Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, the show that champions Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Our topics today: robotics, and our second topic is moving your technology company from San Francisco to Houston, Texas. My guest, Wilson Pulling, Founder and CEO of Aatonomy. Wilson, welcome to the show.
Wilson: Thanks, Russ. Pleasure to be here.
Russ: You bet, and welcome to Houston.
Wilson: Ah, very much appreciative.
Russ: All right. But first, tell us about Aatonomy.
Wilson: Aatonomy software enables computer vision and machine learning capabilities in legacy hardware products. Making those products smarter and able to do things by themselves. For example, drones powered by Aatonomy will be sold coast to coast and Canada this holiday season.
Russ: Does that mean you’re manufacturing actual drones?
Wilson: No. Very important point, we do no touch hardware. Kind of the entire point of our product is that you don’t have to change your hardware to use our technology. We build software, it works with the existing product you’ve already built, it just makes it smarter and able to do things that it wasn’t able to do before.
Russ: Ok, so if I have a DJI drone, I have a little camera on it, I can load your software into it and do smart things with it?
Wilson: You could but you wouldn’t because DJI already makes very smart drones. However, if you make a hundred-dollar drone, that’s a whole different class than DJI. We can make a hundred-dollar drone do things that right now only DJI drones can do at a fifth, a tenth of the price.
Russ: We’re talking about, apparently, using the camera to see, and machine learning to do things such as…
Wilson: Such as know where the person is in the frame and make sure they’re always in the picture. Follow that person around autonomously while they move around and keep filming them. Take selfies intelligently. Do orbits around a person all without any GPS, without changing the hardware on your drone, anything like that.
Russ: Ok, but you’re having do to something to tell them, yeah, I want to make orbits instead of just following them around.
Wilson: You tap the phone screen and then it goes. So, you tell it what you want to follow, be it you or me or your dog, and then the drone just starts flying by itself. Whereas, before our technology was in there it was just a remote-control toy like an RC car that can fly; fun, but that’s it.
Russ: I have a little experience with drones. Not a lot, but I know that using the satellites to actually control one outdoors is one thing, flying them indoors is a completely different thing. Does your software work in both those environments?
Wilson: It does. This is one of the great things and one of the reasons that companies want to work with us is because we specifically don’t need a GPS chip onboard the drone to accomplish this. The alternative for something like follow me is, typically, there’s a GPS chip in your drone, a GPS chip in your phone, and then the drone plays tag with your phone. Wherever the phone moves, the drone moves, typically at a very high altitude and looking straight down. It’s not a great shot, it’s not very shareable, it’s not a family memory, right? So, with our technology, you don’t need the GPS satellite coverage, it works inside, it knows where you are in the screen, it makes sure you’re always in the frame, and it can fly a lot lower and keep you in the picture. You get a real cinematic shot.
Russ: Don’t the OEMs want to work with you?
Wilson: They’re willing to work with us but they’re actually not our customers. Our customers are the wholesalers that buy from the OEMs, wrap a brand around the product, and then resell to a big box retailer like Walmart or Best Buy. The reason we like to work with those wholesalers is because they actually control the customer experience. They see the value in what we’re doing as a value add to their end user
Russ: I know from talking to you previously, that drones aren’t your only hardware target that you’re looking at. Share the big picture.
Wilson: My co-founder and I met at Cornell. We were getting our master’s in computer science. We spun our thesis out into this company and Cornell actually made an equity investment to help us do that. When we were in academia, what we were building was more of a platform. It was a technology that would allow you to control any kind of robot with any kind of autonomous algorithm. Neat, worked, very cool. Spin out the company. No one wants to buy your broad platform. You have to solve really specific problems for really specific customers if you want to make any actual money. We nailed down the use case that we thought was the most beneficial that, for us, is our foot in the door to a much broader market that includes home security cameras, that includes a home cleaning robot, that includes—I mean, ultimately, we want to be powering every robot in the world.
Russ: Now, I understand you must have intellectual property in this application. Are there others close to you?
Wilson: Sure. So, we do have two patents pending that protect our core technology, kind of this platformitization of robotic capabilities. Are there other people close to us? Algorithmically, sure. I mean, here’s the thing about robotics, and this is what I think people have started to realize in the investment community and also in the startup community it’s been a little slower, but there’s two main problems in robotics. The first is that hardware gets commoditized immediately. So, you can’t build a competitive advantage on hardware. For a long time, it was software—our algorithm is the best in the world, cutting edge, bleeding edge, our team is the best in the world at doing this thing, just like the other ten teams that are doing this were the best in the world at this. I would say you’ve got about eighteen months of best in the world for your fancy new AI, or machine learning, or computer vision or whatever buzzword you want to use, code.
It’s just gotten to the point where the advancements are being made too quickly for you to build a sustainable competitive advantage just based on your code base. We’re building the company a little bit differently. At the end of the day we built this first functionality. We built it to address this first target market. We don’t want to continue to be building all the functionalities. It’s not feasible for any one company, even a Google scale company, to solve every robotics problem in every industry. Because a lot of industries have problems that robotics and computer vision and machine learning can help solve that aren’t sexy. Vacuums aren’t sexy. So, we want to be, eventually, the platform where a legacy company that already is really good at building their hardware doesn’t have to hire a machine learning team. They don’t have to worry about that kind of functionality. They do what they are best at, which is make the physical product, make good vacuums, and then they can drag and drop functionality from a marketplace that is autonomy into those products easily and quickly.
