To leave certain tasks to the professionals. It’s tempting to try to do a lot of different things to save costs, for example, especially this stuff, but the professional can do a much better and faster job, and actually save you costs as well because time is the most valuable thing. There’s a funny story.. for the champ wagon robot, it was actually painted in house, and it took us so much time and so much pain to do this. So this is the lesson I learned.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thuc Vu.
Dr. Thuc Vu is the CEO and co-founder of OhmniLabs. He previously founded Katango and Tappy which were acquired by Google and Weeby.co, respectively. Thuc has deep expertise in game theory, machine learning, tournament design and multi-agent systems. He earned his PhD from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Science from Carnegie Mellon, both in computer science. He was awarded Best Undergraduate Student in North America by the Computing Research Association for his research in 2004.
As a way to pay it forward, Thuc is involved in several community and non-profit projects in Vietnam. He co-founded VietSeeds and VietAI. VietSeeds is a scholarship program that helps underprivileged students attend university. This is the 7th year of VietSeeds and it has grown to 12 core staff and 60 mentors who support 200+ students in going to school each year. Each student will also have a mentor, and receive training and workshop programs that help them do well at school, improve their social skills and get ready for the job market. VietAI is an educational project that brings AI courses from Silicon Valley back to train engineers in Vietnam. VietAI recently opened registration for its class, with the goal of training 100 entry-level Machine Learning engineers in Vietnam, 10% of whom will be mentored further in cool research projects.
Apart from being an entrepreneur, Thuc is also a Research Scientist and Assistant Professor at John Von Neumann Institute of Vietnam National University. He is also fostering a community of AI & Robotics and helping to grow a tech ecosystem in Vietnam.
In 2017, Thuc was named as one of the “40 Under 40” of Silicon Valley by the Silicon Valley Business Journal for his tireless efforts to bring about a significantly positive impact in the business world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Growing up in Vietnam, I went to a magnet school for the gifted in the early years and majored in math. When I moved to high school in 1997, I began studying computer science. At that time in Vietnam, computer science was very novel and few people had access to a computer. I was lucky that my parents bought me a 386 computer. I did a lot of programming content — 12 hours a day for a few years. It was a lot of fun. I ended up winning first place in a national championship in Vietnam, and then decided to go to the US to continue my education in computer science..
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are two quotes that I live by.
- “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” — Steven Hawking
- “Life truly begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch.
I try to push boundaries whether it’s work, sport, education or philanthropy — I always strive to be better.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have read many books over the years but when I was a kid, a very popular book was Adventures of a Cricket by To Hoai.
The cricket left home and explored the world. In the beginning, because of his arrogance and stupidity, he caused a lot of harm for other people. He traveled around the world and made new friends, grew up and tried to fight for a better society with equality, against inequality. This story gave me the idea of opening my eyes to traveling around the world, making friends and helping people, but also staying humble as I learn and grow.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
It took many years for us to get to our “ah ha” moment. When ANA (All Nippon Airways) reached out to OhmniLabs and contracted us to build them a robot, that was the beginning of our modular robotics platform. We started with telepresence and explored different verticals, but the project with ANA helped us realize we could launch robotics applications at unmatched cost and speed using a modular robotics platform. We could quickly and efficiently design, prototype, manufacture and deploy robotics that perfectly fit our customer’s needs at a significantly lower cost than traditional robotics developers.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Breaking down big ideas into bite size tasks makes it easier to start.
- You need passion in addition to knowledge and experience. You need life lessons. It’s the luggage you bring on this path that gets you through. Learn from other people, listen to podcasts and try to learn from your past.
- Find the right team to work with. We are so lucky to have great people working at OhmniLabs who we can trust to get the job done and we can depend on.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
When you are first or early to market, you have to educate the market. You have to get people excited about your product, educate them about what it does and figure out the business model. You need to solve a pain point. There are a mountain of challenges — it’s OK to not be first mover as long as you can make a big enough difference with your product you still have a chance to win in the market.
We found a different market within the telepresence space. We figured out what was missing and improved it.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
Our parents — our families.
All three of the OhmniLabs co-founders had been away from home for a long time — 15 years! We thought there had to be a better way to communicate. A robot was a fantastic fit.
I could visit home with the robot and spend time with grandma cooking with her in the kitchen — she didn’t use a cell phone, so the robot was a natural companion for her.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
It takes a village to build a robot. Never underestimate the challenge of how many people and parts are needed to make a robot, which has hundreds of parts, and the vendors for each part have to be carefully managed. This is a critical job that takes an amazing amount of skill and experience. Inventory itself becomes a big issue as you need to arrange for the physical storage of all of the parts, as well as tracking everything. When you work with vendors, your vendors must deliver consistency, providing you the same part every time.
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?
At the beginning of our journey I did a lot of the demos, lugging robots around to show people; always taking very good care of the robot. One day, I had several demos, and as I was pulling it across the pavement the wheel fell off. I learned from this that we had to be rough with the product in testing to make sure they were durable. Now we have more rugged outdoor robots!
