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Listen Now: Carbon Origins CEO Amogha Srirangarajan on Midwest Robot Kindness

Amogha Srirangarajan, CEO of Carbon Origins, knows firsthand the cruelty we bone-and-blood humans can show our metal-and-silicon robot friends. That’s part of the reason why he was so thrilled so see Midwesterners show the company’s delivery robot, Skippy, so much kindness. In this clip from The Podcast episode “There’s a Robot Knocking at Your Door With Amogha Srirangarajan of Carbon Origins,” Amogha chats about the Techstars program, why his company’s HQ is in Minnesota, and the two biggest challenges of making robots commonplace.

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Amogha Srirangarajan  00:00

We realize that in order to make robots commonplace, we have to solve two of the biggest challenges in robotics today. Urban autonomy, which means that robots have to navigate these unstructured, dynamic complex environments like sidewalks, within buildings, or on people. Robots are not good at doing that today. And on the other side, you have human robot interaction. So, if robots are going to be everywhere, they have to communicate effectively with people. Those are two sides of the same coin. You have to strike both of those for that point to be valuable, so to speak. And with Skippy focused on last mile deliveries, specifically serving local restaurants and local communities, we get both. The robot has to navigate in these complex unstructured environments, has to interact with people constantly at the restaurant level, at the pedestrian level, at the consumer level…

So, what we have developed at Carbon Origins is a very unique way of training advanced neural networks and AI systems using human assistance. So, our remote drivers are coached and monitored by people from all around the world working from home wearing a VR headset. It’s effectively the world’s first reverse video game where you are in the video game as an avatar, and you’re seeing the world and hearing the environment through the robots sensors — the cameras and the microphones. It gives you incredible situational awareness and the robots are semi-autonomous, so Skippy can do most of his job autonomously. But sometimes he runs into issues. And humans are really creative at solving problems. Solving edge cases. So, people can take over at that point, and train Skippy on how to deal with that situation. And Skippy learns from his Skipsters. That’s what we call our remote drivers. Skipsters.

Casey Shultz  02:00

Let’s talk about your experience with the Techstars program. So, you were living in LA, and you created the Skippy prototype. What made you decide to apply for the Techstars program and actually move across the country to Minnesota?

Amogha Srirangarajan  02:18

Yeah, a couple reasons. So, originally, Skippy actually started as an autonomous electric scooter, which is a big problem. Electric scooters are a big problem in LA and Santa Monica, you know, they’re everywhere. They’re littering sidewalks and blocking driveways. So, we created an autonomous version of an electric scooter that you could call like you call cabs today on your phone that would come pick you up wherever you are, and you would ride it, and then once you dropped it off, it would find the nearest parking station or charging station and would go to it.

And then the pandemic hit, and nobody wanted to drive electric scooters. We’ve always been solving that problem of urban autonomy and human robot interaction. We were ordering a lot of groceries and takeout during the pandemic and, that is where we should be focusing on. That’s where we solve our big robotic challenges. And one of my co-founders, Jamie, signed up as a delivery driver on one of the apps. So, we would source the orders from the app, put it in the robot and do the delivery. So, we did hundreds of deliveries like that on our prototypes.

I’ve been following Techstars since my very first startup. It didn’t make sense to go through Techstars when we’re building rockets and launching rockets — there wasn’t an aerospace program back then — this was like 10 years ago. But it was always on my horizon. I’m a large consumer of tech and startup podcasts and blogs. And Techstars is a great resource. So, it was like obvious — we had to apply to Techstars. And there was the Farm to Fork program, which I really liked. And the folks running the farm before program, Brett Brohl, Steph [Rich], Jess [Stalbaum]… they’re incredible entrepreneurs. And I had listened to some of the work that they had done. I talked to other startup founders who had interacted with them and had gone through the accelerator. That was a perfect fit. It was like a match made in heaven. So, I applied. Got in. And didn’t look back.

[Techstars] was a perfect fit. It was like a match made in heaven. So, I applied. Got in. And didn’t look back. – Carbon Origins CEO Amogha Srirangarajan on Techstars

Casey Shultz  04:24

So, you recently completed the program because you did your demo day in October, correct? Did you know at that time that you were going to actually move the headquarters of the company to Minneapolis? What inspired you to stay here?

