What Happens When this Robotics Startup Puts Lives First


Olis Robotics Executive Spotlight Story Preview Video

How prioritizing human safety drives this robotics startup.

Robotics technology has been fictionalized in writing and movies since the late 1800s and George Devol invented the first robot in 1954. Since then, robotics has come a long way and helped automate many aspects of not only industrial manufacturing, but of remote, mobile and field operations. Today, robotics technology has become much more sophisticated and, in the process, taken on increasingly valuable and complex work.

Disrupting robotics

Olis Robotics (Olis) is a company that is redefining the mobile robotics industry using software. Historically, applications for field and mobile robotics have been vastly limited due to poor 2D visuals and outdated controllers that make precision control impossible. Olis is changing all that with software and enhanced controllers that make precision control, even at great distances (think thousands of meters under the sea or millions of miles into space), possible. They build software that uses sensor data, machine learning and algorithms to make robots smarter. Most importantly, Olis’ enhanced mobile robotics control systems mean high-risk situations can now be handled by robots instead of humans.

Olis Robotics

Don Pickering CEO Olis Robotics
Don Pickering, CEO, Olis Robotics

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Don Pickering, the CEO of Olis Robotics (Olis). They are using robotics to take humans out of harms way. They are making field-deployed robots smarter, more maneuverable and easier to control everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to outer space. He shared several lessons he has learned, not only in growing Olis Robotics, but throughout his career.

Lesson 1 – Be patient

When you are focused on building a startup, it is natural to be excited about what you are doing. Being patient is important though. Creating technology that is a big leap from the way something has always been done poses a challenge in getting people to look at things the way you see them, and at the same time, digging in and getting really clear on the problems you are solving.

Pioneering the Future

“Early on, you need to stay focused on staying lean until you get that right product, market fit. Plus, you need to be able to make that product, market fit demonstrable to the customers you serve,” explains Pickering. “Instead of spending a bunch of investor money to figure out what you’re doing, it’s better to stay lean and figure that out before taking on investors. The most successful pioneering companies consistently find the patience to develop a clear go-to-market strategy first,” says Pickering.

Lesson 2 – Build clear value

It is important to build technology and solutions that have measurable impact. Yet, it can be hard for people to initially appreciate the value. That makes getting the necessary investment to develop new technologies challenging. It is possible with the right approach. Olis has focused on how its technology removes people from dangerous environments, letting robots do the dirty work.

Olis Robotics Offshore ROV
Offshore ROV controlled by Olis Robotics software and controllers.

Confidence matters

“As an early stage CEO, it is really important to crystalize the value your solution delivers. Having the confidence in yourself in the face of cynics is critical early on,” emphasizes Pickering. “As the tech goes from concept to implementation the momentum becomes palpable. As we have aligned ourselves with positive human-focused impact, it has fostered success,” says Pickering.

Lesson 3 – Put less emphasis on financial return

It may sound counterintuitive but putting less emphasis on financial return can result in better financial returns. Impact makers are the companies that thrive and grow faster than similar startups. The impact of focusing on making the world a better place can’t be understated. 

Making an Impact

“Here’s the thing, the impact and positive things we can do with technology is what really matters. Out of positive impact, the financial benefits follow,” says Pickering. “This company came out of an intention to build technology that can be used to make an impact. We are looking at how the technology can be used to make a cleaner environment, improve worker safety, and ultimately, we have a toolset and technology that can do that in so many ways. It’s been central to our success,” shares Pickering.

Lesson 4 – A brush with mortality changes everything

It’s ironic how facing death can change your perspective. Whether it is facing the death of a loved one, or your own mortality, it can have a significant impact on your view of the world and what really matters in life and business.

What really matters

“For me, it took having cancer to figure out what really matters. I got cancer at 35, and that brush with my mortality had me rethinking my priorities,” says Pickering. “From there on out, I decided I would choose what I wanted to work on based on the impact that work would have in the world. What was initially a financial sacrifice turned out to be the best decision I have ever made,” reflects Pickering.

Olis Olympus Early Prototype
Olis Olympus Early Prototype

Saving lives

“We are working on applications of our technology that will save lives. In a lot of industries where you may not think you would be able to have an impact; we are making an impact. For example, we have helped in repairing and refueling in-orbit satellites, thereby extending the life of these expensive spacecraft. We are also working on several exciting projects including an ocean-based explosive remnants clean-up project that would mean divers will no longer need to take on this dangerous work and a program to dismantle nuclear sites without human intervention. The applications are broad, and they will keep people out of these dangerous environments,” shares Pickering.