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
After the pandemic, we answered a call and need that was there because of the pandemic. It showed how much our products were able to help in healthcare, and people not being able to travel, so many problems that the robots were able to solve.
We’ve seen an explosion of new use cases across different verticals, from healthcare, education, to industrial manufacturing to retail. We are using our robots to help people solve the challenges of the pandemic and return to a new normal. We are working with people to figure out how we can fit into their workflow, and help them resume their business. They become even more productive than before with this new technology.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
The first one is that hardware is hard. And robotics is even harder. It’s something that we learn the hard way. So you want me to add a story, or example to each of these? It’s hard, because you need to not only develop the product, but you need to manufacture, you need to deal with logistics, and it’s hard to iterate the product, that’s why hardware is hard. When it comes to robotics, it’s even harder, because it requires even more discipline.You not only need the hardware, but you need the AI. Even on the hardware side, you need many different types of components that come together, so it takes a village of PhD GPU robots.
The second point is that because it is hard, one should add a substantial margin into all that you do, from the estimated time, estimated cause, price that you want to sell because it’s a lot of unforeseen hiccups or challenges that can arise along the way. A lot of the time it might not even be under your control, like logistic disruption because of the pandemic — there’s nothing we can do about it. But, if you promise the customer that you’re going to ship them the robots, then, you still have the robots to ship.
The third point is to focus on a niche market and specific pin points that your product can solve. This will help you to really view the core customer for your product, sort of like a fan base or not, like enthusiasts. These people will be willing to work with you, will tolerate shortcomings issues in the beginning, give you valuable feedback, and work with you to develop a good product; they are your friends.
Number four would be to leave certain tasks to the professionals. It’s tempting to try to do a lot of different things to save costs, for example, especially this stuff, but the professional can do a much better and faster job, and actually save you costs as well because time is the most valuable thing. There’s a funny story.. for the champ wagon robot, it was actually painted in house, and it took us so much time and so much pain to do this. So this is the lesson I learned.
And then number five is no free pilot ever. When you make a product, especially a novel product, like robots, it’s actually very easy for people to get excited about it and people would be very willing to test it out for free, of course. But, they might just not use it for long, or not really use it for solving like a pin point, so you’re just wasting your time and a lot of resources, because it actually cost money to make this product. The lesson here would be that you need to charge people from day one. That’s the best signal of the demand and interest. Having people pay for your product would actually save you costs, so you get better interest, strong interest, but also, strong commitment to make the pilot work.
The goal of giving a product to an influencer is PR and marketing. The goal of a pilot is actually getting people to buy more of your product. And so they are very different.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Imagination is very powerful, so I would recommend for that person to flesh out that part in their mind. I would tell them to try to identify the core customer or user, then pinpoint what problem they are trying to solve — how they would interact with the product, how would the product solve those pain points, and what are the features included in the product. The next step would be to do market research on the potential customer and research on other products in the market. You also have to play to your strengths and passions. The next step would be to sell the product before even making it. Go out and talk to people, get them to pre-order it, crowdsource it.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
You are going to be bootstrapping all of this, so you need to be mindful about your runway. I think hiring a consultant is fine. As long as you vet the consulting carefully and you know exactly what you are trying to get out of the consultant that is providing value.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
If you want to build a product, it’s really hard to bootstrap all the way. It’s good to bootstrap in the beginning to maybe build the very first prototype or demo. But, venture capital is actually very helpful — especially when they can bring in more than just money, like bringing their expertise, network partnerships, and customers for you. There are a lot of venture capital values, but you need to pick the right VC to take money from. On the other hand, there are other ways to raise money as well. For example, Kickstarter; crowdfunding is a fantastic way to raise money for a while without losing equity.
For Ohmnilabs, we did bootstrapping and then we went with crowdfunding. So we bootstrapped, and we raised money, a small amount, and then we did crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Indiegogo allows you to test the market for demand, as well.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Two things that resonate throughout my work are education and connections.
At Ohmnilabs, there’s a lot of connecting people through telepresence. Our robots provide affordable access to services that bring value to peoples’ lives and improve the quality of life for our customers — whether it’s the elderly using our robots to interact with their family; or kids who are hospitalized using our robots to attend baseball or soccer games; or to attend classes at school.
We provide education and support for underprivileged kids to finish college and connect them with mentors, advisors, and opportunities so they can grow and become successful and pay it forward in their own community.
VAI, my other nonprofit, focuses on bringing AI back to Vietnam for education to teach student engineers there, so they can gain AI knowledge and skills.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
One thing I would be inspired to develop is deep tech for the wellness of the world. Technology sometimes can be misleading and made for profit. But, there’s a major potential for deep tech like AI robotics to have a big impact on the world and environment. Things like green technology and cleaning up trash in the ocean. Or, wellness in terms of healthcare, which can create a lot of value for how we treat people for diseases, diagnoses, and medicine. This is one thing I would really love for people to start thinking about.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Bill Gates. Growing up, I heard a lot about Microsoft — he had a really interesting mix of business, technology and philanthropy that I found admirable.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.