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This Amazing Startup Turns Your iPad Into A Robot

Fri, 09/07/2012 - 6:03am
double roboticsMost startups today are building some kind of app or software—like the next big-time photo-sharing app.

Double Robotics is the rare startup that's actually building a solid piece of hardware that you can actually see in action, in the real world.

Right now, Double is building motorized mounts for your iPad. You plug your iPad into the robot to turn it into a roaming camera.

The applications are pretty much limitless: remote videoconferences, campus tours, even doctor's visits.

Still, building a hardware startup is tough. The weakhearted need not apply. 

We caught up with cofounder Marc DeVidts to find out what it's like running a startup that's also a hardware company. Here's what we learned:

  • Rapid-fire prototyping is a must for all startups, whether they make hardware or software. Even if your robot is going to crash into a wall, you still need to find ways to get customer feedback as quickly as possible.
  • Good advice is universal—don't assume it won't work for you. Y Combinator is best known for software startups like Airbnb and Dropbox. But DeVidts found there were ways to apply the coaching and advice he got.
  • Always look for the next step. For Double Robotics, that means it can't just build robots. Now it has to teach them how to be better robots capable of climbing stairs, opening doors, and all the other things humans do.

Here's a lightly edited transcript of the interview: 

BUSINESS INSIDER: Can you tell me a little bit about your history and the team?

MARC DEVIDTS: My cofounder David (Cann) and I met at a TV show, BattleBots, back on Comedy Central 10 years ago. He was a software developer. He was writing their management software. I was a competitor and was on the TV show for one season before it got canceled. We met there and we didn't really collaborate on anything until we ended up moving to Miami together because we had mutual friends there. We each had our own jobs, he was doing iOS app contract work, I was doing software on medical devices.

We started working on a product in 2009 that was a kid's toy, it was a Furby crossed with a Tomagotchi crossed with an iPhone. It was a plush doll that kids could play with using their iPhone or their parents' iPhone. We were trying to manufacture that in china. We thought China would wave their magic wand and make it cheaper and we found it was difficult to communicate with them. Around that time we were trying to figure out how to talk to China better and we decided there were telepresence robots out there, but they were expensive and clunky. This was around the time the iPad 2 came out and we said, maybe there was an opportunity to make something that replaces all these clunky robots with an iPad. So we went full-time on it about a year ago, last November, been working on it ever since.

The toy got put on the back-burner, because it was too hard to make margins on it. Maybe we'll make it again, there's a lot of new advancements since 2009 and prices have definitely come down.

BI: What's it like working on a hardware startup?

MD: We were in Y Combinator, the main issue was that most of the advice, a lot of it, was tiered toward software companies. us hardware guys, we had like five hardware startups in our batch. We were sitting in the back corner saying, does that apply to us, i don't think that applies to us. We had to paint our own paths different ways. A lot of ways it was useful, it's interesting on hinting how to use that advice that they're giving to software startups, how it applies to you. While hardware is a lot harder to do, they say, we're finding that out now, we actually had a great time in Y Combinator and a totally great time demoing. It's so much easier to demo a piece of hardware that you can carry around and people see immediately, rather than having to pull out your phone or laptop and showing them a website. It just kind of sells itself.

BI: What are some of the challenges to running a hardware startup?

MD: The big challenge for any software startup is probably the chicken or egg problem—getting users. So it's easy for someone to say, software might not be done yet, but you have some sort of presence on the site so people can use it and you can get feedback. Your product doesn't have to be done. But for us, it was difficult, because if our product isn't done, it falls over or smashes a wall.

Still, we ended up really taking that advice—it's amazing when you try to apply that advice, which is totally crazy for a hardware startup, and it totally works. Everyone wants their product to be perfect and when we finally got over the initial hurdle of realizing it's never going to be perfect, we really took that advice and started doing that and it's worked out really well. Another piece of advice was to start selling them even though they aren't done, try to sell features that don't exist yet. We stepped back a little from there, but said maybe we can do a beta program. We sold some of those, gave some away, to get that good feedback from people. We really did take that advice. 

BI: So what's the point of the robot?

MD: It's primarily a telepresence robot, though we're opening up a lot of new doors with customer feedback. Our typical customer is a business with multiple offices that wants to stay more connected. We're getting a lot of doctors that want to visit patients, schools offering campus tours, museums wanting to offer tours, new doors are opening up that you never even thought about. A museum in Europe is closed at night, but nighttime is actually daytime in the U.S., so all that time they're actually losing money when they could be offering the museum to U.S. residents with these robots. It doesn't require that much extra staff because it's just, well, robots.

The other interesting thing is helping people with disabilities, we hear stories about what people are trying to overcome with our robots. We say, think about what you really want to use it for before you buy it. We don't want people to think, well that was cool, and then put it on a shelf. We want people really excited about it, and there's a lot of people like that. I wouldn't say we're going as far as revolutionizing travel, we're certainly in some cases it makes sense to send a robot.

BI: What are you guys working on next?

MD: Right now we have our hands full building this thing, but ultimately we see if the price gets down low enough it could be a consumer thing. Everyone could put it in their home to check on it while they're away.

I do agree the price is still a little prohibitive. It's interesting, when choosing the price we didn't say we're gonna do $1 million in research and figure out how much we can charge based on that. We said, what are people wiling to pay to attend a meeting remotely or drive around remotely and said, how do we do that, and we came up with this. We approached it from the bottom up, not the top down.

Next up, we're researching things like walking up stairs, manipulating things remotely, opening doors. It's not crazy to think that 50 or 100 years from now people will be doing more things remotely.

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