Marita Cheng is the Founder & CEO of Aubot, a company focused on building robots that help people live their everyday lives. Their flagship product, Teleport, is a telepresence robot that allows users to visit somewhere or someone in a mobile video-conferencing experience. The user can Teleport in and find themself in any location they choose. They can navigate through an office, school, lab, or attend an event across the world, all via robot. The Teleport also can utilize a variety of control interfaces to provide experiences to those with limited mobility and dexterity, as well as having applications in the healthcare space as it connects patients to healthcare professionals and their families in a way that feels more natural and independent.
NEXUS HQ interviewed the wonderful Marita to learn more about her inspirations, her daily experience in running a company, and her viewpoint on getting through these inauspicious times.
Learn more about Aubot: https://aubot.com/
Follow her and Aubot on Twitter and IG @maritacheng @aubotrobotics
Tell us about your company. What’s your ‘why’ and how did it come to be?
Aubot started in order to help people with limited mobility in their everyday lives. I thought of how can robots help the most? I decided that people with disabilities would be able to benefit the most from robotics. So, we started designing robotic arms mounted on wheelchairs, to help people grab things off the ground, grab things off tables, just give them independence in their lives. Then, we started making telepresence robots; remotely controlled devices that give you presence in multiple locations. We then combined those two things and created a robot that’s even more helpful, one that you can remotely dial into from anywhere in the world, and not just be there and have a presence, but also have a robot arm and be able to move that robot arm around and manipulate the environment.
What’s the origin story of Aubot’s name? How did you come up with it?
I like names that start with an A and also that have just one word with many meanings. Including names that are an amalgamation of other words or a play-on-words. I like the concept of us creating robots, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. So it’s not just my robot, it’s not just your robot, it’s our robot. Then I thought, how can we be creative with that? What other words and letters can make up that sound? Then I thought of ‘AU’. There can be many meanings there. In Japanese it means “to meet”, and our robots are telepresence robots, so it all came together well.
How would you describe your company to a six-year-old?
We make robots so that you can be in multiple places around the world at the same time. You could be here in your home and have a robot in your grandma’s house and remotely control it and spend time with her as a physical presence rather than just being a face on a call. We also make robots with robot arms that reach out and can give grandma a hand with something.
Given the current state of affairs, how has Aubot responded (or been impacted) to COVID-19?
Currently, our company is working on developing our Jevaroo robotic arm and even though we’re in the final stages of completing our prototype before we launch it, that’s not considered an essential activity, and so, we haven’t been able to work on our robot arm, and we haven’t been able to prepare our prototype for launch. So it’s stalled until we’re allowed to go to work for non-essential services.
So right now I’m working on the admin side of things, business development, and raising money to prepare us for when this is done, so that we’ll be ready to get people on board and move the project forward really quickly.
What’s one thing that is helping you adjust to the new normal? A work from home hack?
We’ve tried to eat healthily and not compromise on getting the nutrition that we need so that our bodies can stay healthy and fight this if we get it. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to kind of adjust to this and figure it all out, what works and what doesn’t. It’s been helpful for me to keep in touch with friends, on Zoom or Skype or Facebook messenger video. Usually, when you hang out with your friends you hang out with the people in your geography, but with video calling it could be anywhere, and so I like to take advantage of that and catch up with friends from all over. That’s added to my happiness. Also, I started to do the meditations with Jen Smorgon and NEXUS and those have been helpful.
Share a little more about the Aubot’s Vision and What you Feel is its Greatest Impact on the World
Our vision has been to create robots that care and enable, and our greatest impact, I think, has been to inspire people as to what’s possible with robotics and open their minds. Especially with Jevaroo because it’s an amalgamation of a robot arm and a telepresence robot, it’s quite innovative. So I think that will have people see new possibilities as to what’s possible in terms of using robots to care for people in a way that’s affordable.
What are some of Aubot’s Core Values as a Company?
It was crucial for us to make a difference to people, and have an impact on people’s everyday lives, and so that’s something that’s important to us with every project we pursue.
What Accomplishment are you Most Proud of to Date?
I’m most proud that we built and shipped out teleport telepresence robots and that we’ve been working on this prototype for Jevaroo. I think it is a really innovative robot, and it’s different to all the robots that are out there. I’m really proud that we have made something that’s unique and innovative and that does what it’s meant to do.
Where is the Biggest area of Support Needed for Aubot?
We’re currently applying for grants for the company so that we’re set up for when we want to launch and when we get back to work. Also during this time, we’ve decided to create a computer science course so that kids can learn how to program. It’s based on creating a lot of content and exercises that kids can work through with the support of teachers. We want to give the kids problems around society, the environment, medicine, just different things in the world that concern them, so that these exercises will really engage girls and boys. It’s a series of exercises that kids can do to help them learn how to think algorithmically through problems. Each exercise is incrementally more difficult than the previous one, so that they’re learning, but in a really fun and engaging way.
We’re in the process of creating that right now and we are very open to brainstorming with people about how to create it in terms of how we lay it out, the design of it, the different activities, and to discover if there are any lessons learned from people who have led computer science courses or taught children’s programming in the past.
I think there’s a great opportunity here for virtual learning, even after the pandemic is over, there is still the need for giving kids the opportunity to learn computer science concepts in a really fun, engaging way where they can incrementally improve on their skills. If anyone wants to brainstorm with me about robots or about computer science classes, it would be great to get in touch.
What is your favorite NEXUS Memory?
My first experience with NEXUS was in Australia in Melbourne in 2014. My friend Aaron was organizing and he invited me along. I also went to the NEXUS Summit again in February this year in DC.
