16. Solar Powered Robotic Weeding, with Helen Greiner
In this episode, Audrow Nash speaks to Helen Greiner, who is the CEO at Tertill; Tertill makes a small solar powered weeding robot for vegetable gardens. The conversation begins with an overview of Helen's previous robotics experience, including at as a student at MIT, co-founder at iRobot, founder and CEO at CyPhyWorks, and in advising government research in robotics, AI, and machine learning. From there, Helen explains the design of the Tertill robot, how it works, and her high hopes for this simple robot: to help reduce the environmental impact of the agriculture industry by helping people to grow their own food. In the last part of the conversation, Helen speaks broadly about her experience in robotics startups, the robotics industry, and the future of robotics.
- 0:00:00 - Start
- 0:01:41 - Introducing Helen
- 0:06:09 - Roomba’s backstory
- 0:12:13 - CyPhyWorks
- 0:17:29 - Helping special forces with your robots
- 0:20:13 - Advising robotics and AI research investments
- 0:24:24 - Introducing Tertill
- 0:35:39 - Lessons learned from the Roomba
- 0:42:42 - Challenges in making Tertill
- 0:48:34 - Why make a weeding robot?
- 0:54:07 - On gardening
- 1:00:22 - Helen’s path
- 1:02:24 - Matching the market and technology
- 1:09:21 - Where and how to get information on opportunities
- 1:11:26 - Advice for starting a robotics company
- 1:21:00 - Different types of investment
- 1:23:09 - B-to-B or B-to-C (Business to business or business to consumer) markets
- 1:24:51 - Robotics consumer space
- 1:25:52 - Future of robotics
- 1:28:38 - Importance of robotics in the big picture
The transcript is for informational purposes and is not guaranteed to be correct.
(0:00:02) Audrow Nash
This is a conversation with Helen Greiner, who is the CEO of Tertill. Tertill makes a solar powered robot wieder for home vegetable gardens. And you see this Tertill robot, you might think of the robot vacuum cleaner the Roomba by iRobot. This comparison makes sense. And funny enough, they were both made by some of the same people, Helen included. What I think is beautiful about the Roomba, and this robot the Tertill is that it is so relatively simple, yet provides real value. Vacuuming under the bed is a pain. And I don't have much experience with weeding, but weeding sounds awful. And both of these products are for the consumer market, meaning that they have to be inexpensive enough that many people can afford them. The iRobot Roomba was one of the first successful consumer robots, and it grew the consumer robotics space, which benefited all of us in robotics, from making investment easier to come by to parts being cheaper to showing people that robots aren't all Terminator robots. As Helen says before this interview, and has been said before on this podcast, a rising tide lifts all boats. I look forward to seeing how the Tertill does in the future. And if I start a garden, I'll probably get one. I'm Audrow Nash. This is the sense think act podcast. If you like this interview, please consider subscribing. A big thank you to our founding sponsor open robotics. And now, here's my interview with Helen Greiner. Would you introduce yourself? Hi, I'm
(0:01:44) Helen Greiner
Helen gainer. And I'm a robot enthusiast.
(0:01:50) Audrow Nash
Now, we're gonna be talking mostly about Tertill. But I'd love to start, like for context to talk about your whole path in robotics.
(0:02:00) Helen Greiner
Oh, that's a long way. A long time.
(0:02:04) Audrow Nash
You want to just tell me like, I mean, maybe at a high level from grad school, and then you were involved with iRobot?
(0:02:11) Helen Greiner
Well, it started back when I was 11. And I saw Star Wars and fell in love with auto detail and odd to think, you know, he wasn't just a machine, right? He was a character. He had an agenda. He saved the universe. He had a personality, a lot of expression with his bleeps and bloops. And, you know, since that time, I've always wanted to make things that are more than machines. And so I went to MIT to learn how. And it turns out, I learned a lot of great engineering there, but they didn't really know how to build robots for the real world. And so right after grad school, I was in grad school at MIT, in computer science, although my undergraduates mechanical and accepted to the Ph. D. program, but instead decided to cofound iRobot corporation with vide books and Cullen angle.
(0:03:15) Audrow Nash
And then, so you will What did you do at iRobot? So you were designing the robot I believe. Original vacuum cleaner robots.
(0:03:27) Helen Greiner
Now, way back when way back when, when the company first found it. All of us myself lied and con, we're actually designing the robots and building them and fabricating them and everything about the robots. But though, you know, we started iRobot in 1990. It wasn't until, like, 98, we started seriously working on the Roomba and not until 2002. We put it on the market. So there's a lot of history before that. Oh, we are, you know, the longest overnight success. People hadn't heard about us until the bomba. But you know, there's a whole lot of robots that we were building. Before eventually military
(0:04:11) Audrow Nash
in nature. It was like we did we did
(0:04:14) Helen Greiner
robots for so many different industries. We did a robot for oil and gas industry doing downhole inspections, plug patch perforate stuff. We had robots that large cleaning robots, we had robots that were in a museum that was robots that we sold to research labs. We get a toy robot, a baby doll robot with Hasbro. Just so many different robots. But it wasn't until we put robots on the market under our brand that we were you know that we had any success.
(0:04:56) Audrow Nash
Interesting. So it was was it kind of like you were contracts Acting around like people would want robots or you'd see it opportunities.
(0:05:03) Helen Greiner
Yeah, it was it was kind of like any robot for money usually would get the large company to bring the dollars. And you know, we, I, we believe the marketing and the the market savvy, and we were doing the technology and the creativity and the innovation and the robots. And you know, it sounds good on paper. But what usually happened was the industries work at glacial paces. And the person who was advocate either move to another position or another company, and then you almost had to start the sales pitch, again, from the or from the beginning. Yeah. So I don't think we had enough top level buy in at the companies to make it successful. And in some cases, the robot technology was competing with the status quo of how the the existing product lines. So you know, a larger company wouldn't have that much incentive to, you know, push it forward.
(0:06:09) Audrow Nash
Interesting. And then how did it how did you go towards the Roomba with us
(0:06:14) Helen Greiner
like? Well, let's see, our first employee at iRobot was Joe Jones, Joe had been thinking about some of the things while he was at MIT, and that Maxwell was wide Brooks's behavioral control algorithms, because, you know, we really didn't have a lot of resources to put on these smaller robots. So we couldn't have, you know, the kinds of processing and the kinds of capabilities that some of the robots have today, even the Roomba. So, Joe wrote a white paper in I think, you know, maybe 9097, or 98, saying, you know, hey, we're building these large cleaning lots, we're building all these larger robots. But really, we should do the simplest possible thing first, and he spelled out, small, low bought five point about $200. Needs to be fully automated use the simplest possible senses rather than, you know, the most capable senses. And, you know, get something out there pretty quickly. And we, you know, it sounded like a good idea to everybody. So it was funded with very small amounts of money, because we didn't have a lot of money. And, you know, it kept building prototypes of it, Joe and the team, and they, you know, got, you know, we could never see a reason why it wouldn't work. And we fully expected when we started it to see a reason why there's one component missing, like, it's not a product. Yep. There was another robot vacuum. On the market. We didn't know that much about it at the time, I left on that Sandborn, but it was many 1000s of dollars. Us, it doesn't sound very high tech today, but use Sona technology, but it made it very expensive. And I think that when a new concept is new, it has to be reasonably inexpensive for people to take that jump. So Moonves might sell sometimes for, you know, $1,000 today, but when you're a new company, with a new band in a very new area, it's important that it's, you know, it's a kind of product, you can take your wallet out and say, Oh, I'll take a risk on that.
(0:08:45) Audrow Nash
Yeah, definitely. And there's a lot of people that are willing to do that, because maybe they're way less that are willing to take the risk and like $1,000, robot vacuum cleaner versus a $200. One. Okay, and then where
(0:08:59) Helen Greiner
we got, we got the robot on the market, the, the Roomba, we still doing the robots for the military. And that actually, we got them both on the market in 2002. The robots in the military got moved up because of the war efforts and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and then soon after evac, they probably would have stayed as military research for a while. But there was this Driving driving need for bomb disposal robots, and we were like, they're with the capability that they needed. And at the same time, we put the limbo on the market and you know, starting to get some consumer success. And so these companies never would have had these two disparate areas if one had happened first, right, because all the resources would have been thrown at that one, just because they were successful together. And you know, it really helped us because I can tell you a lot of the investors didn't believe in the consumer robot market until we had it on the market. And it was successful.
