One thing that all emerging companies need? A great tagline. See “brains for botsTM”, and automatically think Neurala, a Boston-based company at the forefront of developing brain-mimicking software for cost-effective, efficient, and more intelligent robots. A recent interview with Neurala’s CEO Massmilano Versace sheds light on the company’s roots, progress, and vision for the future.
Neurala got its start in 2006, after Versace and fellow PhD students, who were pursuing computational neuroscience at Boston University, enrolled in a business course “for fun” and later realized that neuronal-based technology had profound commercial implications. These experiences fed the seed of an idea that sprouted into Neurala. The organization’s first project was in collaboration with another BU colleague, who was working on developing a sniper-detecting robot for the U.S. Army. After the first few years of taking a more consultory approach, Neurala decided to build a software business in 2011.
Neurala was one of the first companies involved in simulating neurons; in simplified form, its software works by using multiple sensors that process information simultaneously and then makes informed decisions. But seven years ago, the technology supporting the backbone of Neurala was still in its infancy. Major barriers included cost and efficiency of processing power and graphic processing units, as well as costs of robots for commercial distribution. Now, cost and portability of the first two are a non-issue, and the price of robots has decreased dramatically – you can buy one off the shelf of Brookstone for a few hundred bucks, which would have set you back three times that amount when Neurala first opened its doors seven years ago.
As a start-up team, Neurala’s common goal is passion; put simply by Versace, ‘we love artificial brains’. As a cohesive team, they see the technology behind “robot brains” as a major stepping-stone in how society will change. Versace prompts us to leave our present reality for a moment, to close our eyes and envision the future in 15 to 20 years. Stereotyped visions of R2D2-like bots set aside, Versace sees a more pragmatic world, one that is run off of increasingly autonomous machines – think of appliances, cell phones, the technology we use all the time in our daily lives. The promotion of self-driving cars, for example, is on the cusp of the market, with Google as a leading developer, and all of the technology – the sensors, navigation systems – are being sourced from the robotics industry. The commercial industry – not just in consumer products but also space, the military, medicine, and many others – will benefit greatly from not having to “reproduce the wheel” so-to-speak, with the ability to build upon the shoulders of the scientists creating streamlined, intelligent, workable parts.
This is where Neurala is making a dent, in developing software that can be used in the design of different types of robots. The Neurala Intelligence Engine models how neurons interact in a brain, and then mimics this behavior in software encased in robotic hardware. The result is robots that are able to learn and adapt in a real-time environment. Another focus is on remote-presence robots; as Versace terms the image, basically “Skype on wheels”. This technology would allow relatives from across the globe, for example, to more actively and flexibly visit and communicate with loved ones by remotely “moving around with them” in their relatives’ physical environment.
As Versace explains, all robots have similar basic needs – to map their environment, recognize faces/locations, and follow commands. Neurala’s software for telepresence is an app that directs the robot to find places, to build a map of its environment and learn from obstacles, to find and remember locations. Cloud-enabled add-ons include identifying and remembering faces or objects; obeying commands to follow a particular person; controlling multiple robots from multiple locations from a single user interface; combining and distributing knowledge across robots; and linking to social media databases.
Building this technology really starts to shift the game of robotic application. “If I have a fleet of robots…that can all do tasks on my command while I…do other things…this has huge applications in so many sectors”. Versace specifies just a few of the many. In agriculture, farmers would have the ability to substitute expensive flights with inexpensive machines that can fly and distribute fertilizers or other substances on command. Within the commercial industry, storefront robots could be made available to assist buyers in purchasing specific items. Surveillance is another arena in which this type of technology could clearly be leveraged. Other present and near-future implications of the telepresence-robotic industry are outlined in a March 2013 article in the Economist.
Neurala has made significant progress over the past year in connecting with a growing customer base. In 2012, it won a contract with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to develop software for planetary exploration robots, such as Mars’ Curiosity rover. In February 2013, Neurala was also announced as one of 14 companies in the Spring 2013 Boston cohort of TechStars, a top start-up accelerator with seven locations worldwide. Though Versace admits he can’t give away too much information on upcoming projects, he advises to be on the lookout for the company’s rollout of its first robot controller by the end of October 2013. Neurala’s software will also be deployed in commercially-available products by the end of the year, including with robot companies Anybots; RevolveRobotics; and MantaroBot.
Versace bears very important advice for start-ups, calling it a “fit experiment” – talk with customers to whom you believe you’ll be selling a product as quickly as possible, and build an understanding of their needs and how those can be served by your vision; this interaction and feedback ultimately shapes the development of your technology and your products. “Looking at your grandiose technology road map, what is the lowest hanging fruit that you can actually take out of the tree and provide to the customer right away”, remarks Versace.
First steps are instrumental in guiding the sequencing of a company’s technology development. Successful companies are often built by focusing on smaller pieces so that they can provide solutions quicker, before developing an array of products for which there is not necessarily a lucrative market. Versace’s advice is echoed in Reason 5 of Author David Skok’s article on “Why Startups Fail” in ForEntrepreneurs, along with 4 other compelling reasons. This notion is especially important for companies who do not have the luxury of billions of dollars in funds, such as BRAIN Initiative or other government-driven projects. The idea is certainly not new, but strategically translating it into real life does take planning and foresight, still very much the domain of passionate, forward-thinking and intelligent human beings.