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Dr. Matanya Horowitz of AMP Robotics: “Think bigger”

Think bigger. You always need to be thinking about how your work can be leveraged for greater, lasting impact. Machine learning and the ability to identify bottles is neat, but finding an industry where the lack of identification capabilities holds it back is more important. Robots for sorting are advantageous, but the automation of a […]

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Think bigger. You always need to be thinking about how your work can be leveraged for greater, lasting impact. Machine learning and the ability to identify bottles is neat, but finding an industry where the lack of identification capabilities holds it back is more important. Robots for sorting are advantageous, but the automation of a facility as a whole is transformative. Automation is helpful, but changing the economics of building and operating a facility is more powerful. Making a cheaper facility to build and operate is valuable, but finding ways to make recycling the most cost-efficient way of dealing with waste is revolutionary. And so on.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Matanya Horowitz.

Dr. Matanya Horowitz is the founder and CEO of AMP Robotics. Horowitz developed and commercialized AMP’s breakthrough AI platform, AMP Neuron™, and robotics system, AMP Cortex™, which automates the high-speed identification, sorting, picking, and processing of material streams. AMP’s machine learning technology continuously improves performance by adapting to the complex, ever-changing material characteristics of municipal solid waste, construction and demolition (C&D), and e-waste.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’d always been fascinated by what creates intelligence and how humans are so good at all the things we do, whether it’s the way we use our hands or the fact that we can read, think, and analyze.

After seeing the DARPA Grand Challenge I began to believe robotics could soon become a much bigger industry than it was currently. This led me to graduate school to study robotics. I earned my Ph.D. at CalTech and had a chance to see what was working well in robotics and what remained a challenge. What I worked on myself was what we called robotic grasping — teaching robots how to pick up different objects. It gave me an even deeper appreciation for the sophistication of human behavior. You think about something as seemingly simple as picking up a cup, but there are all these things that go into it: our hand starts to feel a cup and figures out where that cup is without us even looking at it, just based on the texture and how it slides against your fingers. We really had no idea how to do that with robotics. But I saw that computer vision was becoming incredibly powerful, and very quickly. I became enthralled with figuring out how to replicate this human behavior in robots and began looking for different areas where the applications could be useful. That eventually led me to recycling.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

AMP Robotics is working to remake the fundamental economics of recycling. The industry has been in economic crisis over the last couple of years as China and other international importers of recyclables enacted stricter requirements on the purity of recycled materials, rejecting bales of recycled commodities that failed to meet heightened quality standards. Already beset by chronic labor shortages and high turnover due to the nature of sorting trash, COVID-19 exacerbated existing challenges.

AMP’s technology is helping the industry overcome the recycling crisis by modernizing the way we recycle — keeping recycling businesses open and ensuring the continuity of the essential public service the industry provides, addressing worker safety, increasing productivity, improving bale purity, overcoming labor shortages, lowering the costs to recycle, diverting materials from landfill, and increasing overall rates of recycling and material recovery.

When you add up the many benefits to this technology, what you’re left with is a recycling industry with fundamentally better economics. What this means is we can begin — finally and truly — to look at the waste stream as a domestic source of resources and turn first to recycled materials before extracting resources from the earth.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The fundamental mistake I made was expecting things to happen more quickly. I remember thinking it would only take a month or two to get the robots running in a real recycling facility. Well, it took a full year. In the process I had many late nights where I’d be coding on the robot, getting splashed by rotten milk, having flies land on me, glass sprinkled in my hair. Every night I would think to myself, “Hey, after tonight it will be working.” Maybe delusion is somewhat of a benefit when you’re starting out.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been fortunate to have had two significant mentors in the development of the company. At the beginning, when AMP was just an idea, my older brother Benjamin spent the time to learn the industry economics so he could strategize with me, get me excited, and truly encourage me. Coming straight out of graduate school, I didn’t know what was viable for a business, and he helped convince me this could be real. The moments that mattered most were late night business plan sessions around his kitchen table.

The second mentor is AMP board member Nat Kreamer, who has successfully built industry-defining startups. Every week, Nat presses me on what I can do to help accelerate the business and provides context for what to expect at both this stage and the next of the journey. Late-night phone calls are a common occurrence, where we discuss what to do in terms of commercial deals, or personnel or company strategy. It’s always rewarding seeing how the pieces come together, and how we overcome the day-to-day problems and align ourselves for tomorrow.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

What most excited me when what was to become AMP Robotics started to form was that it was clear to me that AMP could only become an important and big business if we successfully strengthened the recycling industry. If we didn’t do something fundamental, we would be a bit player in a tough space, selling equipment to groups that might or might not have urgency to change how they do business.