(0:10:10) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. So that the investors were or was it like you were funding the efforts with the military robots. And that allowed you to bootstrap the concern?
(0:10:20) Helen Greiner
We were we were paying for infrastructure with the military contracts, because we have large contracts as research contracts as well as having built up, you know, so the infrastructure was being paid for, like, you know, the offices and that we had people on staff to a very capable roboticist because we had the ability to pay for them. But we didn't really raise investment capital until eight years in in 1998. That's when we started. And by 2005, when we took it public, it you know, we'd raised a total of 38 million, which is peanuts today, that's like seeing these, you know, a OB today.
(0:11:01) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Okay. And then you raise the capital, and then that lets you scale so you could grow the consumer market for the room, or the consumer side of the business for the room.
(0:11:12) Helen Greiner
At the same time, though, you know, after we went public, the military side was going strong too. But eventually, after I left in 2008, they did spend the military stuff out into a company called andeavor, which was purchased by FLIR for like over $300 million. And then, that was purchased actually was all purchased by Teledyne. So the technology still exists, the robots don't exist, a lot of the same people are working on them, but it's no longer a robot.
(0:11:43) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. What is your so between 1998 and 2008? Or so when you left? iRobot? What were you primarily involved
(0:11:54) Helen Greiner
in? Everything I was, you know, going on time, I was president chairman, and, you know, everything from sales to media to taking it public and investment. Acquisitions as you know, everything.
(0:12:13) Audrow Nash
Mm hmm. And then how did you decide to go to sci fi work? So that was the next step? Right.
(0:12:19) Helen Greiner
Yeah. Well, I was looking at what next? And, you know, being chairman of a company is kind of the best job actually, what it really is, because it's a gotcha what I was at Iowa, but because you have, you know, you get to do a lot of interesting things. But you're not, you know, you don't have all that operational responsibility. But it's not the best job when you're 40 years old, which is what I was. So I think that I really, when I looked at what I really liked, I liked it when the Roomba and pack bought the military robots, were first being developed the innovation side when you're getting something the likes of which people haven't seen before, after. And so that's why I want to do it again. And I saw that the drone space was the place to do it. And
(0:13:09) Audrow Nash
how did you see it was the space to do it? And what made
(0:13:13) Helen Greiner
it was an untapped market. You know, when I look at drones, it's like, a magic technology that solves a lot of the problem. You know, I think it will guild guild fat who was adopted now at Toyota research, I think he he's the one who first said, The problem with ground robots is to ground all this stuff on the ground, right? Especially when you take it out outdoors, and even indoors with the Roomba. You know, there's a lot of pollen you have to face and a lot of recognition, you know, a lot of knowing what it is and getting around it. And negotiation was a drone, you could just fly right over it. Right? And you know, free space is actually easy.
(0:13:54) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Okay, so you saw that there was potential here because it solves a lot of existing robotics challenges. So you could probably do new and interesting things. But then how sci fi works? And actually, would you kind of speak to the premise of the company?
(0:14:08) Helen Greiner
Well, the Sci Fi works. The idea we had originally was at the time, a little less so now, but at the time, the battery technology wasn't there. So the drones would only run a short amount of time and not enough any real types of military missions or law enforcement missions. So or even, you know, long term communication missions. So we had some technology to make a tethered drone. And we were, you know, the first ones out there with a drone that you could stay stays up in the air for, you know, weeks at a time. So you put it up on a tether, and you put it up to you know, put it up to 300 feet in the air and it just flies all the time. And then you have that station where you can get eyes on something or you can do communications
(0:15:00) Audrow Nash
So the idea Well, I
(0:15:01) Helen Greiner
never I never envisioned that the only thing that company would do, but I wanted some differentiated technology to go in because there were some drugs on the market already.
(0:15:12) Audrow Nash
So the idea was, you'd have a cable that goes to the drone, and that cable would send power. And you could also probably do things like maybe some of the control, like the brains of it, maybe I don't know, if you want that on
(0:15:26) Helen Greiner
putting the veins oil on the robot, so you send it up, and it just stays the or, you know, autonomously. And you know, what, that's a little bit turnkey today. But at the time, we were doing it, it wasn't so much. We are, uh, you know, that wasn't the the only tightness of company it was a starting point. And so we want some good military, you know, multimillion dollar contracts about that. We were working on getting it into an acquisition program. And I can tell you, there are many companies building tele drones today. So it was sci fi wasn't successful, but the concept was successful. And it's in pretty hot demand for the familiarity application applications because of the capabilities to do both surveillance. You know, I getting eyes on 24/7. And also, communications videos work a lot better when you put them up high. The effects of terrible on the transmissions,
(0:16:34) Audrow Nash
yeah, but it seems to me like a really good way to bootstrap infrastructure. Like if you need to set up quickly, it's like, oh, we have a security camera that's deployed there through a drone, it's kind of thing or boost your radio up and put it real high. Like that's very nice. Very clever. Okay. And so you said, so a few things were interesting there that you said. So first, you had preparing it for acquisition? Does it mean you kind of created the company with the intent of it being bought?
(0:17:01) Helen Greiner
Oh, no, I am sorry, I meant in that context, I meant military acquisitions, making sure that you're in the palm cycle in the military budgeting cycle. So that money exists when you're ready with the technology and prototype. Yeah, and at the same time, getting to a point where we got it deployed, we did get it deployed with a Rapid Equipping Force and will then be used in Syria and Iraq, very successfully by a special forces.
(0:17:29) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. I mean, that feels really good to positively impact our troops and it both iRobot and and sci fi works. It's like you were contributing to some of the difficult situations,
(0:17:40) Helen Greiner
it doesn't matter. Some sci fi, someone came up for Special Forces. Perfect came up at a conference and said, Hey, I heard that thing is out there saving saving lives. So you couldn't tell us much about the missions, of course, but actually, they did tell us I was having great effect. And the same thing that I wrote about once. You know, once I was speaking at the War College, and I was between two, you know, three star general, my vide and a four star general on my left, and I assumed everyone would want to go speak to them after the conference, but a lot of the soldiers came up to me and one guy, remember, he shook my hand and said, I want to give you my coin because this pack bought saved 11 Guys on one mission, and you know, that was really rewarding can be the Pentagon actually did a study and the pack blood should have been credited at that time, even more today. But at that time, they've been credited with saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers and 1000s of civilians.
(0:18:40) Audrow Nash
Wow, that's absolutely nuts. It feels like it's kind of like, it's amazing. And it's probably hard to wrap your head around, like the abstract notion of saving lives for this kind of thing. But I it's just wonderful. Like, what a crazy thing.
(0:18:54) Helen Greiner
Now, it is wonderful.
(0:18:57) Audrow Nash
And then so you said that sci fi works wasn't successful, in your opinion, or this kind of thing. Oh, we I,
(0:19:05) Helen Greiner
I live in the we had a difference of opinion with the investors that I bought on in the direction. And at that time, I decided, you know, the person who first deployed the PAC bots over in Afghanistan, he asked me to come in and join, he became the acquisition executive, that's the person who runs the, you know, the, you know, multi billion dollar acquisition flows on all of them for the OMA and he wanted me to come on and be his special robot advisor. So I decided to take that opportunity. Because I didn't agree with the direction of cycline.
(0:19:43) Audrow Nash
Yeah, that must be frustrating. I've heard many, many people that I've talked to that I started robotics companies where the investors wanted to go one way and the founders want to go what another way? It's a very frustrating spot. Right? Right. Uh huh.
(0:19:56) Helen Greiner
But at some point, you got to say, you know, they have that opinion. They're gonna pick on that The people and if those people make it happen, the company's gonna be successful. If they don't, it won't. And I can tell you this one was really well set up to be successful because there's a really hot demand for the technology.
(0:20:12) Audrow Nash
Yeah, and then so but it just wasn't where you were personally interested in taking it. And then this other opportunity popped up to advise on government purchases of robots, right?
(0:20:22) Helen Greiner
The government research and development of robots AI and machine machine learning.
(0:20:28) Audrow Nash
That's super cool. So that was, so I got to
(0:20:31) Helen Greiner
work in the Pentagon for two years. Which was great. I mean, I, you know, I stayed in Boston, where I reside, but we went down, though, every few weeks to spend days down there. And, you know, my office was the Pentagon?
