In each of our podcasts, we ask top hardware entrepreneurs the same 10 questions to better understand the challenges and best practices in starting a hardware company. In Season 2 Episode 7, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Josh Ouellette, co-founder and CEO, and Randy Shults, another co-founder of RavenOps, a Lemnos portfolio company. RavenOps takes inspiration from nature to build cooperative swarms of simple robots that outperform individual units in complex environments.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Josh: It really goes back to undergrad for me. My focus at MIT was on aerospace control systems. Which I really liked because I’ve always liked software, but at the same time there’s this kind of magical moment that happens in controls, where I’ve got this lifeless block of motors, actuators, and sensors. Then you throw the switch, and the control system kicks in. As a company, we’re focused on swarm robotics, of multiple units working together, which we call “heterogeneous multi-unit robotic systems.” That same thing takes place again, but now at the systems level. So it’s not just one robot coming to life; it’s all of these robots in a dynamic system.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Randy: This was the first time in hardware. One of the scariest tasks we needed to tackle was trying to form a hardware startup. But that’s actually where swarm really plays into this. Instead of building a much more complex mechanical engineering system, we’re going all the way to a bayesian dynamic system. With swarm, we’re able to use off-the-shelf robotics, build in our own sensors, and turn this back into a software dynamics problem of how to interact between the different robots. So we’re much more into what traditionally has been our sweet spot.
Josh: I spent 11 and a half years prior to doing this in the Air Force, flying V-22 Ospreys and doing special operations in that aircraft. You have this weird relationship with a flight control computer—when you as the pilot are asking the airplane to do something, and it will either do it or not do it based on its own conditions and its own interpretation. And so, when our drones are flying around and they’re making all these autonomous decisions, it’s always in the back of my head, “What would it be like if I was actually sitting in the middle of that thing?” Because that’s the world I lived in.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Josh: When we were looking at oil and gas and some of these heavier industrial applications, we had this rule: we wanted to switch from us pushing toward customers, to receiving pulls from customers. We weren’t originally looking at this internal space, where we actually go inside of their equipment and do these inside-out inspections. Customers were telling us that. And what we noticed was, when we finally picked up on that signal, and pitched that back to customers, they said, “I need to get you to talk to so-and-so and so-and-so, because this is big.”
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Randy: Through our early growth, we kept entering and leaving these expansionary and contractionary phases. You have this core idea, but as you’re trying to solve the problem, you’re coming up with three, five, 10 different possible solutions that could all be applicable. So, the expansionary period would be always where we would go to our mentors, to the incubator, to our peers. I think we must have gone through twenty of these different phases, and we could not have done that without the mentors and peers that we had, especially here at Lemnos. They were instrumental in giving us exactly the resources we needed to work through that.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Josh: I knew Jeremy Conrad, one of the founding partners here, both from college and then the Air Force. When I was looking to make the transition to startup life, I immediately went to him. We started to “proto-entrepreneur,” where I wanted to start a company, I had a vague idea, I didn’t have founders, but I could come in, have a desk space, and get some mentorship. A lot of really good things came of that—advice, things we learned, and connections we made around different sensor types and different processor architectures, as well as introductions to Heptagon and Qualcomm. That made participating with Lemnos a slam-dunk.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Randy: When I came into hardware, the tools felt and looked a little different, and I was wondering if I was going down the wrong path by thinking that the same things that applied in Web 2.0 would also apply here. But we’re using the same toolchains, we’re using Ansible, and we’re using Python when possible. ROS (Robot Operating System) allows us an amazing level of abstraction, separated from the parts requiring Python so that we can iterate as quickly as possible.
Josh: From a process standpoint and more from the business standpoint, Quip is fantastically useful. When we were doing this research phase, we were very meticulous about the notes that we took, because we would find ourselves six months later trying to remember a quote from someone and we couldn’t even remember their name. So Quip proved to be useful.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Josh: The most surprising thing for me has been the fact that this idea of swarm robotics and getting multiple robots to coordinate on tasks has been around for as long as it has, but how little of it actually exists out in the real world. We’ve got some stuff going on in defense, a few people nibbling around the edges, some pretty light shows, but that’s kind of it. It keeps surprising me, particularly given the business advantages for us and the engineering advantages around not having to build one robot that does everything. We can use lots of simple robots. We can buy other people’s robots and integrate them into this other system. And then from the customer perspective, the real benefit is around speed. Ten robots will always be faster than one robot, and when something needs to be done quickly, this is an obvious idea.
Randy: I think it’s this mismatch of a lot of mechanical engineering talent centered around NASA, centered around the Houston area, and then a lot of self-driving car talent located out here in the Bay area, and nobody’s crossed that divide yet.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Randy: So going back to the Web 2.0 again, the testing iteration cycle. I used to complain and think it was a really hard thing when I had eighteen different models of Android phones laid out on a desk, all plugged into our continuous integration testing suite. But now we’re looking at like, “How do I, in San Francisco, find the real estate to host a 20-foot diameter by 20-foot tall carbon steel tank to actually test our drones with it?” And that’s like the smallest that we could envision because some of the ones that we’re going to work in in the real world are the size of a football field. So by far, the hardest thing is that testing iteration cycle where we have to plan trips to Houston or to the North Bay just to take our systems into the field.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Josh: Your burn rate is never going to be lower than it is now. You will never have more time than you have right now. I know when you close your first little bit of seed funding and you’re really excited and everything behind you is saying, “Accelerate. Hire the team. Let’s burn this money. Let’s go!” That’s the perfect moment to hit pause, even if it’s just a week, to just confirm your plans, ask the customer questions. Because after that, you’ve got people, you’ve got momentum, you’ve got burn, and you’ve got a timeline.
Randy: And leverage your alumni networks. When asking customers, we had a 60 percent response rate because we reached out to eighty-plus people from the MIT alumni network, and they were incredibly receptive to taking conversations with us.
- What book are you currently reading/ what are you doing to unwind from work?
Josh: Meditation is pretty important to me. I know that I can come home and my mind will be running a thousand miles an hour from all the different things that happened that day. Taking fifteen to thirty minutes to sit there quietly, focus on my breathing, and just shut all of that off is really healthy.
Randy: Honestly, it’s running. Not even that far, just a little bit every day. Clears my head out.
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