The Rise of the Female Founder and Robotics in the Human Environment with Andrea Thomaz
Diligent Robotics is an Austin-based NCV portfolio company developing a suite of artificial intelligence that enables robots to collaborate with and adapt to humans in everyday environments. Their service robot works together with teams of people in healthcare and is currently operating at a hospital in Dallas, Texas. The Diligent team began with just three female engineers and one prototype of a robot arm working out of NCV’s office. Now, they are a team of 12 engineers with their own robotics lab and fully-operational hospital robot: Moxi.
It feels like just yesterday that the Diligent team was working at NCV’s offices with one, single robot arm. Now you have Moxi, a fully operational robot - how did you guys approach the design process to make the first-ever hospital assistance robot?
We worked with a fantastic designer that I had designed previous robots including Simon, Curi and Poli with and we began by digging into what we imagine Moxi is going to do, along with how people will perceive and feel around Moxi based on the thorough industry research we’ve done. The product design is a very visual process, so we do storyboard sketches of the robot in hospital environments and in various human interactions, almost like it’s a movie. While storyboarding is crucial to designing the robot, our designer has a concept called ‘body storming’ - instead of brainstorming you actually physically move to think about the scenarios where we need Moxi to perform and interact with humans. So we actually dress somebody up as the robot and dress people up as nurses and literally act it out.
How did you decide on the name Moxi?
We didn’t want to it to be human name nor did we want it to be gendered, so we ran a program that searched for all two-syllable words that end in ‘i’ or ‘e’ and it generated about 50 names. Then we had everybody on the team bring pictures that should be used as inspiration for the robot, the design and the brand. One of our engineers brought in a picture of the Rosie the Riveter and so we thought that was a ‘she’s got moxie’ type of image. That’s when we landed on Moxi.
What has been the reaction to Moxi?
We’re so thrilled and surprised at how overwhelmingly positive the reaction to Moxi has been so far. Typically you’ll see robots in factories, but not in a public space, so we’re one of the first companies to put a human-size robot and have it manipulate things in a human environment. The staff at our 1st beta testing hospital, Texas Health in Dallas, just love Moxi, they even threw it a welcome party complete with cupcakes and a brand of soda called ‘Moxie’ that’s from Maine. They also awarded Moxi ‘HRO’(Honorary Coach Recognition) risk assessment award after Moxi demonstrated that it asks a person for help when there was a task it didn’t know how to complete. Their nursing team doesn’t want Moxi to leave! It’s been so satisfying to build a thing and then see it move in the world.
What has been the most surprising reaction to Moxi in a human environment?
Well, the funniest thing is we were doing a sales pitch at a children’s hospital and the nurses were like: ‘Could the robot make fart noises? The kids would absolutely love that.’ I’ve been in the field of human-robot interaction for 15 years, and I’ve never had to think if an appropriate HRI element would be fart noises. But that’s just one comedic example of how unpredictable and how out-of-the-box you have to think when creating a robot for a human environment. (The robot can, in fact, make fart noises).
You often hear about robots taking over humans’ jobs, how did you sell the idea of Moxi in the workplace?
The challenging, but exciting part with investors and with hospitals is trying to get them to see the sweet spot of what robots can and can’t do - and how those abilities can be useful now. And even more importantly with us, we’ve realized our biggest focus is reiterating what value humans bring that robots will never be able to match, such as the ability to connect with other humans and the critical analysis of human behaviors. We’ve designed Moxi with that concept in mind. Core to our mission is for the robot to be a successful member of the service team - it won’t and should never replace the human-aspect of clinical care, but it will actually give clinical staff more time for that human care by autonomously doing their non-patient facing tasks. In the hospital world they describe this as ‘performing at the top of your license,’ meaning nurses shouldn’t be doing a task that doesn’t require a nurse’s license. Nurses should be caring for patients and learning the latest developments in their field, not fetching water or taking out the trash. Across the industry, hospital administrators feel that if they could get all of their staff performing at the top of their license, they would be more effective organizations - and Moxi’s goal is to help them achieve that.
Not all of your investors have deep domain expertise in robotics, how have you still found them useful?
Our conversations with Michael have been really interesting because even though our product is a robot and not software, we’re really doing a B2B sale. Both Michael and Tom have been super helpful about what milestones to hit and what metrics to look at so we can grow into this huge B2B business and scale the sales process. Additionally, we have an investor who has worked with a robotics company before and he was very helpful when we were undecided about whether to do PR around the launch of Moxi. In robotics, a lot can go wrong with these beta pilots and there’s so much public perception with people infusing too much sci fi and overblown expectations into robots’ useability. We consulted with this investor and ultimately decided to do a PR push for our Moxi launch. Moxi isn’t working behind the scenes in an industrial warehouse somewhere, it’s working in a human environment and interacting with patients, so we thought it was important to show the public how it operates and interacts.
