally just not sure that delaying the inevitable is the best way to protect anyone. There must be other avenues to explore, whether it’s helping taxi companies adapt and compete or even helping taxi drivers make the transition to become Uber drivers.