(0:20:46) Audrow Nash
That's so crazy. Yeah. How was that? Like? I don't I don't know much about it, or what would be involved? Like, what? I don't know, how was it?
(0:20:55) Helen Greiner
Well, after selling, you know, over a billion dollars worth of stuff to military, right, it was interesting to be on the other side of the table, and see some of the, you know, constraints they're under, right? I mean, there's a lot of hard working, patriotic, very, very good people, and you say, why can't they just do this? And, you know, sometimes there's a lot of reasons that they just can't do that, you know, mostly, you know, it's against the law.
(0:21:20) Audrow Nash
So, you know, give me a specific example.
(0:21:24) Helen Greiner
Well, you know, even if they want the technology, it has to go out for competitive bid, and you have to have the evaluation criteria, and you have to, you know, go through the process, because someone will complain like that, Congressman, and then there'll be a bit dispute, and it's better, especially when you're dealing with billions of dollars to get the program right from the beginning. So you don't have to, you know, lose it, you know, later on, because the, the, the soldiers need this equipment, right. So, sometimes, you know, even if it's a really, really good product, and you know, it's going to be the winner, you really have to go through the, you know, the process.
(0:22:03) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. either. Yeah. So that's interesting, it's interesting to do that, that's very different than like how startups might operate, or this kind of thing, because you don't have the implications. Like the voters and all of this, if it goes badly, you just like, do something and fail and try and whatever. It's interesting to be on the other perspective. Did you? I don't know, like, any. Like, I was very impressed. So I talked to a previous episode, Tim Chang, from DARPA, about the sub D challenge. And I was really impressed with that. The like, it seems like a very pragmatic approach in robotics, to these hard challenges, and I'm trying to start these communities around around this area, I should
(0:22:55) Helen Greiner
say, DARPA does have a little more leeway, because of the way it's set up to be able to work with universities, and, you know, get those great new ideas into the military. But when you get to a, you know, a knowledge acquisition program, it has to be, you know, go through a process.
(0:23:17) Audrow Nash
Yeah, so were you kind of responsible for advising these large purchases, or I wasn't funding a process or
(0:23:25) Helen Greiner
I was brought in to give an honest opinion on the state of the robot technology. And I didn't take a role in any particular acquisition program. But I think people kind of thought of me as a trusted adviser, and I can't talk too much about it. But I think I really did have a great impact and getting some of the, the drone and the ground vehicle programs in the right direction.
(0:23:54) Audrow Nash
And how did how did that end? So was it just the end of the term? You have a two year term? Or how does it
(0:23:59) Helen Greiner
Yes, I I actually went until my first appointment and out and they would have had me come back, but especially with COVID. Like, I couldn't even fly down to the Pentagon anymore. And, you know, I, I was at the point where I felt that I'm doing something else to push the robot field further would be what I most want to do. I see.
(0:24:24) Audrow Nash
Okay, and so now this comes to Tertill, right. That's the next jump. Okay, now, tell me a bit about Tertill. Just the set up in the premise and everything.
(0:24:34) Helen Greiner
Okay, so Tertill is a company that builds a weeding robot. It was invented by the gentleman that I mentioned, Joe Jones, who was invented the Roomba when he was I know but and he, him and Lloyd McKee, again, he they were out of they came out of harvest automation, which was an agricultural company. And once they had finished with that, they decided that they wanted to be back in the consumer game. And, you know, Joe, we're thinking about all the different applications that have robot potential and weeding, you know, is really at the top of a lot of people's lists those jobs that are just tedious and hard, and, you know, you're in the hot sun. And it's a job that, you know, you do once in a while, you know, find somebody who likes it, right? Just like you're fine. Believe it or not, you find people that do like vacuuming. There's always people like that. But, you know, it's, you know, a lot of people like it, but they like it on their schedule, like not when it has to be done. So Joe, thinking about the problem, he looked for a robotic solution, because, you know, we believe a Tertill that an AI robot that you don't have to do things exactly like a human does. In fact, to be more powerful, you don't really want to do things exactly like a human, you want to do them. You want to set up the past, so a robot can succeed. So an example is, you know, maybe Roomba can't do everything that an upright vacuum does. But it should does well going on to the beds. Something that an upright vacuum doesn't do well, doing under the couches and the robotic applications, it doesn't matter how long it's on the you know, covering the whole space, and now with the latest technology generations, ensuring that the space is covered. So you know, when you think about it in robot terms, instead of in human terms. So one way to do the weeding to get back to total, one way to do the weeding would be you know, you have a fully dexterous manipulator and you, you know, you use your AI vision system with lots of machine intelligence, and you say that's a weed, and then you come down and you, you know, you have your dexterity to go down and grab the wheat and pull it up. And then you have to grab it and pull up the, you know, the roots. Or you use events, lasers or something like pesticides. And in thinking about that, that's a long way, right? Because that plant has already sunk nutrients out of the soil, you have a disposal problem with the plant. And you know, quite frankly, powerful lasers are expensive and pesticides.
(0:27:32) Audrow Nash
(0:27:33) Helen Greiner
we always consider lasers, because you know, having a robot with lasers, it's just inherently cool. But may not be the most practical approach. So what was built instead was a robot that prevents weeds from ever growing. So with a scrubbing, scrubbing wheels, it keeps seeds from germinating. And with a spinning weedwacker. If one does pop its head up, off with it. And original Loomba navigation strategy, it negotiates through the garden and covers the entire area using local intelligence. But it's got some inventions on it. It's got capacitive senses that sense the plants, and it's got a very innovative pump sensor that uses the accelerometers.
(0:28:32) Audrow Nash
So it actually, would you just for our listeners who are only listening, would you describe it? Describe Tertill a bit.
(0:28:41) Helen Greiner
This is a small, round green robot, it's about eight and a quarter inches wide and about maybe four inches tall. And it's it's got wheels that have cleats on them. Four wheels that are a camford with cleats on them that makes a very,
(0:29:05) Audrow Nash
you know, just at an angle that 45 degrees. Yeah, tilted so that they kind of like scrape the Earth. Yes. And in
(0:29:13) Helen Greiner
fact, we build a not very good die system because we want to be scraping the earth when we turn rather than lightly travel. Like many robot applications.
(0:29:23) Audrow Nash
That's so funny. So you turn all the wheels
(0:29:28) Helen Greiner
I think they skid steer it's really the it's really the combination effects of scrubbing and then the weed whacker that makes it do such a good job.
(0:29:42) Audrow Nash
So then in the middle of the robot, so you have the wheels and then in the inside of the wheels in the center of the robot there's a little tiny spinning thing that has like a wire like a weed whacker.
(0:29:52) Helen Greiner
Yes. It's not just like a weed whacker. It is. Yeah. This is the only thing Part of the robot that that you have to change, so maybe three times a year, you have to pull it out, within a, just do it like that and you push it a new one because it does wear out when it hits locks and other things in the garden. It does have a little USB port here that whoops, does have a little USB port here that if you take this off, you can see a little mini den, I think it is where you can plug it in and charger. But the great thing about this robot is you never have to, because it's got a solar cell on the top. So you're putting your garden at the beginning of the growing season, and you leave it there and every day when the sun comes out, it charges up when it gets down to you know, when it was when it goes out and weeds when it gets down to something like 70% battery, and these all changeable numbers, but 70% battery, it stops weeding, and it charges again, and then when it gets to a certain number, it'll come back out and do the do the weeding and then when it gets down. And that way, we really use the batteries really lightly. So it lasts for years. You know you're using them so, so nicely. And it makes it run throughout the day. So if it's, you know, if it's cloudy in the in the morning light, it'll, you know, keep running in the afternoon, it also has some very intelligent algorithms. So I'll go sit at the sunlight, rather than under a tomato bush. So it's really a very intelligent little robot that lives in your garden runs on sunshine, and does the weeding so you don't have to
(0:31:44) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. So it drives you basically set it in your garden, and just leave it and then what it's going to do is charge period charge with the sun and go knock out some weeds when it drives around for a small period of time each day,
(0:32:01) Helen Greiner
individually throughout the day, so it doesn't just come out once it comes out a few times every day and does the job.
(0:32:07) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. And so how much ground can this little robot cover?