Diligent has an all female-founding team in the STEM field, an uncommon phenomena - how do you feel it’s helped drive your mission?
We definitely didn’t set out to be an all-female founding team, but I do think that there is a big gender difference in robotics and the STEM fields, and I think it’s hard to keep diversity top-of-mind when you’re growing fast. I’m proud that we now have 12 people and we have both women and minorities on the engineering team. So we’ve done a good job, but we’ve had really to make that a priority. I could see how if you weren’t making that a priority, you would ‘accidentally’ have no women on your team given the gender disparity in STEM educational fields. I do feel as though being an all-female founding team has also helped our business development. We’re selling to the nursing industry that is a very female-dominated field, so I think there is something to be said about these two women - Vivian and myself - coming in and selling technology made by women, for women.
What advice do you have for women that are thinking of becoming engineers or entrepreneurs?
One thing that Vivian and I are really passionate about is setting an example and showing that we’re women working on very, hard technical problems and we’re hoping that inspires women to go and get their degrees in hard, technical fields. In academia, many women don’t believe that they can succeed in these fields, I tell them: ‘Look to your left and look to your right, one of you is going to be a professor one day,’ and their reaction often is ‘Really? You think I could do it?’ They typically see only male professors, so they just need somebody to tell them they can do it. And they can.
How has your background in engineering prepared you to become a founder?
Working in an academic lab is great preparation for starting a company: you have a small team of graduate students, you have a strict budget and you have to sell yourself and your idea to find funding for your team. All of that system-building knowledge has really helped us be thoughtful about how we scale and encouraged us to think five steps ahead. Additionally, being female engineers and founders in an industry where that isn’t the norm and having our founding mission validated by investors and successful beta testing have given us a lot of confidence. Entrepreneurship is all about sticking your neck out even if you’re worried in the back of your mind, so the confidence we’ve gained has been invaluable.
What was the biggest lesson you learned when you were pitching investors?
My advice to women for entrepreneurs is to forget the standard Airbnb pitch deck. You have to sell yourself to the room first, then they will listen to the rest of your pitch. When we went on a week-long pitch-fest in the Bay Area, the first few meetings we spent the first third of our time just going over our idea for Moxi and walking them through the market opportunity. We didn’t show them the slides with our backgrounds and who we were until about halfway through. We met with a female investor and when she saw our deep domain expertise in robotics she stopped us said: ‘Oh my god, you guys need to lead with this instead.’ Maybe it’s different for women because people assume you don’t have all the credentials you have, but we decided to flip the order of the deck and led with our backgrounds and it was like night and day.
What was bad advice you received as a founder that you’re glad you ignored?
I had this complex for a long time that we had to find this business person for our founding team. Both Vivian and I are technical founders and people are always saying you need to have a technical mind and a business mind for a founding team to be successful. But, I believed that Vivian and I were the best people to sell this idea because we had been developing these types of robots for years - we weren’t going to oversell it, we knew the use case and its limitations better than anybody. In the end, people don’t need to always listen to what people think is the ‘perfect’ founding team or the ‘perfect’ way to start your company. There’s so much advice out there, but in the end every founder’s story is so different and unique. We’re lucky that we found investors who believed in our vision and that we were the right team to execute Moxi at the right time.
About Andrea Thomaz
Andrea Thomaz is CEO and Co-Founder of Diligent Robotics and recognized for her expertise and research in AI and social robotics. She was awarded Kavli fellow by the National Academy of Science, served on the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, recognized on Popular Science‘s “Brilliant 10” list with her robot Curi appearing on the magazine’s cover and recognized on MIT Technology Review’s “The Next Generation” of Innovators Under 35 list with her robot Simon appearing on the magazine’s cover. Andrea’s passion for social robots started during her time at MIT Media Lab where she was inspired by AI industry experts and developed a keen interest for taking AI computing one step further into the real world with robots, specifically with social robots that work seamlessly with people in every day environments. She co-founded Diligent Robotics to pursue that vision of socially intelligent robots working collaboratively with people. Andrea earned her PhD from MIT and spent 15 years in academia and as a professor in AI and social robotics at UT Austin, Georgia Tech and MIT.