Amogha Srirangarajan  04:40

I think about a month in. We were fairly certain we were going to move the HQ here for a few reasons. So, we were doing test deliveries with Skippy in downtown St. Paul, and realized that people here in Minnesota are very pro-restaurant. They order a lot of food from local restaurants support the local restaurant community. That’s incredibly useful for this early stage that we’re in to incubate the product and give it all of the advantages you can think of to succeed. And when you’re innovating, and you’re building something new, you want to eliminate as much variables as possible. You want to reduce the noise. And you know, there’s a lot of focus around startups. This is a startup capital of the north, right? And we got a lot of support from the startup community. We got a lot of support from the investor community. And restaurants love Skippy. We are the first delivery robot in Minnesota, and we intend to be the largest delivery robot company on the planet one day, and we’re going to start it here.

And also, I started meeting a lot of manufacturers here in the Midwest. And there’s a really strong manufacturing focus in the Midwest, especially in the aluminum sector. There some of the world’s best aluminum fabricators on the planet here in Minnesota. Our robots are 100% aluminum. So, production, ecosystem, investment network, startup support network, the local government is so supportive…. I mean, it was a no brainer. So many factors.

Production, ecosystem, investment network, startup support network, the local government is so supportive…. I mean, it was a no brainer. So many factors. – Carbon Origins CEO Amogha Srirangarajan on moving the company’s HQ to Minnesota

Casey Shultz  06:22

So, you’ve had robots delivering groceries in LA. You’ve had robots delivering groceries in St. Paul. Who is nicer to robots?

Amogha Srirangarajan  06:33

You know, Skippy has a personality. You can talk to Skippy. He can tell you dad jokes. People love meeting Skippy and interacting with him. In the Midwest, we’ve noticed that people pay a lot more attention to Skippy and they interact with Skippy more. Which is great for us because it trains Skippy on how to interact with people better. He’s a people-first robot. Our neural networks have gained a lot more traction with respect to human robot interactions here in the Midwest.

In California, you see robots everywhere. It’s just another thing. It’s just noise in the ether. Here, people pay a lot of attention. People are very inclusive. There’s a noticeable difference. They’re supportive and if Skippy needs assistance, they assist him. They don’t ignore him. They talk nicely to him. They ask him if they can take photos. There are lots of people who take selfies with Skippy. We love it here.

Casey Shultz  07:40

I’m not surprised to hear that. I moved here from the Bay Area three years ago, and I lived there for around 10 years. And I will say, seeing a random robot on the street was just like… another robot, another robot company, another robot at the mall… and I think people were kind of mean to robots when I lived there. There was one robot delivery company that was talking about how people would take their poor robot and put it in a tree or put it in a corner so it couldn’t figure out how to navigate out. It’s much more novel here, right? We aren’t in in inundated with all these new innovations. So, it is really nice to hear that people are excited to see a Skippy on the road.

Amogha Srirangarajan  08:27

And data supports it too. We have done hundreds of deliveries at this point, and zero vandalism incidents, zero mishaps with people. We always get the best feedback when it delivers food. People are so excited, and they’re so supportive. If I had to put this in an engineer’s term, the signal to noise ratio in the Midwest is far better than anywhere else in the in the country.

Casey Shultz  08:56

You were mentioning that there are some autonomous features to Skippy, but then when Skippy gets in a pickle, there is a VR aspect where an actual person can come on and help Skippy navigate. Do you have any funny stories that you can share with us?

Amogha Srirangarajan  09:18

Yeah, robots are not that smart yet. Robots today are confined to structured environments, like a warehouse, or a manufacturing plant. Like, lines on the ground the robot can follow or very set paths. But Skippy is in a completely different environment. He’s in the real world. He’s in the human world. And it’s very dynamic and very complex. So, even simple things like a plastic bag on the on the ground. The AI system could classify that as a rock, and Skippy just stops. Then, the person needs to take over and override the system and say that’s not a hazard. They tag it as a plastic bag rather than a rock. And just the action of that doing that trains the neural network. Anytime in the future any other Skippy runs into a similar situation, it knows, “Okay, that’s a plastic bag. I can roll right over it.”

Audio transcripts may be lightly edited for clarity.

Alex Skjong
Alex oversees the content produced for BETA, Twin Cities Startup Week, and When he’s not writing or editing, there’s a good chance he’s enjoying a refreshing brew and explaining the merits of heavy metal (of which there are many).