(0:32:14) Helen Greiner
About 200 square feet of a garden. So that's about you know, an average size in ground garden. Some people have smaller ones these days with a you know a vase bed but you know, if you're putting in a garden you you know you have to so it covers a reasonable sized garden.
(0:32:31) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. And it detects the weeds to kill because they're small enough to drive over.
(0:32:36) Helen Greiner
Well, it doesn't really detect the weeds or kill it prevents weeds from ever growing. What we have to do is protect the plants. Now, you know, as I mentioned that capacitive sensors are very good and the accelerometer based bump sensor is very good. But if something's less than four inches, it will consider it a weed. So we do what all good roboticists do to make robots work and that's cheap. The way we cheat is if you put a seed in, yeah, well, I am what what I'm holding is a thin wire that's molded into a curved shape that you can put a round put around a seed that you planted a small seedling that you plant by just pushing it into the ground. If you plant a row of carrots, for example, we have a row God and you just push this these along the row so the robot can't get to your carrot seedlings. And once the plants four inches tall you you can take these out or leave them in and it's really your choice to take them out. You could just be used them.
(0:33:42) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. Okay, so when it's driving around, does that mean that it's what weed whacker is always going? So like Does it smell plants? Or does it?
(0:33:54) Helen Greiner
It can sense the plants, we've discovered that having a duty cycle does actually help the performance so we can send so we can just have a duty cycle just Yeah. And get them all. Gotcha. It doesn't take that much. Damage power, especially when it's not hitting anything.
(0:34:15) Audrow Nash
Oh, you just keep it spinning. Yeah.
(0:34:17) Helen Greiner
We don't just keep making it's got a duty cycle.
(0:34:20) Audrow Nash
What do you mean exactly by the duty cycle? It's on for a little bit.
(0:34:23) Helen Greiner
It's gone for a little bit. It goes off? Yeah.
(0:34:26) Audrow Nash
Oh, is it? Okay, so it's base. It's like almost like it's full power than offer a little bit than full power than offer a little bit while it's driving. So it's
(0:34:35) Helen Greiner
yeah, you need to have a weed whacker. You need to have them spinning like a very high speed weed whacker. Right.
(0:34:43) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. And then, so what what is what exactly is it sensing in the environment? So you mentioned that it can move into the sun, if it's in the shade.
(0:34:54) Helen Greiner
That with its solar power system light with a solar panel, so
(0:34:59) Audrow Nash
it's going to drive on till it reaches some sun kind of thing, or how does it work?
(0:35:05) Helen Greiner
It? Yeah, it just doesn't stop. If it's too shady, it keeps going for a while and it you know, it looks at the average reading over time and goes back to, you know, web it, it looks a bit if you know, wants to know, make sure there is some sun before it starts looking for sun. So yeah, if you have an average eating and, you know, none of these things, you know, these things are tuneable. So we've done the best job we can, you know, tuning them that we that, you know, that we could do, but they are things that we can vary if we need to at any time.
(0:35:38) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Okay. So I am imagining that this takes a lot of lessons from the Roomba. So like, one thing that was very obvious to me as a like Roomba tie back, is that you have the one button. So like with the Roomba, I have heard that it's like you just have the one button to start it. And this Yeah, it has the one button as well push it. And that just goes and you don't have to worry about
(0:36:02) Helen Greiner
it didn't always have one button, right? That was a lesson learned. We had three buttons, and they were labeled S, M and L. So small, medium and large. And we get questions all the time. What's a small room? What's a medium? What's a large room, so then we started putting numbers out there, then people are really confused because they don't know the area. And so it was a little it'd be much better to have one button. You know, now they say clean on it. Right? So that's what you want to do you want to clean you press one button. And the on off switch the first ones we had on the room, but were labeled zero and one. So one is one is on and zero is off. But you know, people would say well, I put it on. Oh, isn't that on? And it was not obvious to most people. 40 year old
(0:36:51) Audrow Nash
white men. That's so funny.
(0:36:54) Helen Greiner
Well, it's kind of funny that we would do that. Like, yes.
(0:36:57) Audrow Nash
I mean as a roboticist. Like, it's like, oh, yeah, I got it. Like, yeah, I know what you're going for. It's like all you but it's not for all of the other anyone who's a general consumer, I see what they mean with zero seems like Oh, fraud. Like, it's totally it's off to so.
(0:37:15) Helen Greiner
Yeah. Yeah, that's what the confusion was like, why? Well, what about off? Oh, so we designed it with one button and the one button. You know, it's, it's something that people can understand, like, you put it in the garden, you press a button, and it stays there. And it's on and it's running in the garden for the rest of the, for the growing season.
(0:37:43) Audrow Nash
And then so, so the operation of this as you just put it there, you push a button, and then you walk away until winter, I suppose
(0:37:51) Helen Greiner
that would be ideal. That would be ideal. But in reality, because we live in reality. Mine and even though I made my space pretty. I mean, I am a little bit of a lazy gardener. So my place isn't really nice. And you know, beautifully make do anything like that,
(0:38:07) Audrow Nash
but a good roboticist would
(0:38:11) Helen Greiner
if I had to free it a few times during the year, like it would get stuck, and I would give it a kick. But that's a few times as opposed to every day, you never have to charge it. You do have to replace the weed whackers every, you know, every few weeks, but apart from that, you know you're good to go for the season. So it really is, I'd say one of the most if not the most autonomous robot out there because it's solar powered. You don't have to charge it. And it just stays there and does the job for you. Like a little creature living in your garden? Like a Tertill? Yeah, like a kettle?
(0:38:49) Audrow Nash
Huh? Yeah, I see. And so you mentioned that the control style or the control scheme is a bit like the original Roomba. Does that mean it's gonna just drive around randomly? And then eventually, like in the limit, it will have covered the whole garden
(0:39:07) Helen Greiner
space Yes, although it's never been manned. And the moon does whenever random a us you know, local intelligence based on the the, you know, the local sense of meetings, to negotiate along walls about obstacles and to try and cover you know, an area and then move to the next area. So neither you know, the original room has went random and this one's not random. We don't have a full positioning system yet. And you do have to put a boundary around the area where it's working like there was a luxury in the house that the walls originally that pretty much we had a boundary because of the walls. Turns out most vegetable gardeners have a boundary or they don't mind putting one in. You can take a piece of wood you can take the VO Gods the pieces of metal that it comes with you can buy at stripping a metal one from From Home Depot or Amazon, you know, there's a lot of easy solutions for it. But it is one of the reasons why we don't advertise it for landscape beds, because it's a little tricky to explain where it can and it can't work. And, you know, you do have to have a boundary of bounded and some landscape bed, that's fine, I've got one in a landscape bed in the front of my house. And it's wonderful, I don't have to weed it. It's amazing. What I didn't mind having, you know, when you have, like, you know, you know, some beautiful shrubs, I have some bamboo in a, you know, with a bamboo belly around that most people can't stop bamboo from growing, but my bamboo isn't going so everything else was going in that bed. So I put, I put a barrier around the where the bamboo Spedding farm and I'm giving it a chance to go in. I also put one on my gravel last year, you know, got pea gravel. And we can't advertise for that either. Because at the end of the season, I'd look down, there'd be some little portly plants growing that had established a boot structure. So that type of weeding we do to venting, which doesn't quite work. But where I didn't have the Tertill weeds were like, literally up to my shoulder, like up to my shoulder. Like it's crazy. What was how fast the things could grow in a growing season if you never take care of it. So for me, you know, it works great. If you don't mind a few little leaves in your in your gravel. But I you know, advertising it for that would be would be hard. But we have a lot of users who use them on on landscape beds, because they figured it out for themselves that I meet the criterion. And so we can have it running. And it's not a problem. You know, you got to have your plan set of space, at least about a foot apart. You have to have not too much. Exactly, yeah, yeah. So the robot can go right between them. You want to have not too, not too much undulations a barrier around it. And it doesn't work on really chunky mulch, like you know, a lot of landscape beds are mowed. And that prevents weeds. I put motion fresh and even last year, about a month later, I got weeds all over. So it's really chunky motion. It won't work. But I have it working on both beds that have final motion. It works fine.
(0:42:41) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. So what have been some of the biggest challenges with this robot it? I'm imagining weatherproofing it it's interesting to have the small set of sensors. I don't know.
