Embracing clean as a new brand value: Before COVID-19, cleanliness was a concept that was more or less assumed as standard by consumers, with less bearing on overall brand equity. Moving forward, however, brands will need to embrace cleanliness as an essential attribute that is not only expected by consumers, but one that can actually enhance overall brand value. When retailers make an investment in cleaning robots, they address consumer health and safety concerns stemming from COVID-19, and visibly demonstrate to their customers that cleanliness is a core value.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, a world-renowned computational neuroscientist, is the co-founder and CEO of Brain Corp, a San Diego-based AI company creating transformative core technology for the robotics industry.
The BrainOS® platform and its cloud-connected autonomy service are used by global manufacturing partners to successfully build, deploy, and support fully autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) at scale. Robots powered by BrainOS navigate autonomously, avoid people and obstacles, adapt to changing environments, manage data, generate reports, and seamlessly interact with operators. Brain Corp and its partners have deployed over 10,000 robots for floor care, in-store delivery and other key applications within retail, grocery, malls, airports, hospitals, warehouses, and other industries.
Eugene is an expert in the field of AMRs. His vision is to create a world where intelligent and autonomous machines make our lives safer, easier, and more productive.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I spent my academic career studying computational mechanisms of the real (biological) brain and after 20 years I decided to build an artificial brain for robots. I was approached by Qualcomm in 2009, which supported this idea, and I went on to build a computer based on the human nervous system to investigate how mammalian brains process information. Qualcomm funded Brain Corp and gave it a number of R&D projects in computational neuroscience and machine learning.
While exploring different product directions, I realized that the robotics industry of the day looked just like the personal computer industry before Microsoft — dozens of small companies all designing their software and hardware. Back then, lots of different types of computers existed, but they were all very expensive and did not work well. The same problem exists in the robotics industry — many robotics startups designing their own software and hardware. This is why robots are very expensive and not useful. A “Microsoft of robotics” is bound to appear and I decided that Brain Corp will be such a platform company.
I brought together a close-knit group of scientists and engineers and we saw the value in creating an operating system for robots that would unite all of the disparate robot solutions under one cloud-based AI software platform. Our goal became to help build out the emerging category of AMRs by providing autonomy software that others could use to build their mobile robots for a variety of strategic applications. We decided to focus on making a hardware-agnostic operating system for AMRs. The idea was simple: to enable builders of robots, not build the robot ourselves.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have a PhD in pure mathematics and spent my career studying the brain, writing peer-reviewed papers and textbooks on brain modeling. However, after starting Brain Corp and deciding on the first robotic application — commercial floorcare robots — I became an expert in commercial floor cleaning. I got to know everything about different floor types, different brushes, squeegees, and the types of cleaning, such as sweeping, scrubbing, and burnishing. I would have never thought I would be an expert in that area. However, for the CEO to be an expert not only in AI and robotics, but also have sufficient understanding of different robotic applications, is of paramount importance to the success of the business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I started Brain Corp as an academic business, focusing more on research than product development. However, after the first five years, I realized that we would never be successful unless we built and scaled a product. I should have realized this sooner because when we started to build the product — a brain for robots — we saw the real value and success. Today, I am proud to say that Brain Corp powers more than 10,000 robots in retail, malls, airports, hospitals, and more, and the fleet continues to grow with each new deployment. This represents the largest fleet of AMRs operating in public indoor spaces in the world.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We have a lot of projects and products in the works that leverage our technology to develop new applications beyond commercial floorcare. This is exciting for the company because it shows the progress we are making in bringing our vision to reality.
Our latest robotic application is an autonomous delivery tug, powered by BrainOS, that seamlessly moves stock carts and loose-pack inventory from one point to another. A major ongoing challenge for retailers — one that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 health crisis — is maintaining adequate stock levels in the face of growing demand from consumers, particularly in grocery. The delivery tug automates the safe movement of up to 1,000 pounds of goods from the stockroom to store shelves, enabling faster restocking and reducing the strain on employees who no longer have to haul heavy, stock-laden carts back and forth.
