Ubiquity Founder Profile: Andrea Thomaz, Diligent Robotics
Learn about Diligent's autonomous hospital hallway robots and how Andrea refined product market-fit along the way to success.
Diligent Robotics is an A.I. company creating robots to assist healthcare professionals. Ubiquity first invested in Diligent Robotics’ 2019 seed round. In this interview, CEO and co-founder Andrea Thomaz talks about honing in on product-market fit and her decades-long obsession with human-robot interaction.
Can you sum up what Diligent Robotics does in one sentence?
Diligent Robotics builds robots for hospitals to take menial tasks, or point-to-point delivery tasks, off of the plates of clinicians so they can focus on patient care.
Tell us more about Diligent Robotics’ product.
Our product is Moxi, a teammate robot - a co-bot - that works side-by-side with people in hospitals. Moxi is hard at work in hospitals across the country.
The main thing that Moxi does 24/7 in all of the hospitals where we’re deployed is taking things from one place to another that would have been hand-carried by a person. You would be surprised how many people are carrying things, like medication, lab samples, lightweight equipment, and other kinds of supplies that are needed for patients. As they need something, they have to run across the hospital to get it, so what we’re able to do is help hospitals automate those hand-carried tasks.
What is the story behind the founding of Diligent Robotics, and how did you notice the need for healthcare robots?
My background is in robotics, not healthcare. I became a professor in 2008, so for about 10 years before starting the company I was a robotics professor working on human-robot interaction. I was really interested in this notion of robots that can work side-by-side with people and having robots that are not necessarily fully autonomous. They’re helping people get their jobs done, and people are helping the robot get its job done. This kind of symbiotic relationship is one that I think is really fruitful for a way to think about how robots can work in society, so that's a research area that I've been focused on for a really long time.
Fast-forward to 2015, I began thinking about starting a company with my then PhD student, Vivian Chu. We questioned, “Where is the right place to put these teammate robots?”. To explore, we first applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant to think about the market that would be good for robots. It was a six month project to think about commercialization, and out of that it became evident that healthcare was going to be a market that really needed help.
We spent about 150 hours following nurses and nursing assistants around three different hospitals in Austin trying to understand why they were “hunting and gathering” for things. They really needed automation. Hospitals are already pretty high-tech and have sophisticated staff in terms of usage of technologies, so it’s a great place to think about adding automation and robotics. There is also a huge workforce shortage; even before the pandemic, back in 2016 when we were speaking with hospital executives, one of the top things that they were talking about was the nursing shortage. Hospital executives want to keep nurses focused on patient care and not doing menial tasks.
So it all started with research and went from there; by the end of 2017 we were ready to make the leap and start a company. We pitched pre-seed investors and raised our first $2M to launch Diligent Robotics in January 2018.
What failed attempts did you and your team try before getting to the current solution?
We had a really iterative design approach to the product. Even in that early research, we thought that what hospitals were going to need the most out of a teammate robot was cleaning. We thought “hospitals obviously care about keeping everything really clean, so that's going to be the best thing for robots to do”, and then we went out and tried to validate that assumption. We had 30 meetings across two weeks with infection control directors and other kinds of hospital executives, and they weren't talking about having problems cleaning - they have that solved. But they were talking about these workforce shortages and nursing shortages, and that’s when we pivoted over to that being the value proposition that we wanted to focus on.
Then once we started the company and were focused on delivering things, it was really generic; we didn’t know what to focus on having the robots deliver. First we thought we were going to be doing a lot of picking items out of storage closets and bringing them to nurses at a patient’s bedside, so we did a lot of early prototypes of that in our office back in 2018 and even 2019. But when we actually got out into market with customers and would ask them what they wanted this robot to do, what was most valuable were these longer deliveries that were taking up a lot of the nurses’ time.
So that was our “aha!” moment. Once we got the robots into a hospital and started asking people “what do you need this robot to do for you?”, it wasn't necessarily the same things that we had imagined before we got there.
How do you know clients love your product?
We have a lot of different indications that clients are very happy. One is the number of times that we have current clients introducing us to new clients. We'll find that there are a lot of “stealth reference calls” where our hospital leaders will just be having conversations with their friends or people will reach out to them, and they’ll be doing our sales pitch for us without us even knowing. Eventually we’ll get an email saying, “I want you to meet my colleague from such-and-such health system. I was telling them about Moxi, and they really want to talk to you!” That’s one indication that we’ve seen over the last year or so is that our current clients are very enthusiastic about recommending us to their friends.
And then really tangibly, we were recently at the biggest nursing conference, ANCC National Magnet Conference 2022. There were 11,000 nurses and nurse leader attendees, and our booth was surrounded by people the entire time. A lot of it was our current clients coming over and bringing people and saying, “This is what I’ve been talking to you about!”. Moxi was definitely the belle of the ball.
When did you first get into this particular area of A.I. and building robots?