(0:42:56) Helen Greiner
Well, I actually jumped into this. After they kick started it, and I bought one on the Kickstarter. So I can do this. Because my vote because you know, Joe started the company and I knew him and some of the other guys and of course, I'm gonna support the Kickstarter. I, they delivered it. And I you know, I put it in the garden. And I think, you know, it worked for a little bit then it stopped working. And I didn't care because it was a Kickstarter, right. And it's a robot and I buy lots of robots on Kickstarter. And quite frankly, I like that. Oh, yeah. Yeah, anyone could tell me a robot on Kickstarter. Because I want robots to exist. I want more robots to exist. Yeah. So everyone should always support the small robot companies just you know, get the robots try them out like that. So many people said that to me about Roomba. Like I got one of the early ones and look at the generation they have. It's like, no, no, that's 10 years in. You need to get to these companies when the first kick started when they're, you know, just have it on the market for a few years. But I was anyway, I got the robot on the Kickstarter, but it stopped working. And I didn't really care. So but they actually came over, took a look at it and replaced it. And I then I put it in my vegetable gardens. And I was actually amazed that it worked. It was like night and day, right? It was like instead of going to my garden, and it was a weedy mess, because I you know I'm not one of those people who does it every week, you know, on time. Instead of going there with my daughter and you know, I get distracted because I don't like the weeds in it, you know, instead we can go and garden together right? Instead of you know, instead of it being a chore it's like a more fun experience about growing your own food. So I really loved it and they I was looking around of what to do after the you know, after the military appointment and you know, I called them up because I you know my mind I was thinking about outdoor robotics because you know, I'm not going to go into us right because we will visit inside I was thinking, Hey, I see the robot lawnmowers taking off, you know, I've got a Tertill meeting my goal. And that might be another space that you don't they've maybe thought about that and not pursuing and I could take that and learn from them. And instead, they invited me to come on and be CEO.
(0:45:16) Audrow Nash
Wow. Gotcha. Awesome. And so how long? How long have you been with them now as CEO?
(0:45:25) Helen Greiner
Um, it's been probably, it's been over a year now.
(0:45:32) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. What? So were actually like a little bit about the company. How large are you guys?
(0:45:40) Helen Greiner
Well, we don't really disclose that because, you know, we, you kind of keep it to yourself until it's something to really brag about. But we're a small team. We're very agile. We have the robot on the market on our Shopify site, we have it on at Amazon, we've just released a new product did make also makes gardening easier. It's not a robot, but it does. You know, it is it shares the app with the the Tertill. Okay, you know, so this is the space that I love when a small team can get stuff going quickly and get, you know, get it out on the market.
(0:46:22) Audrow Nash
It does seem like the most fun part. To me anyways, the whole growing everything. Very fun. So then you guys are what kind of things have you been? So since you've been CEO? What kinds of things have you been helping the direction of the company move towards?
(0:46:43) Helen Greiner
Oh, well, I'm just switching from, you know, a technology band to a more lifestyle brand. Getting the word out more. You know, we got on This Old House last last year in USA Today. Wall Street Journal. actually practicing filming for an HSN slot will be on Metro Bay on the 16th. So there's a close $4 million funding round last year. So just, you know, trying to take it from where it was, which was great to
(0:47:26) Audrow Nash
have more consumer facing. Yeah, more
(0:47:29) Helen Greiner
consumer facing and more. Welfare.
(0:47:34) Audrow Nash
Yeah, that's an awesome thing. I mean, it just seems like from my perspective, like, the idea of pulling weeds in a garden is like, I don't know, because you're right, like, like, I'm not going to be diligent about it every week or whatever. So this kind of thing, it seems like a really nice use of a simple robotics solution. Like it can just drive around mow down the big weeds, you can like garden around your plants, maybe if they go really close to your existing plants, but it's I don't know just makes the work. It does like 80% of the work kind of thing,
(0:48:07) Helen Greiner
right? Yeah, I mean, I still had some weeds around the very edge of my going like I could have ignored them you know, sometimes I choose to pull them out but it's a choice like not not something you have to go and spend a lot of time doing.
(0:48:19) Audrow Nash
And you don't have like this giant like I don't know field or bush of garden that like you can't get to anything and this kind of thing because this is getting to all those plants that grow super fast, very early, and then you don't have to deal with them.
(0:48:34) Helen Greiner
Right? And it goes to our you know you know, our mission is to make gardening easier for people but why do we want to do that? So more people take it up a lot of people took it up in the pandemic by the way people you know, studies say like 17 million more people took up gardening so great timing for it.
(0:48:56) Audrow Nash
(0:48:58) Helen Greiner
you know, we'd like to encourage even more like because what's more healthy for the planet shipping it in, you know, sometimes from another country or, you know, wasting all that transportation all that pollution. Big Ag has a lot of pesticides used out goods for pollinators, not good for the environment, not good for you yourself. So having an organic garden at home, if you can go into a CSA that's organic in your area. CSA is I don't actually know what it stands for. But you know, it's when you have a farm that allocates all their produce that they make to a set of customers and they deliver it or you go pick it up every every week. So it's kind of like a shell in a farmers you know, harvest August. Yeah. Wonderful, very good thing to do. By the way, we're not against that. We totally promote that. I've done it many times when I've not been going my own stuff. I didn't go on my own stuff when I was doing iRobot. Because I knew that I didn't have time. But I knew that it would be too much time and effort and I go on a business trip, I wouldn't be able to meet the goal. And so something that I really love to do is go and I couldn't do it because of the weeding issue. So, you know, what I love about this company is we're solving of this real problem that people have, and it's good for the earth because the the most nutritious delicious food you can get is actually from your diet. I don't know if you have a garden, or if you've ever grown vegetables,
(0:50:34) Audrow Nash
I I've grown vegetables. I'm in San Francisco and a little apartment, but I'm likely moving to Texas in the near future. Oh, so one of one of the things we are most excited about my fiance and I are getting chickens and having a garden. So we're right on the same thing with you.
(0:50:51) Helen Greiner
Okay, cool. Cool. Well, I'm, I hope you all have a Tertill in the garden. Yeah. So you know, because of the nutritious delicious food organic, being able to, you know, save on that trend, you know, transportation, pollution, the fertilizer, the pesticides, but also, you know, people take, you know, to, you know, a bunch of carrots and put them in a plastic bag, right, and then you have plastic waste, or anything else. And so, you know, if you need something, you know, food waste is a big problem, too, right? I've read studies that, you know, between a third and a half of the food is wasted between when you pick it, and when it gets to your table and what you know what you don't eat, right? There's a lot. It's crazy numbers. But if you have it in your garden, if you need it, you just go get it for that night. And it's better than a refrigerator to have it, you know, on the vine.
(0:51:56) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Mm hmm. I really liked that perspective, where it's clever, and I wasn't thinking of it until you brought it up right now that this kind of has a lot of like, you can produce your own healthy food, which is really, really nice. And then it requires less of the whole infrastructure required for buying going and buying food because the plastic that it's coming in the shipping, the pesticides and things that are when the thing is being grown from a huge agricultural company. So it's really benefiting the individual. And
(0:52:34) Helen Greiner
so really like, farm to table when you go to a CSA, and we go a step further and backyard to table. Yeah, but we do, we don't call it CSAs. Right, if you don't have the opportunity to grow your own vegetables. You know, a CSA is a wonderful way to support a local farmer.
(0:52:52) Audrow Nash
Yeah, like I'm a big fan of the regenerative agriculture approaches where they put a lot of effort into the soil and have like a smaller number of animals. And it sounds very similar to the CSI and probably how they structure things. Interesting. It's so it's so interesting to me that it's a small robot with kind of like big ambitions of helping people and helping the planet in this kind of thing. Do I did you? In you figuring like joining this company? Did you have those ideas about this? Or is this something that's kind of come along? Since you've been with the company or? I don't know, like, how did you come to that?
(0:53:36) Helen Greiner
I did see it as a way to encourage people to grow nutritious and delicious food, but I don't think I'd really studied too much on how big ag and the pesticides and the transportation from other countries. You know, just what it takes to get food on the on the table. I you know, I honestly just love going I love to see, go ahead and come to life and produce, you know, hundreds of pounds of food.
(0:54:07) Audrow Nash
So I don't know because I mean, I've grown food a little bit but not never really much. Can you like so if I if I have a yard that is say, Say say I have one turtles worth of garden space? So I have 200 square feet? That was correct, right? For one Tertill. Yeah. Of garden space. How much food can I make from that? If I'm gonna do a good harvest?
