December 21, 2020
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Imagine if you could engineer a better world. One in which energy technology is cheaper and cleaner. One in which manufacturing is timely and efficient. And one in which we encourage future generations to build the solutions of tomorrow. Some may call such a world idealistic. And to those people, Saul Griffith would likely say “Screw you.”
Griffith has distinguished himself as a revolutionary inventor since his time as a PhD student at MIT. His PhD thesis was among the first to apply real physics to the realm of artificial replication. Later the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, his achievements are many and much respected. Whether he is building kite turbines to generate clean energy, or manufacturing low-cost lenses for eyeglasses, Griffith brings not just a palpable passion to his endeavors, but a singular ability to assess the greatest problems of our time and create a solution.
And Saul is not letting up. His most recent undertaking— Otherlab — promises even more technological advancement and is already being credited with shaking up the budding arena of “soft robotics.” His other project is Howtoons, which is providing an exciting template for getting kids engaged in the world of science and technology.
Recently, Propel(x) had a chance to speak with Griffith about his latest endeavors, his approach to audacious innovation, and the advice he has for fellow upstarts who are out to use science to change the world.
Propel(x): Tell me about Otherlab and what makes you different?
Saul Griffith: Otherlab is destination-driven, meaning we do projects that make sense, and the projects then become the mission. We are interested in things in the energy space — unfucking the planet by making cheaper energy and better energy technologies. Then we are also interested in the industrial automation space, so better robots, better CNC machines, better ways to manufacture things.
Propel(x): How do you work with these technologies?
Saul Griffith: We are, in no sense, an incubator. All of the ideas, all of the intellectual property, is generated internally. Otherlab grows to accommodate the projects, and does whatever is necessary to make the projects exist. I think there’s false belief that if you have a nice office and you allow people to come and incubate there, that magically the space will create good ideas. I think that’s untrue and there’s no evidence for that. I think you have to have good ideas and then you do whatever is necessary to bring them into the world. That’s the big difference.
Propel(x) – I was lucky enough to visit Otherlab last fall and got to see many of the projects. I also got to test one of the exoskeletons – the one that envelopes the arm. Let’s use that project as an example of how Otherlab works. Talk me through how that project started.
Saul Griffith: Well, the story is pretty long. Actually, we were setting out to make the world’s cheapest solar energy. You want to track the sun because you get more sun per solar cell. But the expensive bit is the actuator–traditionally an electric motor and gearbox– or the hydraulic drive that tracks the sun. You need cheaper actuators that are a very high-torque density– which means basically they’re very strong, so that you can track the sun, but also reject the wind blow. We tried to get that project funded by the Department of Energy. We were rejected no less than five times with answers that sounded like, “This is such a good idea, and if it’s at all possible, somebody already would’ve done it.”
But physics never lies. We knew that the physics was very strong, and the idea was very strong. So we persisted. It turns out that what is going to make solar energy cheap and strong is the same thing that’s going to make robots cheap and strong. Then we actually got funded to build cheap strong robots through the Department of Defense, which helped us bootstrap our solar project along. And then all of a sudden, we were building the world’s best robots, and the world’s coolest solar energy system.
Then as soon as you build a very, very strong robot, roughly 24 hours after you’ve succeeded in doing that, you’re like, “Oh well. The only difference between an exoskeleton and a robot is one is a robot you ride on top of, and the other is one you ride inside of. But they’re still cool exoskeletons.” In each case, we were very strong on the actuator and material science and mechanical engineering side, but we really knew nothing about robotics. We got a fabulous engineer named Kevin Albert, who was previously at Boston Dynamics, to come and join the team. He runs the robotics project now. Leila Madrone worked in the solar tracking industry at two or three different solar tracking startups. She joined, and she runs our solar projects. She saw the strength of our actuators. She knew the industry. And then Tim Swift, who was previously at Ekso Bionics, realized that we going to build better exoskeletons than they were building at Ekso Bionics, so he came and joined us. He is running that project. We look for complementary skills that make it more. All the controls and engineering that Kevin has been doing is groundbreaking. The same with Tim and the same with Leila. They have all added their flavor and their special sauce to that Otherlab soup. There’s the complete misnomer that technology is just one big idea that changes the world. It’s hundreds of small ideas that build upon each other coming from a lot of people. And we nurture that environment.
Propel(x): So then how many projects do you currently have going at once?