I really enjoyed it and had a great time. I think my favorite moments were having dinner with people. Just the unofficial dinners. It was awesome to meet so many smart, interesting, passionate people, I went to a different dinner with a different group of people every night. Some really great connections were made.
I’m looking forward to the Global Summit whenever we have it. I think that once this is over and this has been lifted and once people feel safe, there’s going to be an avalanche of people wanting to connect in person
Who is your Dream Connection/Person you want to Meet? (Professional, Personal or Both)
I feel like I’ve been really fortunate to meet a lot of amazing people. I’ve had breakfast with Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple. I’ve met and had a chat with Rodney Brooks, who’s sold the most robots in the world. Honestly, I’m pretty excited when I meet anyone who’s excited about robots and building cool things and making an impact in the world. I haven’t met Dean Kamen before, he’s an amazing inventor. He has invented many things for people with disabilities, the Segway, a self-balancing wheelchair, a water purifier that can purify any kind of water. He has a socially conscious way of inventing things and I admire that. I think what’s great about Dean is he’s just been working on these inventions for decades. He also made a prosthetic robotic arm, so people such as veterans can attach it to their arm and have a hand and the lower limb of their arm to do things. So I think it’s just amazing how he just creates inventions that are useful to people.
What Celebrity would Play you in the Biopic of Aubot?
Probably someone from Crazy Rich Asians. Haha. I really like Aquafina, she’s cool and spunky, but I’m probably more of a Rachel Chu or Constance Wu, someone like that.
What Show are you Currently Binge-watching when you Aren’t Busy Running Aubot?
I’m watching Better Call Saul, we were watching Breaking Bad, and that was amazing. I’m also watching Battlestar Galactica. My friends thought I needed to be even nerdier, so they’re introducing me to all this old school sci-fi. I’m also watching Tiger King, but we haven’t finished it yet. I need it in small doses. We’ve been watching a lot more nightly news as well.
Who are Three of the most Inspirational People in your Life?
Tan Le, I think she’s great. She’s an Australian as well. She started a company called Emotiv, which makes brain reading technology. She’s the Founder/CEO of her company, a woman in tech, and she’s just been a great role model. Everyday people inspire me; even my friends have been really inspirational. They start companies and work really hard at their goals until they achieve them. I’m proud of that. My mom inspires me. She worked really hard to give us the best opportunities, and she is always so positive about things.
The inaugural Accelerator cohort is in several industries but have you noticed any similarities? Or another fellow you have seem to have synchronicities with?
Definitely, for example, Katharina (OccamzRazor), she’s doing R&D, and that’s where we are right now, so I see that similarity. Also with Blayne (ShoreLock), he’s in the same boat where he joined the Accelerator to really kick things off with his company and then the pandemic started making it harder to do that, so I share that similarity with him. With Felix (ChopValue) he’s doing manufacturing and mechanical engineering also, and I think what he’s doing is really cool and I like how he’s planning to scale his company. With Emily (Seed&Spark) I really like what she has done in terms of creating a community and that’s something that I want to do more of. I think what everyone in the Cohort is doing is all incredibly awesome!
When travel resumes post-COVID-19, where are you going on vacation? Or where do you first want to go, even if not vacation?
I think just leaving the house and seeing friends would be amazing. All this time inside has made me realize that going and seeing my friends is really nice and actually one of the highlights of my week. Just to connect with other people was good for helping me take my mind off work. I really want to have dinner with my friends again As far as travel, I’ll have to go back to Australia at some point, I have some photos shoots to do there actually and a bunch of media commitments. I also want to go to Japan next year on holiday and eat all the amazing food.
What’s one (or two) books that you found most helpful on your entrepreneurial journey?
I really like The E Myth, by Michael E. Gerber. I thought it was great in terms of thinking about how to work on your business and not work in your business so that you can scale and grow it.
Early on, like 10 years ago, I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and I thought that it was really good in terms of helping me distill what it was that I actually wanted to do. It gives you examples, such as people who spend their whole life saying “Oh, I don’t want to do my job, I just want to motorbike around South America” and they might spend 10 or so years saying that. Then Tim Ferriss says “Well let’s look at that closer. You want to go motorbiking across South America, how much would that cost? Maybe $5,000- $10,000 total. In order to do that, you could quit your job and spend the money. Then, you actually do it. And then what? It might last for 3-6 months. Then you’ll have done it, and then what? I really appreciated that lesson. Because people have these dreams, but if they actually think it through, then they could achieve their dreams. And then what? Then they could do even more. I feel like that lesson distills down to the essence of thinking about what you actually want to do. Because after this dream trip around South America, then you might be bored. It might just actually be all along that the job you were doing wasn’t intrinsically motivating you as a person. From there, you can begin that journey of asking yourself, what is motivating to me? How do I want to spend my days? For me, when I did that activity from this book, the only thing that I wanted in my life was to start a robotics company. So that made me really crystal clear and focused for the next couple of years on how I get myself in a position to do that.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self when you first started this company?
My advice to myself when I first started the company would be to move quickly, to do things quickly. Don’t get distracted by the ‘should-haves’, just focus on the fundamentals.
How did you come up with the fun idea for the teleportation of robots in your Instagram posts?
I think we were just trying to think of different ideas and we began taking photos all over the City of Melbourne and with gorgeous buildings. We also did ‘outfit of the day’ which was even more fun. Then we were just trying to think, what are some other ways that we can visually bring out Teleport and make it interesting? Because after all it’s black and white and it’s just a machine. And so we thought, how can we add color to it in a way that captures people’s imaginations? So we started pairing it with the different paintings.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.