(0:54:34) Helen Greiner
If I had to guess it would be a few 100 pounds. If you if you wonder if you really go well and you use fertilizer. We actually just put out a another product. There's not a robot but I'll just briefly describe it. It's a fertilizer product. So a lot of folks who beginning gardening don't know that they they need fertilizer. A lot of folks don't get that soil tested and then you know they come in they say I've just got it Like thumb, it's like no, you don't have a black thumb you've got. Yeah. So we put out a fertilizer plan. And the trick that we're doing is we're going to ship it with a soil test. And when you get the results of the soil test, it goes right to the Tertill app, and we send you the fertilizer that you need. So instead of having to, you know, get a PhD in soil chemistry, and figure out whether you, you know, whether you need potassium, or magnesium or whatever, all the micronutrients, like, you know, there's 26 of them or something like that, we'll close that loop and ship you exactly what you need.
(0:55:36) Audrow Nash
That's super cool, because I've heard of like a similar idea for like exercise related things, or people with their nutrients, where it's like, you take a nutrient test, or say, your goals or whatever it might be, and then they send you the appropriate supplements. It's so cool to do that for garden, where you go, and you try the soil actually needs these things. So I caught
(0:55:58) Helen Greiner
the nutrient thing is true or not, but I know the soil test works, or every land grant university had been doing soil tests, and a lot of them are at the point now where they split it out. You know, develop new nutrient recommendations based on the soil tested, tested for many, many years. We're working with Cornell University, where we, you know, get these initial recommendations, and then we augment them. So this is something that has been studied, and it is science. It's not. You know, when I hear something about nutrition, I worry that it's a it's, you know, like fad pseudoscience. Yeah. Soil Science is not pseudoscience. Horticulture is not pseudoscience. This is real stuff.
(0:56:45) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. Yeah, it really drastically improves the yield of the plants, you're saying, if you consider the nutrients that the plant
(0:56:55) Helen Greiner
don't even go by some people, they get some, you know, they get, you know, a few little tomatoes on the tomato plant, and they're perfectly happy because they don't know any better. And they don't know, you can have this lush green garden, if you fertilize plants, and they're really heavy eaters, right? Because there's so much, you know, vegetables that, that producing that if you don't do it, your soil just gets worse every day. Yes, yes.
(0:57:21) Audrow Nash
Shocking nutrients, right? Yes.
(0:57:23) Helen Greiner
Suck the nutrients out of the soil. So even if you start out and you've got great soil, those vegetables are going to suck it out over time. And every university that you know, the whole cultural universities, they all recommend fertilizing and doing a soil test every three years. So that's the that's why we actually got the parameters of the program that we put out.
(0:57:48) Audrow Nash
That's so cool. Would you think about like supplementing with chickens or something that are going to make
(0:57:54) Helen Greiner
even better, even better? I've had you know, fans who do that, even composting yourself, you could do that too. But for people that don't have the space, don't have the time don't want to do that, you know, because of the environment that they may they may. Yeah, you could just do it with fertilizer, but we're not ever going to say don't do that. If you want to do that. That's what you should be doing.
(0:58:23) Audrow Nash
Yeah, and plus all the bugs and stuff that you can see with this kind of thing.
(0:58:27) Helen Greiner
Not everyone could get chickens either.
(0:58:29) Audrow Nash
Yeah, it's true. I think maybe it's like state. My complaint don't get roosters. Yes, yeah. In San Antonio, where I'm looking the you're not allowed to get roosters. But you can have as many better known hens as you are this kind of thing. I'm so excited about it.
(0:58:46) Helen Greiner
It's wonderful. And you can get the eggs and yeah, go with chickens. And everything. Yeah.
(0:58:54) Audrow Nash
So it seems to me just kind of bigger picture even. It seems to me that you think that we have like there's a lot of problems in the world and with agriculture and everything. And it seems like your approach is kind of like a bottom up approach. So it's like get the people doing things, make it easier for the people to structure things so that they don't have to rely on these big systems quite as much can eat healthier. Also, one of the benefits we didn't bring up is having people get outside to go garden and this kind of thing. It's a huge, like physical activity for that kind of thing seems really nice. Yeah.
(0:59:35) Helen Greiner
Yeah, lots of features. Studies show that gardening is good for your health. Less scientific, it is good for your soul. It is good. You know, it's just really, really good for you. So you know, it is something that we do, we do want to promote.
(0:59:56) Audrow Nash
You know, selfishly. One thing I would love if it was like I don't know if you guys will be doing additional products but if you made like an automatic chicken house
(1:00:07) Helen Greiner
you don't have to take it right to your garden but me decided you got the chicken scratching around them and they poop it all. But you know, if you're gonna get the chicken poop, I would actually you know, composted was something. That's okay.
(1:00:22) Audrow Nash
Gotcha. So let's see, the robots, the Tertill robot sounds awesome. We have a bit more time, I would love to talk more about your path and your opinions on robotics and this kind of thing. So starting with all that, you've made a lot of transitions, it seems like you've been on top of all these really cool areas in robotics. What? Like,
(1:00:51) Helen Greiner
I guess I use that I made a lot of transitions. But I've been doing this since 1990. Right. So I was I did I have about 18 years and you know, took it public. So chairman for three more years. So you know, I don't think of myself that moves around too quickly. I really jump into something. But yes, I've been able to see the growth of the industry and I every robot success I consider a success of the entire industry of rising tide truly does float all boats.
(1:01:29) Audrow Nash
Definitely. Yeah. And I was meaning transition and more like, problem domains, or this kind of thing, because it was military. And then it was home, and then it was drones. And now then it was figuring out how government works. Same thing for military. So it's a little more military. But now it's a home robot for agriculture or gardens.
(1:01:53) Helen Greiner
Right? It all comes together, like because I knew a lot about home robots. But now the areas that I'm learning about with a great advisory board is, you know, the, I've been a gardener like, but I'm not a horticulture best. So I haven't studied that. But, you know, we've got great advisors who are amazing multiculturalists. That, you know, have shown us. You know the science behind it.
(1:02:23) Audrow Nash
Yeah. How do you? So I guess one thing that's really interesting to me is it feels like with iRobot. And with sci fi, and with Tertill, you're picking very pragmatic robotics applications, like given where the technology is at the time you pick something,
(1:02:40) Helen Greiner
and also it also in the Pentagon as well, but I can't talk as much about that. Well, yesterday, I was waiting for the very practical applications, and that's push them fully.
(1:02:52) Audrow Nash
If you ever can talk about that. I would love to do another interview on that. Because that would be very, very interesting. I don't know if it like has a time way of whatever.
(1:03:00) Helen Greiner
I don't think I would ever come to pad not because they were particularly secret because some vendors win and some vendors lose. And this is not my story. It's a story.
(1:03:12) Audrow Nash
Yes. Can you tell me a little bit about that perspective of like, just how you've kind of honed in on these spots where you can make a simple robot that has a few parts that something that consumers can buy. And then it provides a lot of value, like Roombas helping people so they don't have to vacuum especially under the bed Tertill so that it's like, it makes having a garden a lot more feasible for lazy people like me, where it's like, no, I can do that I can not do 80% of my weeding.
(1:03:45) Helen Greiner
Um, yeah, we we had some amazing experiences at the first part of it well, but for those eight years before we were doing the Uber, we won, we did get some military contracts. So we went to developing the pack bots. You know, but all those other areas that I spoke about oil and gas, commercial cleaning, toys and games. You know, we did some SpaceX formation. And you know, we really felt like we honestly felt that these areas weren't wrong. We just didn't have all the pieces in place and we didn't you know, you're turned out on the downhole Well, the price of batteries went went up at the time and then on the commercial cleaning it you know, the you know, the company felt that it would obsolete the products that they're that they were building and it so we had all these, like all these areas and our heads that we knew that the could be successful robots like I really think that commercial cleaning is a great place for robots. Although a lot of companies just buy a Roomba now because you can get them Good, yeah, it's kind of like the cell phone, right? You don't say I'm going to build a cell phone for industry, although that was, you know, big with blackberry and stuff, but you just buy a consumer cell phone and use it. But I really think that there are a lot of industries that need still did great business opportunity even today. And we were there, but we couldn't make it happen. But you know, the timing was was wrong. And I do honestly believe that a lot of times, it's just matching the technology to the market. And it's not, you know, a lot of times, we were ahead of our time, I see some space robot companies starting out and I, I want them to be very successful. You're the first business model that I will buy had was to do the first robot steps on the moon, like, wow, coming out of university, that's what we thought would get you I'll get some big sponsors. And they'll be sure that, you know, help us do that. And we actually got further than you would imagine, even in, you know, 1992, we had a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base for the people who make Brilliant Pebbles. And we did some, you know, you know, not not yet we didn't get the space, right, but we were doing it and they lost their launch. You know, they lost their launch vehicle, and now they're on launch vehicles commercially. Right. So I think the companies today have a better shot. And I wouldn't say we were wrong, we would just, you know, early 30 years ahead. So we have aliens market timing as well. Yeah. I mean, you can see what's going on in logistics and the number of companies that have been very successful and fulfillment centers. And I mean, because the time for that market has really come on the market needed that if we had tried that in the 90s, I mean, it was before E commerce, right? It wouldn't have was
(1:06:56) Audrow Nash
how don't wait, so go ahead. Oh, I'm just
(1:06:59) Helen Greiner
gonna say it really is picking them lock it and the timing as well.
