Guiding technology through uncertain valleys: SRI’s Rich Mahoney on risks, rewards, and the future of robotics
As part of our series on ‘High-Risk / High-Reward’ robotics, I interviewed SRI International‘s Director of Robotics, Rich Mahoney, who’s role there is to help identify important emerging robotics technologies, align them with the needs of funding sources, and bring them successfully to market.
Tell us about yourself, SRI, and your role in the R&D and entrepreneurial space…
I’ve been at SRI for five years, and my position before coming to SRI was in an early stage venture-backed environment as the general manager of a company introducing and developing a new robot for stroke therapy in the US market. Before that, I did product and business development, and before that I did university-based research just after finishing my PhD. So, I have a broad background in applying robotics, from university research to commercial product development to venture-backed early-stage companies.
What’s interesting is that, because of SRI’s business model as a nonprofit, I actually practice my background in all of those areas in just one job. SRI’s primary business is contract research and development, but our overall mission is to invent, apply and commercialize technologies. As the director of the robotics program, I’m responsible for running the business of our robotics program. I have profit and loss responsibility for our performance in this nonprofit environment where we’re really working towards a higher mission of impactful R&D.
It’s a very aggressive and difficult environment, and it’s for people who want to work in a place where they can have a lot of impact: where they can work on applied solutions, and where the problem-solution is the focus, rather than the PI-driven research that you see at universities.
SRI is an offshoot of Stanford, correct?
You can say it’s a spin off from Stanford University. SRI originally stood for Stanford Research Institute, when it was founded 65 years ago, but it spun out as an independent nonprofit in the 1970s. It was doing some military-oriented research at that time – during the Vietnam War era – and the students didn’t want that kind of work going on on campus. Instead of closing it down it was spun off and made independent. Since then it’s really developed its own identity, and now we’ve got 40 different programs working on leading edge research. It’s not all hard-core technology like robotics; some of it is education policy… some of it is pharmaceutical discovery … so we operate in a very broad base of areas, but always with the mandate to work at the leading edge of applied solutions.
It seems like SRI operates half way between a university innovation lab and an investment company…
That’s right: there’s university research, and then there’s commercial research, and SRI lives right between those two… in a space often referred to as ‘the valley of death’ [Chuckles.] It’s where things go that get invented, but which just can’t seem to get applied and transitioned to the commercial world. It’s very dry to say our primary business is in R&D: I would say that SRI is a big party tent in the valley of death! [More laughter.] People at SRI don’t just work there, we thrive there: we’re just really good at taking early stage technologies and transitioning them into practical value.
As we were developing this series it became clear that “high risk, high reward” can mean different things to different people … the researchers on our team were talking about technical hurdles, and our start-up and business experts were talking about commercialization hurdles… and then, even if you can make it through these technical and commercial hurdles all the way to the public sphere, maybe the market isn’t ready for you… maybe policy isn’t ready for you… maybe there are going to be legal issues. I find it interesting that you seem to be coming at it from such a broad perspective.
Maybe the environment in which SRI operating is so challenging because there are so many perspectives. We’re trying to actually cross this valley of death, but all the while we’ve got multiple market perspectives, we’ve got the inventors, and we have all this investment that we have to do to get it ready. How do we know how to invest in the right way? It really seems like a big problem… The person who will grow a company is not the same person who can get it started, and it’s not the same person who can do the initial invention, or the person who can do the engineering effort to get the invention ready for market … it’s very rare to find somebody who can follow something from the very beginning to the very end.
So there is this broad set of competing interests, but the driving perspective for SRI is to align resources with what it takes to be successful – and that’s key. Really understanding what’s going on, being connected to the market by being connected to the technology, having the right people doing the right things… yes it’s broad, but there’s a single focus on finding solution sets, and one thing I’ve learned in this job is that you succeed best by putting people in a position of strength for them.
So where is your work initiated? Are you mostly assisting inventors who are seeking investment? Or are you looking for technical solutions for government and policy-makers?
If you look at just the business part of what we do, our main revenue comes from our contracts to do research. Our customers are organizations that want to fund research and development, and so either they come to us because they have a problem that needs solving and they don’t know have the resources or people to solve it, or they come to us because they know we have technologies that could solve their problem and they want us to develop our solutions further in order to suit their purposes.
On one side, we operate in this business development environment that is essentially being 100% on soft money. We have no endowment or annual corporate budget. If you don’t get the business development right then you are out of business after one year. And so you also have to be really good at evaluating your technology and qualifying the people and organizations that want to fund you to develop them. Part of my job as director is to figure out who the chronic innovators are, evaluate who could possibly fund them, and then do the work of building the relationship and making sure that everyone understands the market needs.
Basically, we are inventing new kinds of technologies that we believe will solve fundamental problems that are aligned with our customers’ needs. In the case of the robotics program at SRI, DARPA is a key customer, and one of their needs is to maintain the US lead in various applications of robotics technology. As a result, we work with them in a very collaborative process where we are educating and interacting and supporting that mission all at the same time.