Really not until graduate school. I did electrical engineering as an undergrad, and I had a first job out of college at IBM where I was working on low-level stuff like chip design. I was learning how to write software really well for the first time, and I started to become fascinated with software and everything you could do with it. I learned C++ for the first time at IBM and I just loved it. I thought, “This is it! I'm not going to be an electrical engineer, I'm going to be a computer scientist and write code.”
I decided to go to graduate school, and I applied to MIT and got into the MIT Media Lab. I'd been reading a bunch of books around human-computer interaction, and I knew that some of the things that I was excited about with software were how you could think about computers and people interacting, how the software that you write could make that interaction better, and how artificial intelligence could make these interactions with computers even easier.
I was really coming at AI and machine learning - though people didn't really say “machine learning” back then - in order to facilitate better interactions with computers, and that was my focus at MIT. I was really focused on pattern recognition, signal processing, and machine learning (especially in multimodal interfaces). Then in my third year at MIT, I joined a robotics lab - the one I ended up getting my PhD in. Once I found robotics, I thought, “this is it!”. I had thought software was the best thing, but no. Software that actually moves around in the world? That’s the best thing. So, I found my life’s work.
Were you interested in robotics as a child? Do you recall any identity-forging moments?
My dad is a retired electrical engineer, but I would say he's a MacGyver-type. There was always a project or a thing around the house that we were taking apart or something in the car that didn't work, and he was making his own solution for it. I think this notion that “if you see a problem, you can just fix it yourself” was something that my brothers and I got from a very young age.
Both of my parents were also always super supportive of my extreme interest in puzzles, math, and science. I was a big puzzles kid, and my parents say I loved puzzles earlier than most kids. I was really, really obsessed with puzzles and still am. I think those are a few things that give a little bit of a sense that I was off into an engineering direction and had a lot of engineering, math, and science support at home.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something. What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
I play piano and have since I was in the first grade; I definitely geek out about it. I still play a lot - I took a little adulthood hiatus and then kind of got back into it during the pandemic.
Work-wise, I tell people that I think I’ve been obsessed with the same high-level technical goal of what we’re trying to get robots to do since I started my PhD work in 2002. I’m obsessed with ways that people can teach robots how to do things intuitively and easily, and make it such that I can just demonstrate something to a robot and the robot then knows what to do.
In some way, shape or form, that little thread has been true throughout everything I’ve done. I was actually talking to our engineering team the other day about a big milestone we went through; we were watching a video of what Moxi was doing in the lab and I brought up a video from something that was in my graduate student lab 20 years ago. I was almost embarrassed to say that I’ve been obsessed with this problem for 20 years - but look how far we’ve come! I’m still not bored with the problem; it’s fascinating to me.
What have you gotten out of your relationship with Ubiquity?
It was really great to have Sunil come into the company so early. He visited the office the other day and we were joking about some of the things that we thought were going to be true, like some of the sensors that we thought were going to be needed and how quickly we thought we were going to be able to solve X, Y, or Z. It's nice to have the trust of someone who really respects the process of research and understands that we don't know everything that we need to know; it's important for us to spend the time to figure it out quickly and then execute. That’s been something that's been true with Sunil and Ubiquity is the commitment to deep technology, hard problems, and not being scared of that.
At the time that Sunil invested in our company, I had at least 30 other investors that were just too scared of the technical challenges ahead of us. That’s one of the things that Sunil and I were kind of reminiscing about recently; there were so many people that didn't think we were going to get this far!
What keeps you going during tough times?
My team. I think we have really focused on building a fantastic team and a supportive culture, and being a place where everybody wants to work and a group of people that everybody is excited to work with. Even when there are hard things going on or tough times to get through, you really see people rally together because it's a great team.
What would you tell your past self if you could give them advice?
I would say to scope your product offering even sooner. We started having a lot more success when we stopped promising that we were going to be doing too much and started focusing on what we really knew we were going to be able to deliver successfully. I think we did that, but I would say do that even faster.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet taken the leap to launch their new company?
There is a myth, especially in academia, that a technical founder needs to find somebody with an MBA to be their partner. If you’re a student or a professor thinking of starting a company, you are pushed to team up with somebody from the B-school. I made that mistake actually, and it really wasn't a good thing. I brought in this person from the business school that had been suggested as “this is what you need”, and then that person became a boat anchor taking up space and not doing the business development work that we needed. They didn't have the passion about the product and the technology and how it should be taken to market.
I truly believe that the inventor of the technology in an early stage company is the best evangelist and business person to go out and be doing the business development and market creation. If you're not excited about doing that, then you should think twice about starting a company. You’re going to spend so much of those first few years of the startup just convincing people that you're working on the right problem, that the technology is needed, and that there’s a market for the technology. I think that it really has to come from the inventors of the technology.
Are you a founder turning a real world physical problem into a software problem? Using smart hardware or machine learning? Let’s talk! Set up a pitch with Ubiquity Ventures now at pitch.ubiquity.vc
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on startups solving real-world physical problems with "software beyond the screen", often using smart hardware or machine learning.