(1:07:03) Audrow Nash
How do you pick the market and the timing? Like any any thoughts or heuristics on thinking about that?
(1:07:12) Helen Greiner
Well, I for sure, yeah. Yeah. I think what was well son who said Why Why do you go Why do you rob banks is because that's where the money is, you kind of look when the money's flowing. And you can see money today and logistics you can see money today don't love banks. In you know, the E commerce incredible books, so I don't I obviously I don't think it's capped out, right. I keep I keep like buying stuff MBA online. Underwater Robotics, right. You know, there's just so, you know, people are looking at, you know, how to service the wells how to produce geothermal wells, right, there's, you know, so many with the wind farms that are offshore, there's so many applications for underwater, you know, being able to go out and do something, and then there's you know, all the vehicle robotics, right, even the switch to electric power, which is happening now. I mean, that helps, uh, you know, I think promote the robots. Nobody, you know, robot inside. I, you know, I can honestly say, you know, what I Robot, you know, as we had all the sticky notes on the, on the wall, all the different industry, we had autonomous cars up there, like we were watching the grand challenges, and we even entered one, right. But we decided that the market timing wasn't there, and we didn't see how we would ever get insurance. And so we put it on the table. And it really took a company like Google to jump in and get those regulations change. So I think we would like not to go there. But, you know, you see, you know, companies like coups Rive and Zooks, you know, all these companies. Yeah, so pushing on it. And of course, Tesla and I know isn't Yeah.
(1:09:23) Audrow Nash
That is very interesting. All those areas. Where do you where do you go to get information for these things so you can look where the money flows? Do you have any advice on how someone would see where the money is
(1:09:33) Helen Greiner
flowing? I think you have to become an expert in the industry that you're entering. I don't say that lightly. Right. Because at iRobot we didn't at first we thought we would be the technology guys. And it wasn't until we became industry experts that we had success. So sometimes the best way is to hire someone who's been in the industry. You're trying to disrupt it, you don't want to take everything they say, right? Because you're not going to disrupt it if you do the status quo, but people who know the economics of it, you know, the multocida, Kima, like he had done. Part, I think it was, you know, he was involved in one of the other, you know, ecommerce delivery things and didn't get it to work. And then he had so much experience with it. So he knew the field. And, you know, figuring out what would work?
(1:10:30) Audrow Nash
Yeah, so that's kind of a nice pair, you have someone who really understands the industry, and then maybe some people that understand that technology very well. And if you can kind of marry the two. And that seems like a good way.
(1:10:42) Helen Greiner
Yeah, well bang people on learn about it. You know, I think a lot of Abbas's have usually, you know, a little bit of jack of all trades if you're a roboticist. So you're probably pretty good at picking up new things. So you know, it is possible to learn about there's plenty of information on the web, there's plenty of people who are willing to talk to you, there's, you know, there's all these companies that just put out market research for a living like this. There's so much information out there, thanks to Google and others, right, that it's not like it was in the 90s. Where, you know, you go to the library, right?
(1:11:19) Audrow Nash
Yeah, gosh, now everything is just a Google OA. It's a crazy time. Okay, um, what do you think? So, if someone wanted to start a company now, in robotics, what advice would you give them?
(1:11:37) Helen Greiner
Um, be ready for ups and downs. There are a few, you know, get on the lucky ship, so to speak, Locus robotics seems to be on a good trajectory. And even then, my, they were incubated quite logistics for quite a few years before they spun out. So they had that opportunity to get the technology ready before, you know, before the, you know, going for that, you know, economic blockade show.
(1:12:14) Audrow Nash
(1:12:16) Helen Greiner
yeah, a lot of times you can find, you know, find something that's like a long time to trace things back. It's not that people just got together and built something, but there's something that was late it was working, or it failed somewhere else, and you're taking it in or, because, you know, the reason that didn't work or at a university gestating topic when you know, something, maybe a challenge funded it, there's so many ways it could come from a large company that doesn't want to take it forward, spin out or spin out a company from it. But just getting it to the point and getting all the capital together, just you know, a straight shot, I think is reasonably difficult. You can do some alternative funding, like government contracts, like not just SBIR. But there's many different programs in the government to try and get the innovative people to get the technology, though.
(1:13:13) Audrow Nash
So SBIR, that's Small Business Innovation Research, right? Yeah. How do you. So if you want to pursue the path of an alternate source of funding, so you can kind of bootstrap a startup and doing the market research, you can find a good fit? How does one learn about these government research grants or government grants that way they could do well,
(1:13:35) Helen Greiner
you can learn about the process by meeting it right. It's an easy, SBIR program does a great job of putting everything out there. But in reality, you should be talking to people that have a need for your idea. Because if you're not you're I mean, it's a real statistic statistics are there for you not to get something if you haven't been talking to people about your technology about the way you see the problem, your innovation, because I you know, it's hard to get things from a proposal Lily, it's not that you cannot win right. But you know, it does help to Yeah, but I will also look at other types of programs that the government runs in, in in innovation that some contests the incubators are amazing these days. My challenge I mean, NASA robotics you know, my head
(1:14:40) Audrow Nash
(1:14:42) Helen Greiner
not NASA Onyx is I think it's a little more national. Now. They have companies that uh, you know, not just in in Massachusetts, the actual physical mass robotics is in Massachusetts, but I've heard of companies that have participated that are from around the country. We're actually doing a total we're doing a massive robotics accelerator right now with Amazon Web Services. That's been a very, very good learning experience.
(1:15:12) Audrow Nash
So it means you're using you're using, you're doing an accelerator to get your stuff using Amazon Web Services, or
(1:15:19) Helen Greiner
they're coming in and they're giving, you know, classes on what technologies Amazon Web Services about Robo maker about, you know, the infrastructure behind it, which you know, so well. I know, and also, panels on raising venture capital panels on, you know, exiting panels on all the things and you might say, Hey, you don't need that hell away, you taking up this face? You can always learn more like it's a different funding environment from you know what I did with iRobot? Like, we were one of the first write comments on venture capitals, like, oh, they don't make investment in this space. That's to science fiction, I thought this would kill me. But I persevered, right. And I found some very, very good, forward looking venture capitalists to get to come in. I forgot where I was going. But you know, this.
(1:16:28) Audrow Nash
Go ahead. So it? Yeah, you found these forward looking venture capitalists and it helped you find it basically let you proceed, even though the times weren't quite there. So now we're at a different time. Yeah. In the investment community. And these incubators seem to be really nice. Onyx and all the talks and all the education they're providing sounds wonderful,
(1:16:49) Helen Greiner
right? And then Okay, so one of the reasons for participating is we, you know, the data infrastructure that Amazon Web Services has, of course, is great for storing the data that we're collecting.
(1:17:04) Audrow Nash
Mm hmm. Yeah. So are you using like their IoT service? I think it works well with I don't have experience hands on with Amazon Web Services been robomaker. And these kinds of things other than like some basic s3 stuff, or whatever it is, but are using like their Greengrass platform, which is for Internet of Things?