Why does DARPA need SRI? Couldn’t they just work directly with the innovators themselves?
In rare cases DARPA would work directly with an inventor, but it’s a government agency, and it’s not easy to manage a government contract and to meet all of the costing and security requirements. SRI provides the overall support structure for managing the business relationship with the government. The other part of what we do is managing and documenting the intellectual property.
It goes back to what I was saying before that it’s very rare to have a single individual who has the aptitude to do all aspects of the technology transition process from invention to commercialization. So in an organization like SRI, we have people who are strong in business development teamed up with people who are strong innovators and people who are systems applications experts. By putting teams like this together, you can actually create a better market or industry response.
Do you have a formula or process for working out risk versus reward in terms of the research you undertake and the specific technologies that you select to move forward?
SRI definitely has internal processes for defining the value in its technologies and how it communicates that value. We have something we call “the discipline of innovation,” which is a series of processes that, when applied, allow you to be more successful in transitioning the technology. These include simple things like identifying a champion (and the champion may or may not be the inventor, but is someone who believes in the application of the solution and is personally committed at some level to being successful), and making sure that all the resources in an organization are aligned for success.
We also have a very clear process for communicating the value of our innovations to the clients – and that’s something we call ‘NABC’, which is really just a structured approach to communicating value to the customer. N is the need, so we define the specific need back to the customer to make sure that we understand it. The A is the approach, the actual technical solution. Us hardcore technical personalities love to focus on this part, and what often happens is that we either have a technology looking for a solution or we have the right technology but we focus so much on describing the approach that we forget to really look at the need and align it better with what’s required to be successful… so having a balanced approach is important. B is the benefit: having a very clear understanding of what the benefits are, and at what costs, and this is relative to C, the competition. We go through this process in a very structured way, and it creates a much better solution set and sense of clarity to our technical and business development staff when they’re beginning to look at whether to apply a specific technology to a problem.
The other thing I’ll add is that there is a culture of iteration at SRI, and its understood and practiced through open communication and assessment of value, so that an NABC is not a single static document – it is a dynamic document that’s constantly being revised.
What would you say are the next breakthrough areas for robotics?
I think there’s a very clear progression that is occurring right now, and there are two different tracks that are going to be coming together in the near future.
One of them is that there’s a drive for robotics technology to become more low-cost and more accessible. A lot of people think about robotics as an independent technology space, and at some level it is. But if you really look at the current state of robots that are getting penetration, like drones/UAV’s and mobile robots, the emergence of these technologies has a lot to do with the fact that their components are cheaper and more available than ever before. And part of that is not because of robotics per say, but it’s because of other markets. In particular, the cost and availability of many sensors is driven by growth in the personal and mobile computing markets. Robotics is drafting off the last 30 years of evolution of personal computing technology, and represents the next stage in that evolution.
The second track is manipulation solutions: robotic arms and hands that allow you physically manipulate the world. If you look at the trends again, you’ve got lots of mobile robot solutions and emerging tele-presence platforms, which generally cost under $10,000 – and some of them cost a couple of thousand dollars – but they’re all lacking manipulation.
There’s been an enormous amount of investment from DARPA to develop lower-cost robot arms and hand solutions, and in the next three to five years, these manipulation technologies will begin to emerge. And when the cost of these is lowered to the extent that they become accessible to entrepreneurial, hobby-level roboticists, that’s when we’ll start to see a much broader dissemination and application of robotics into a personal robotics market, similar to what happened in the early 1980s with personal computing. That convergence of low costs and manipulation technology is part of an ecosystem that is going to drive innovation in the next three to five years.
Is access to lower-cost equipment making it less risky to invest in robotics now?
It’s not going to make it less risky from an investment perspective because the overall funding required for a company developing something to the point of commercial viability is so much more than the cost of the product hardware components. And often the real risk is with the management team’s ability to properly set up the business model. But it will create products that have a greater potential to get penetration because they can be offered at a lower cost to the end user. Lower cost robotic components will also enable more entrepreneurs to start companies. So, I would say that the real benefit is that more robotics companies will get started, which will ultimately lead to more successful companies and broader uses of robotics.
What other factors are contributing to this rapid growth in robotics?
The number one place to look is DARPA. If you go back in the entire history of robotics innovation, and look at which technologies are emerging right now in the market and what their origins were, DARPA was the inspiration and funding driver for almost all them at their early stages. It’s really pretty dramatic if you think about it.
Some people look at DARPA programs and think, ‘What are those crazy scientists up to now?’ but every one of those programs represents tens of millions of dollars of R&D funding, and these awards are being made to some of the top people in the country. If you look closely at who those researchers are, what their programs have been doing, and what they are being funded to do, you’re going to see the future of robotics.