Lesson 5 – Genius pairings

Building a high-performance team cannot be over emphasized as a major success factor for startups that thrive. It’s easier said than done though. Getting a diverse set of people with varied backgrounds all working together and toward the same goals is challenging. There are many theories and tried and true approaches business leaders pontificate about, but Pickering has what is perhaps a unique approach.

High-performance values

“Building high performing teams takes instilling value and culture. One of the things I’m most proud of is our team of extraordinarily smart people that are all pulling in the same direction. Everyone contributes and appreciates the contributions of others on the team,” says Pickering.

Techie teaming that works

“On the technology side, I have learned to pair genius CTOs that are creative with seasoned engineers and architecture developers that have the technical and analytical wherewithal to execute. There’s a magic that happens with a pairing like this. Plus, having strong foundational leadership draws the best extended team. Ultimately, this motivates people to stay here. People want to see the fruits of their labor and they want to make a difference. When all these things come together, it is amazing to see what even a very small team can accomplish,” asserts Pickering.

Olis Master Controller in control room
Olis Master Controller in control room.

Lesson 6 – Nothing beats field testing with real users

Getting any disruptive solution to market can be challenging. Redefining the robotics industry as part of a startup, is an entirely different task altogether. Leveraging partnerships, guidance from those that have done it successfully before and getting invaluable insights directly from users can make all the difference in the world.

Field Trials

“Get customers and partners involved in testing. You can’t do too much infield testing. We have customers become part of the collaboration. We work with them to do real world trials. The best thing we can do is have our customers take our technology and use it in an offshore environment for example. This leads to early wins where we can demonstrate, in context, that they understand how our technology can help,” says Pickering.

Lesson 7 – Find investors that understand your domain

Investors – You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. Face it, investors tend to be impatient to see their investment pay off. Many are unicorn hunters. Figuring out how to get investors to be patient is another challenge many startups face.

Gaining support

“It’s what you communicate going in. We have had good support. We are not your standard Silicon Valley web application company. The best thing we can do is find investors that understand our domain,” says Pickering. “Ultimately, investors want to understand what they are investing in. We focus on venture capital leaders that are accustomed to investing in this industry or similar industries. Their insider knowledge is not only an asset, but they have a better understanding of the challenges we are facing,” explains Pickering.

Olis Robotics Infographic

Lesson 8 – Discover your true value

Self-awareness is a valuable skill. For most people, getting to a place where you truly understand not only where your strengths and weaknesses lie, but finding that central value you provide can take time and introspection. At other times, it can simply take experiencing hardship.

Creating value

“In 2008, I owned three companies. I had to close one of those businesses. The hardships of 2008 forced me to dig deep and rediscover what my real value was. To be hungry again was valuable. I realized that what I love to do is roll up my sleeves and build companies and teams,” reflects Pickering. “I enjoy building companies, solving big challenges and building teams. I make a better jockey than a person that bets on horses,” quips Pickering.

THE FUTURE – Broader Applicability

Olis has come a long way since its founding in 2013 as a spin-out from the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. There’s a lot more to do though. The company is looking at what they can do with its advanced robotics solutions on land for example.

Cleanup, data centers, deep oceans…

There’s a chemical company that will use robots to perform cleanup and to repair equipment instead of having people put on hazmat suits. There’s also applicability for data centers. Robotics can be used to take care of software updates, hard resets and cable swaps. Plus, there are additional sub-sea applications, after all, you can’t have people 3,000 feet deep. There are also mining applications. The future of robotics looks bright for Olis.

“People are put at risk every day in work that robots could and should be doing.”

Don Pickering, CEO, Olis Robotics

LET’S REVIEW THE STARTUP GROWTH LESSONS DON SHARED WITH US.

  1. Be patient
  2. Build clear value
  3. Put less focus on financial return
  4. A brush with mortality changes everything
  5. Genius pairings
  6. Nothing beats field testing with real users
  7. Find investors that understand your domain
  8. Discover your true value

Learn more about Olis Robotics at www.olisrobotics.com.

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