(1:17:25) Helen Greiner
We are actually not we are on a much lower powered process, but we're learning about it to see if we can make use of future you know, micro loss, for example, you know, the, the simulation environment, that bubble maker, which is built on Zeebo, because Eva, like, that's what I was gonna say, um, you know, so, we make, can we make use of that, to augment our, you know, common simulations, which are probably not as high fidelity as Amazon has been able to, to put together and then you know, the changes in the environment and stuff, so you can always learn more, and I was saying the funding environment, right, the, you know, with AI robot times, right? You know, they didn't have this, you know, convertible notes as much, and suddenly, safes hadn't been invented. And now, if someone was starting a robot company, I'd recommend start a safe, which is, it's a investment. You know, like, like a convertible note, but it's not a debt instrument, it is, it basically just converts to equity, or when another funder puts a price on it later. So you basically sign up, you get a discount on the, you know, on the bound, and some people don't even have a discount on the bound, no interest, and it lets people come in and fund your company. You know, it turns out there's a lot of high net worth individuals out there now who are willing to, you know, fun robot companies. So you can go out, start a safe and start getting that traction with investors and maybe, you know, maybe it's 25,000 100,000 quarter million at a time, but it's easier for them to make that decision. Like, you know, we've had to make that decision, you know, kind of on the spot rather than the process you have to go through to get a lead VC. So you can get get that funding going. And then when you go to a lead VC, you have that traction already and so you know, hopefully some good names, you know, names people have, you know, people have Yeah, respected in the industry, funding the company, and also it gives you advocates for the company and people you can call for help and you Want to push to the next level? So, so like my only point is not safe. So not there's a lot of different mechanisms to get funded. But the environment does change. And you have to keep up with that environment. So no matter how much experience you have joining something like an incubator can be helpful.
(1:20:22) Audrow Nash
Yeah, so you guys are doing the incubator now, which is so cool. You're doing the AWS one that is?
(1:20:29) Helen Greiner
Yeah, it had a criterion. You know, you can't do you know, over a few million dollars of business. So we still we still made the cuts.
(1:20:40) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Gotcha. No, that's really cool. Let's see if there was Do you think so? The whole con. So with? I guess, actually, when you are creating, so one thing that's different with robotics versus other industries, I feel like so if you're doing like, a software as a service thing, so it's going to be some web app that people use, investors look a lot at, are you already getting users? Are you already showing that you're profitable? Or whatever? With robotics, there's a big investment in capital. And you, I don't know, the model is different, because you have to build your robots, and you have to building up the supply chain and manufacturing. Yeah, go ahead.
(1:21:35) Helen Greiner
No, I think that's true. But it's less true now than before, because you could get a prototype together. Much easier. Like because of the open source robot Foundation, because of open robotics, I should say, because of the simulation, because of what happens on Web Services is doing. You know, because of the global infrastructure, because of what the video is doing, you can actually get a prototype, you can buy a robot on to test out your idea. So I think a lot of people aren't building everything from scratch, you know, a lot of the code to get things, you know, tried is, you know, is out there already, we have to modify it like, but it's a whole different modifying it than creating the whole robot infrastructure yourself, which is what we did at iRobot. So you, you know, and in some applications that put together commercial pieces can actually be a product. And then as the product gets more more successful, you might fine tune it. In the till application, that's not true, because it really has the cost is king for consumers, you really do have to design it from the ground up to get the costing that you need to get for consumer products. But I see people going into the industry now with these commercial, you know, available infrastructure and getting stuff together so much quicker than we could have ever dreamed of doing it in the past. So I see.
(1:23:10) Audrow Nash
And so one thing that's interesting to me with this is, it seems like a lot of the robotics prototypes, kind of, as you've been saying, with this, it's a lot of business to business transactions. But you guys are going business to consumer and you were saying that for consumer products, you need to really design so that you can keep the cost as low as possible. i There's a lot of business to business potential. I think in robotics, like if you're selling things to help stock shelves, or do security guards or whatever it might be, but business to consumer is something that's been kind of hard for robotics to break into. And there's the Roomba, and maybe the Tertill will we'll see in the near future, but it seems like you might be connected to two of the most successful ones. Right.
(1:23:56) Helen Greiner
But I would also put the DJI and the audio tones in that mix. Right. But I, you know, I there's been a few that are more, you know, either a, kind of bordering on a toy and a game and I feel that those don't usually come out over over time, I really think it has to be a practical application that people have this real need for and then you know, that the Moomba is cute and bleeps and bloops. And the Tertill has, you know, patent you know, found as it takes off and stuff. I mean, I think that helps. But it's not the primary reason why people buy it.
(1:24:40) Audrow Nash
It's not the value offer. Yeah, for sure. Like it really does something useful. Yeah, rather than the cosmetic beeps and boops Yeah, and the whole value of the product. Yeah, I wonder Do you think the robotics consumer space will grow in this like the will keep finding ways of having less betting on it.
(1:25:01) Helen Greiner
I'm certainly betting on it. Because once you have, you know a robot, cleaning your floors, mopping your floors, doing your pool, doing your lawn, doing your weeding, right, I think people, you know, look at it. It's like, why don't I have a vote but to do these other things? Yeah, I told him it's robots in unstructured environments are an actual challenge. Right? Yeah. And so, you know, so again, I do suggest cheating, like we do with the kernel. You know? Because making it so it's a robot, um, you know, that you do the jobs robotically, like like the Roomba going under beds and couches makes it so they do something that you couldn't really do any other way.
(1:25:51) Audrow Nash
Yeah. Let's see. Do you getting big picture again? Where do you see robotics going? In the next like, say, five years or so five to 10 years? What do you better life looks like and how are robots around? Or what's the robotics industry look like? Oh,
(1:26:09) Helen Greiner
I mean, it's such a great time. But I think it's, you know, it's a little like you know, some pet kind of like computers like that is a computer Mandal see? Certainly, and, you know, I'm using one to communicate today. But there's computers in everything, right. And I think that's going to be MOBOTIX in everything is almost not a field, I can think of a physical field that you wouldn't want to have a robot adjusting in the future. So I'm, I'm bullish on robots, obviously. You know, but all the jobs that people don't like doing, I mean, I constantly get requests, and nobody's cracked it yet. But I have seen prototypes. And you know, that's one company I invested in. I tend to buy it that's collecting tennis balls, you know, if you're, you know, doing serving practice, it just goes out and collects henna balls. And that's, you know, some of that technology, you think, Well, that could have been done in the 90s, right? Because we had a little green ball chasing robot running around the company for a long time, but we didn't make any friends of ours did. And it was great fun made it just like you put a ball on and zoom and everyone's like, I want that. It's like, why. And now they're making it to collect tennis balls. And you know, I've seen people try to do folding the laundry. I haven't invested in that one. But I mean, a lot. Yeah, it's hard. But there's so many people who say to me, I would buy it in a minute, like, oh, you know, ironing, right? Um, you know, if you can come up with a robotic solution to some of the things that people we help people have to do every day. And, you know, that's what I think with with a Tertill, you know, weeding is like mowing. I love the robot lawnmowers. Right? But you can have someone come in and mow your lawn. But weeding it's actually hard to get someone to come in and wait for you because it's a job. Nobody really wants, right. It's it's fiddly. It's out in the hot side. If there's no machine to do it really. It really is something that a lot of kind of, like elbow grease right.
(1:28:36) Audrow Nash
is required. Yeah, for sure. Okay, now, wrapping up, you mentioned you're bullish in robotics. How do you see robotics as like, important in a bigger picture sense? Like why are you bullish in robotics?
(1:28:56) Helen Greiner
Because I just see all the applications that robots can lend a hand to you know, it's important because I think that you know, like, like anything else, you know, people worry about robots, people worried about computers. But I think they they just add such I mean, computers have added so much people couldn't have even predicted at the time that in communications to doing the school virtually by in the information were able to access and robots I think we don't even know what great things they're going to be able to accomplish yet. And keeping the environment safe, safer. Getting rid of the pesticide usage. You know, helping with you know, getting geo FOMO thermal and wind farms. going, you know, I, I would imagine if we do get fusion reactors like there'll be robots servicing them. And like, I could just see that they have an infrastructure that most everything's going to depend on to, you know, just to make it work.
(1:30:18) Audrow Nash
Right. Awesome. Thank you. Yeah, thank you. It's
(1:30:21) Helen Greiner
(1:30:26) Audrow Nash
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Helen Greiner. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing wherever you get your podcasts or on YouTube. Thank you again to our founding sponsor, open robotics. See you next time.