Russ: But take us back to the very beginning. How did the company come together? How did you and your partner come together?
Wilson: Sure. So, like I said, we started out while we were getting our master’s at Cornell. Cornell’s New York City campus, actually, Cornell Tech, which is an amazing program. Part of your work in your master’s is your thesis. I went into Cornell kind of knowing that, I mean, it’s a software program, computer science, I was interested in applying computer science to hardware, robotics specifically. I have a mechanical engineering background from the University of Pennsylvania, I have a ton of friends that work in every different part of the robotics community that you can work in, and I knew that’s where I wanted to go, but I also knew that I didn’t have the hard skill of software to be relevant in that community yet. That’s why I went back to school. I got there and I immediately started recruiting for people that were open to doing not purely software things, which is relatively rare in a computer science program. Yang was the earliest and most enthusiastic supporter and member of our team to work on this kind of, what at the time was a very broad robotics problem that really came out of my friend’s experience in the field.
Russ: His name is Yang?
Wilson: Yang. Yang Hu.
Russ: Ok, and he is from China?
Wilson: He’s from China. He grew up in Shanghai, he went to Tsinghua University.
Russ: Which is significant, right?
Wilson: I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know when we met or even by the time we graduated how significant that was, because it’s not fair to call it the MIT of China, or like the best technical school in China, because so few people as a percentage of the population can go there. The bar is—as high as we think of the bar, for a place like Cornell or UPenn or MIT, the bar is so much higher there. It’s indescribable. And so, when we’re in China working with customers and they hear that he went to Tsinghua, the response is embarrassing. It’s just, and I tell him, you do not get used to this, this is extreme, I understand they think you’re amazing and you are, but don’t let it go to your head. The response is incredible. He opens more doors for us just by virtue of having gone to Tsinghua than I could ever open with my, now I have three Ivy League degrees—it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all to these guys.
Russ: Very impressive. Impressive company. Back to topic number two; you and Yang both decided to leave San Francisco and move to Houston, Texas. Describe that.
Wilson: That was an amazing decision. The decision came in two parts. One was leaving San Francisco, and two was moving to Houston. We knew we wanted to leave San Francisco. For all the resources and the community there, the density of investors, of other startups, I mean, we benefitted from that. We went through the Alchemist Accelerator. Our company probably wouldn’t exist today without them. It’s an incredible program for B2B companies, I could not advocate it more. We raised our pre-seed round in San Francisco. The density of investors there certainly helped us, like no question. I couldn’t do fifteen meetings a week with investors except for there. And so, we got those incredible benefits and then we escaped. Because long term running the company in San Francisco, I mean, the real estate costs alone are so expensive. For contacts, for the price of three WeWork Hot Desks. Remember, that’s desks you cannot leave a folder at overnight because you might not have the same seat tomorrow, just three of those seats. We have an 800-square-foot office that’s just ours now. And that’s just important. We fly drones, we have to test robots. We need some space.
Russ: You have 800-square-feet here compared to three desks.
Wilson: And three desks that you can’t sit at every day, right? And that’s, the cost aspect is incredibly different. And then there’s a quality of life consideration, which is tied into the cost. Being here, you can actually live comfortably. You don’t have to live with ten other people. You don’t have to eat poorly. You don’t have to make sacrifices to be at a startup company. With even a little bit of funding you can actually live a good life. Quality of life is historically incredibly undervalued for startup founders but it’s also incredibly important, not only physically but mentally. It really has a big impact on your ability to execute when you’re not constantly stressed out. It’s not ridiculous to hear about startup founders that live in these giant houses together. There’s no privacy, and it’s just part of the startup ethos, the myth of the founder is like what it takes. That’s ridiculous. You should not have to live that way, that’s not how you foster innovation. At the same time, you have Houston, it’s the fourth biggest city in the country, right? Rice is one of the best engineering universities in the country. UT Austin right down the road is one of the best engineering universities in the country.
You’ve already got a talent base here because of the very mature and well-developed oil and gas, aerospace, and healthcare industries. There aren’t a ton of startups yet—double edged sword. The positive aspect of that, you are a very sexy alternative to working in a traditional oil and gas company. There’s plenty of talent here. People say, well they’re all working in oil and gas. I say, yeah, but don’t you think there’s enough people that would be interested in a new opportunity like something exciting and meaningful, and also, we can pay a living wage. Here, we don’t have to ask people to make sacrifices to work with us. We don’t have to say, I’m going to need you to take a big risk and make a choice. It’s just another option that’s a viable option because we can pay you enough to still live comfortably and support a family. The difference there, I mean, that’s incredible. We don’t just have to hire interns fresh out of college that don’t need to be paid. You can get real talent at—half price might be an exaggeration, but not much.
Russ: Wilson, welcome to Houston.
Wilson: Thank you so much. I can’t say how much of a pleasure it is to be here.
Russ: Good. Before I let you go, what’s the web address?
Wilson: www.aatonomy.com. That’s Aatonomy with two AAs so we come up first on lists.
Russ: Ok, there you go. And that wraps up my discussion with Wilson Pulling, the Founder and CEO of Aatonomy. And this is HXTV.
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