This Company Built a New Kind of Robot: 'It Moves the Way People Move' Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, Inc. discusses his company's path to innovation.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
Hi, I am Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, Inc. We're a Boston-based robotics company with the mission to build technology products that move the way people move. We build robots for real-world pedestrian environments where our machines navigate with and around people safely and intelligently with what we call "pedestrian etiquette". We developed two robots with different sizes and payloads, Gitamini and Gitaplus, for the consumer market.
Our robots are designed to follow individuals and families in communities throughout the United States. Common to almost all our customers are neighborhoods where daily errands related to shopping, education, sports, entertainment, and leisure are all within walking distance on modern sidewalks, but instead of by foot, these trips are being taken by private car or ride-hailing. Our technology replaces the need for car and truck trips with robots that detect, predict and follow people outdoors and indoors for a more efficient and healthier lifestyle. Our robots even detect and navigate through doors that people open and hold for them and then automatically reconnect and continue to follow as you walk through the door after them.
Recently we have moved into business uses and sales with a focus on hospitality, retail, and building construction markets where goods are being moved frequently. Our technology augments workers, allowing them to be more efficient, safer and healthier by making fewer trips, carrying less, and staying focused on the work to be done rather than pushing and pulling materials around the job.
What inspired you to create this business?
Our "ah ha" moment came from decisions of what we would not do: we would not design a driverless scooter and we would not design an autonomous delivery robot. Understanding the attributes that we didn't want in our design allowed us the freedom to create a product that aligned perfectly with our objective: human autonomy with the help of robots.
We looked at navigation and self-driving and tried to identify the core knowledge we would need for robots that carry things where people work and live. We determined that people do not occupy places with the regulation and simplicity of roadways, warehouses or factories. Driving from point-to-point avoiding obstacles was not our first initiative. Instead, we started with building a library of algorithms of human movement and operating our robots by understanding how to detect and interact with people and also how to map and classify the built environment without the need for the creation and maintenance of detailed maps like those used in factories and roadways for self-driving cars.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
Our biggest challenge is producing an intuitive easy-to-use device that doesn't require any previous knowledge of robots or training. We build very sophisticated technology that operates behind the scenes but want its user interaction to be simple to operate and intuitive to understand both by users and by bystanders
We ship our machines to consumers and businesses and our robots can operate out of the box within 20 minutes using a one-page quick start guide. We do not need expensive or complicated integration efforts and we do not have remote control operators in N.O.C. centers.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs about pitching?
Explain how your product and technology can bring value immediately and how it will impact the quality of work being done or of consumer lifestyle. We combine a strategy on ROI combined with a broad view of a qualitative improvement of work and lifestyle through technology. We do not focus on replacing workers 100% whether it is replacing delivery drivers from the store to a home or the housekeeping worker in a hotel. Instead, we augment people to make an enjoyable outdoor trip to the farmer's market and we preposition carts for the hotel cleaning team and follow them when needed so they can focus on what they are good at without worrying about pushing goods around. Whenever we are talking to a customer we are listening to their needs and finding ways to improve efficiency and quality of work. We are very focused on the human experience and making sure technology is improving rather than diminishing or eliminating the value of humanity. We are looking at robots' potential benefits rather than their potential for disruption.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
We are an entrepreneurial company because we are inventing technology that we are applying in the real world today. Our innovation is focused on market readiness in a world that doesn't have to change for us to deploy. An entrepreneur needs to identity opportunities, often created by technological innovation, and bring them to market in the real world as fast as possible. We are currently all alone without any competitors when it comes to creating technology that interacts with people on human terms and not inside a cage. There are other sidewalk and warehouse robots, but they treat people as obstacles, very special obstacles, but obstacles nonetheless. We have observed, analyzed and defined how people move, how two people go through a door together, how people cross paths, when a person indicates they will turn a corner, even how people form and lead a convoy of things single file through obstacle. We are developing algorithms for pedestrian etiquette, so machines are acceptable and performing successfully in dense pedestrian environments. Nobody else is learning and designing what we are doing. We have signs of some competition from companies that are trying to optimize productivity in warehouses and are beginning to understand how important it is to interact with people and the dynamism of human environments but nothing that can accompany a person for 20 miles in the real world right out of the box.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
We founded the company with a market focus on sidewalk mobility at a time when scooter sharing and food delivery were growing. We operated for almost two years without a mission statement. We assembled the entire team including our Advisors and Directors and worked to define our core competency and our mission. With very little conflict or effort, there were more than 60 people all agreeing that we were together to invent a new kind of robot, one that moves the way people move. This clarified so much. We were not building a miniature self-driving truck for the sidewalks. We were not building electric vehicles for passengers to drive. We were building robots that moved the way people moved so we can augment their activities in real-world everyday environments. It is our mission statement that is my personal motivation and it inspires me every day.