Examples of this include our Vision technology that helps recyclers and the purchasers of recycled commodities know the purity of commodity bales. Right now, the buyer of material has to take it on trust that there aren’t diapers or other contaminants items in a material bale, which would result in underpayment and failed realization of the material value. Better information changes the value of the material, incentivizes good sorting, and creates a healthier, more transparent ecosystem. Those fundamental bottlenecks are the ones we’re tackling — not just problems where we can save someone a few dollars. The alignment of incentives with what’s good for the planet is what excites us most. That’s how you know the change you make is going to be sustainable and irreversible.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Think bigger. You always need to be thinking about how your work can be leveraged for greater, lasting impact. Machine learning and the ability to identify bottles is neat, but finding an industry where the lack of identification capabilities holds it back is more important. Robots for sorting are advantageous, but the automation of a facility as a whole is transformative. Automation is helpful, but changing the economics of building and operating a facility is more powerful. Making a cheaper facility to build and operate is valuable, but finding ways to make recycling the most cost-efficient way of dealing with waste is revolutionary. And so on.

Optimize for tomorrow. If you’re building a company, the way things are today aren’t going to be the way they remain. By that I mean: tomorrow you will be constrained by the investments and decisions you’ve made for today. This usually manifests in terms of teams and people. Building a rapidly growing company requires progressively different skill sets, and people will naturally be drawn toward addressing today’s immediate issues. That’s necessary, but if you don’t build the infrastructure for tomorrow’s scale, you’ll find you never seem to get ahead of the problems.

Get close to the value. When building technology there are many ways to deploy it: through partnerships, subscription services, cash sales, or revenue sharing, to name some examples. AMP early on pursued partnerships because we wanted to leverage the scale of those partners, but we found if we were too many steps away from the value in the food chain, we were easily pushed around and minimized by those partners. The closer we get to the value, in our case the commodity value latent in the material stream, the more opportunities we have to build the business.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Effective lead generation starts with engaging content, whether delivered in person, or virtually. Of course, these days, almost all of it is happening digitally. We strive to create content that’s engaging and informative, knowing that if it checks those boxes, it’s much more likely to result in a qualified lead than something that’s purely a sales pitch.

Our customers are eager to learn more about our cutting-edge technology. Therefore, we focus on material that’s going to be informative for them and help show them both our vision and our capabilities. We find this naturally draws the right kind of attention and quality leads to us. What’s wonderful is that our customer references in the industry back this up.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re far from done. The use of AI in recycling is only just beginning. In the near future, you’re going to see very precise categories for identification and purity rates that are difficult to achieve with alternative technologies. With these capabilities, what’s exciting is we’re starting to see robotics applications that we never thought of. We’re giving the industry the ability to measure nearly any facet of the material stream, and we can only imagine the possibilities that’s going to open up.

We see the reliability and performance of these robotics systems continuing to improve quickly, and they will become a staple of the industry. Speaking five to 10 years in the future, I think it will be unusual to visit a recycling facility that doesn’t have a robot, or perhaps one that is not almost fully staffed with robots. I think in that time horizon, you will also have several facilities that are fully autonomous.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

There are many wonderful clips of Steve Jobs you can find now, and I find these incredibly motivating. You can feel the energy of being at the center of a transformative moment in history. Jobs had an exceptional ability to articulate the importance of and challenges associated with building a business that no one had even conceived of. I do my best to channel that foresight in my own work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Perhaps not a typical life quote but I love, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We live at a time where the benefits of technology are vast and only accelerating. This creates a number of opportunities; I’ve continually tried to learn and master technological tools to accrue opportunities to hasten this trajectory. The world turns more quickly than ever, and I’m thrilled to have even a small hand in that.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I’m most excited about is one we’re part of, and one I believe is trending in the right direction. I would call it “environmental techno-optimism”, or the belief that we can use technology to positively influence and solve some of the central problems of our generation. The key is not merely solving the direct problem, but aligning incentives, removing barriers, and reducing costs to doing the right thing. The problem with so much has been of scale. Carbon capture, recycling, transport electrification, solar energy, and sustainable farming have all been possible, but economic barriers have been too high. Technology is rapidly reducing the costs associated with these, and many other, environmentally beneficial paths forward. I believe there is no better time to find ways to leverage technology in the pursuit of environmental good.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m @mhorowit on Twitter, and I’m a regular user of LinkedIn. For news about AMP Robotics, you can visit our website, or find us on Twitter (@AMPRobotics), LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. My account is an unfortunate source of puns, so I’m not sure I’m more interesting than what you can find on the AMP accounts!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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