Saul Griffith: I don’t wish to be quoted on that because my wife will complain if I tell the truth. The polite answer is six to ten. I have aspirations to work on dozens more things.
Propel(x): In terms of being mission-driven, what types of technologies are you looking to really move forward?
Saul Griffith: I wouldn’t say mission-driven. Mission-driven is like some horrible hackneyed phrase. We are destination-driven. We want to make energy technologies and make it possible to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, and I’ve been working in energy technologies for my whole career. That is the problem of our times. Despite conventional wisdom, I will continue to do that because they are fantastic markets. They are wonderful technologies to work on. It’s important and it’s interesting. And there’s plenty of engineers who are enormously engaged in working on that, because they also understand the importance of it. Same as robotics and things like medical exoskeletons. There are a lot of jobs that no human really wants to do, and I think robots should fill a lot of those roles. Exoskeletons are very important for an aging population all over the world, very important for a bunch of medical treatments – for spinal cord injuries, for stroke patients, for cerebral palsy, et cetera. It’s pretty easy to want to work on those things and to do the best job you can. Then we are very interested in the democratization of manufacturing; so steam machines and manufacturing robots that change the economics in good ways for manufacturing and inventing new products that are better.
Propel(x): Have you faced any specific fundraising challenges as you’ve been trying to get these groundbreaking innovations?
Saul Griffith: I am always sufficiently ambitious enough with what we want to do that it’s difficult to get funding. And traditional venture capitalists don’t like a pitch deck that has physics equations in it, in an argument that these physics equations tell you that technology is inevitable. That’s to their detriment.
What we have done is develop relationships with a few funding sources who really like working on the early end of technology and, honestly our best VC is non-diluting government funding. In Libertarian Silicon Valley they’d like to believe that they’ve invented everything, but it was non-diluting government funding that built the internet, built the autonomous car, invented most modern robotic surgery systems, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
We use a lot of that funding. And really Otherlab was born in 2009 at the very very bottom of the very very dark financial collapse. In our DNA is doing things smartly, and with limited resources
Propel(x): What tips you would give to other startup founders who are in the deep technology space, trying to tackle these bigger issues?
Saul Griffith: Be clever, be small as long as you can, be very ambitious and recognize where the actual sources of money are for these harder, longer-term technologies. You might have to work on government funding schedules. Yes, they’re not perfect, there’s problems, and there’s headaches. But starting a technology company too early with over-ambitious venture capitalists is only a recipe for misery for everyone.
Propel(x): I’m also interested in hearing about another venture of yours, which is Howtoons. Could you give me a little bit of background of how you came up with the idea and the mission behind Howtoons?
Saul Griffith: I have strange reading habits and I collect books from the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century on how to make stuff. We used to be much more ambitious with children and the tools that we would allow them to use, and projects that we would engage them with. I think that physical, hands-on education is far superior to the STEM education that we try to do using books. I believe that you can give me any physical object in the room, and any subject matter in science, and I can connect the two things with a physical project. With Howtoons, I met a wonderful illustrator called Nick Dragotta, and we started making these hands-on projects with science-like lessons in them. I also think we browbeat young kids with too much of the science. Just giving them an intuition and a passion is the best thing you can do. We try to make the stories adventurous and the kids mischievous and the things fun, and you learn on intuition, but you don’t necessarily learn the differential equations.
Propel(x): When Otherlab succeeds with all of these projects, tell me what the world’s going to look like and the impact that Otherlab is going to have?
Saul Griffith: We want to succeed with all of our projects, but we will succeed with enough. I believe we already have succeeded in a couple of ways that are significant. Really, you need a hundred people to change the energy economy by 1%, and we wish to be between one and ten of those hundred people. I think that’s realistic, given some of the things that we’re working on, and that’s very exciting. I enjoy that. Success on the robotic side for me, looks like enabling people to live in their homes further into their old age. Freeing up young families to not wash dishes and not pick up Legos off the floor because the house robot does it. I had my dark years stressed out about climate about a decade ago. I now don’t believe we have any room left for depression. You just have to be optimistic, and I think the world really could become beautiful. If we succeeded solving climate change, we’re going to basically live a much more pleasant garden than we live in now. And we’ve just got to remind all of the naysayers that the opportunity is awesome, and our cities are going to improve, our air quality is going to improve, everything could improve. You just got to do it. We want to be part of that change in a very important way. That really is the opportunity.