Based on initial tests, we estimate the autonomous delivery tug will save retail employees 33 miles of back-and-forth travel per week, and increase productivity by up to 67%.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t do anything that you are not enjoying.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m very thankful for my co-founder and serial entrepreneur Dr. Allen Gruber, who has been a big influence in my professional life. When I was starting out, I knew everything about technology, but nothing about business. Allen taught me what I needed to know to successfully start Brain Corp. He guided me through the first few years of transitioning from research to developing our first successful robotic applications.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to maintain a safe and clean environment for public spaces and commercial businesses. There has been a particular focus on grocery stores, airports, hospitals, malls, and commercial buildings — places we all go during our daily living. At the time of this writing, BrainOS powered robots are providing 11,000 hours of autonomous work each day. I never thought that our robots would be indirectly saving lives by keeping these public areas clean, supporting frontline workers with restocking shelves, and giving them back time to focus on other critical tasks such as disinfecting high-touch areas.
Of course, the real heroes of the pandemic are retail workers, custodians, and other employees in essential businesses. They have shown their commitment to their communities over the last six months by working tirelessly to ensure we continue to have access to the services and supplies we need. We are committed to supporting their efforts by providing the technology that powers advanced robotic equipment (e.g. autonomous floor scrubbers, autonomous delivery tugs) to help them in their jobs.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main question of our interview. Can you share 3-5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
- Embracing clean as a new brand value: Before COVID-19, cleanliness was a concept that was more or less assumed as standard by consumers, with less bearing on overall brand equity. Moving forward, however, brands will need to embrace cleanliness as an essential attribute that is not only expected by consumers, but one that can actually enhance overall brand value. When retailers make an investment in cleaning robots, they address consumer health and safety concerns stemming from COVID-19, and visibly demonstrate to their customers that cleanliness is a core value.
- Using robots to enhance productivity at lower costs: Retailers are focusing on the in-store customer experience more than ever, prompting them to adopt systems that allow workers to be more customer-facing. The idea is that these systems free workers’ time, allowing them to focus on high-value, customer experience-centric tasks. This approach creates more work hours for stores at a lower cost. While workers focus on tasks only humans can do, robots can focus on the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” work they are designed to perform. This work includes things like cleaning floors, moving inventory or goods, and scanning shelves to check prices and available inventory levels. This type of automation will be a major focus for retailers in the next several years.
- Leveraging data and insights to optimize operations and improve customer experience: We believe, and analysts agree, that this pandemic is accelerating the adoption of robots. Brain Corp and our partners have seen the interest in AMRs among retailers heating up. The appetite for operational insights on things like cleaning performance, shelf stock levels, and movement of goods in the store is also increasing as retailers see they can collect data they have never had before. As this trend continues and multi-robot deployments in a single store become a reality, retailers will need to centralize fleet management and data processing from these robots or risk becoming overwhelmed with processes and data that vary by manufacturer. To solve this problem, you need a common platform that connects robots from different manufacturers that are owned and managed by a single end customer. Brain Corp took this approach with BrainOS, a cloud-connected robotic platform that different OEMs use to turn their machines into robots. This gives retailers flexibility and choice while having a unified way to manage the robots, collect the data, and understand operating performance and impact. We believe this greatly simplifies things and lowers the barriers to adoption. At the end of the day, retailers benefit because they get the best of both worlds: proven equipment combined with world-class AI technology to run the machines. And most importantly, this approach enables them to leverage robots not just to perform a task, but to gather insights that help them improve store operations and the customer experience.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We’ve already started a movement with what we are doing now — building brains for robots that are making our lives better and support us by doing mundane tasks like cleaning or delivering goods. The Internet allows us to touch every piece of information on this planet; robots allow us to touch every physical object on this planet. I believe that the impact of robotics on our lives will be bigger than the impact of the Internet and I’m excited to continue driving innovation in the field.
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