I had the pleasure of interviewing Dorota Shortell, CEO of Simplexity Product Development, an engineering design firm specializing in the design of hardware such as wearables, smart products, medical devices, and biotech equipment. Simplexity has been chosen by some of the world’s most advanced technology companies as their engineering development partner, including Illumina, Valve, HP, Microsoft and up-and-coming start-ups. Dorota has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, is a US patent holder, and has 20 years of new product development experience. In 2017 she was selected by the Portland Business Journal as one of the twelve Executives to Watch.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was fascinated by how things worked. Rather than playing with dolls, I remember asking for Transformers and Capsela (a building toy with gears and motors in spherical plastic capsules that are connected to make different vehicles) for my birthday. I was always the one who figured out how to program the VCR, fix my mom’s watch, or create various contraptions. After my formal education in engineering design, an internship at a small product development company where I designed a handheld scanner, and my graduate school class where we designed a flexing composite crutch for users with permanent walking disabilities, I was sold that new product development was the career choice for me. I love the creative process in bringing a new product to market, from first envisioning it in your minds’ eye to finally seeing it in consumer’s hands. It has remained my passion my whole career as I moved from an engineering role, to project management, to taking over as the CEO.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
At the very beginning of my career, while still in graduate school, I had the opportunity to research the future of cars for a project sponsored by BMW. I remember brainstorming about all the cool sensors we could integrate into cars, from force sensing resistors that could sense if a person was in a seat, to seats that automatically adjusted to whichever driver was in a car, to sensors that would be able to tell if a driver was feeling drowsy, resulting in the car jolting them awake. We built prototypes by instrumenting a BMW 5-series car seat with all the sensors and motors and even built a mock frame to simulate the rest of the car in a demo setting. The highlight was travelling to BMW headquarters in Munich to present our ideas for the bleeding edge of new car technology. The funny thing is that now, 20 years later, just about all our “new” ideas have made it into today’s automobiles and don’t seem revolutionary at all!
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
The most bleeding edge technology that we are allowed to talk about (since most of our current projects are still highly confidential) is a project that we did for Ossia, a well-funded start-up who has developed a method for charging your electronic devices just by using radio waves in the air that transmit power. Simplexity engineers miniaturized Ossia’s wireless charging technology to create the Cota® Forever Battery, a CES Innovation Award Honoree in 2018. It looks just like a AA battery from the outside, but inside there are special electronics that receive wireless power from an Ossia transmitter. Users place the Cota® Forever Battery in whatever device normally uses a AA battery, from remote controls to kids’ toys, and never have to replace the batteries again. As long as the device is in range of an Ossia transmitter, it continuously charges the battery over the air and the device keeps running.
How do you think this might change the world?
The environmental impacts of the Cota® Forever Battery are significant — just think of how many AA batteries get thrown away every year. According to ehso.com, about three billion batteries are sold annually in the U.S. averaging about 32 per family or ten per person. However, the real revolution will be for wireless charging of devices where it is difficult to replace the batteries. The circuitry can be designed directly into the device rather than the AA form factor. This can revolutionize wearable devices like watches, clothing, and smart patches, but also think of the medical applications like having pacemakers and other implantable devices with constant power. We are still a long way away from that being a reality, but think of how much more we can accomplish if we are not constrained by batteries to power a device.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
With any game-changing technology, we certainly should think about the possible negative side as well as the positive. The most important area for Ossia has been one of safety. Their technology is designed so that power is not sent through people and living things, but around them. Ossia’s core technology, Cota®, is inherently designed to be safe using a proprietary beaconing system, where the ‘receiver’ or device initiates the power conversation with the Cota® transmitter. However you could envision less disciplined companies trying to find alternate ways of powering devices over the air that did not consider safety as diligently. While not strong enough to kill anyone like robot drone bees flying into people’s heads, if similar technology went through rather than around people, it could lead to some negative health effects.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Ossia’s founder and current CTO, Hatem Zeine, discovered over-the-air power delivery at a distance while trying to simulate configurations to improve the range of WiFi. While using computer simulations, Hatem figured out that by increasing the number of antennas, he was not only able to send data, but actually send meaningful amounts of power using RF. Thus, the invention of Cota® was born.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Ossia’s Cota® Real Wireless Power is positioned for global adoption, much like WiFi. As a foundational technology, Cota® will be available in all ‘low-powered’ devices in coffee shops, retail spaces, cars, trains, airports, offices and homes. Ossia has authored an interoperability standard that will require all companies manufacturing Cota products to be compatible with each other.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Ossia is continually telling the story of ‘Imagine a world…” where everything you own can be powered continuously without the need for batteries or cords. What is possible when power is freely and safely available? What sensors will give us life-changing data about our health, well-being, safety and life efficiencies when power can be installed in our everyday existence? This narrative through social media, PR, partnerships, collateral and events has proven to spark the imagination and inspire many Fortune 100 companies to get on board to the Cota® Real Wireless Power revolution.
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 about that?
I would not have gotten where I am without the co-founder of Simplexity, Steve Mott. When I was finishing my master’s degree and looking for my first job as an engineer, Steve was the one who read the paper resume I had sent to the company and performed the technical phone interview with me. I still remember him asking me questions about the engineering equations used to analyze a mass on a spring and a weight between two pulleys. Luckily, I passed! He was always a very supportive boss who saw the potential in me and encouraged me to pursue my desire to lead and manage projects. Ultimately, he is also the one who asked me to take over running the company for him when he was ready to step down. That was over eight years ago now and I am eternally grateful to him in trusting me to lead the organization.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There are a few ways that I can answer this question. The first is that through the products that we design, we bring good to the world. We have a policy at Simplexity that we do not work on products that harm people. The medical products that we work on are directly improving people’s lives, such as through improved CPR training devices that can help teach people to save lives, wearable technology that senses a person’s health stats, or molecular diagnostic instruments that are helping scientists and researchers find cures to various diseases. Even the consumer products help people whether creating the next 3D printer that improves the design cycle to instrumented dumbbells that improve people’s workouts. Secondly, running a design company where people enjoy their jobs brings fulfillment to our employees and provides the economic benefits to their families. I try to run Simplexity in a way that makes it a pleasure to come to work each day, so the quality of life of our employees is a very important value for me. Finally, I also use my success via public speaking to those interested in engineering and technology, especially other aspiring engineers and women who have been underrepresented in STEM fields. I like to serve as a mentor for those also interested in a career in product development and engineering.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Take classes in fields outside of your major. An engineering major is quite rigorous and requires a higher number of credits than most other majors. However, now that I have been in my career for around twenty years, I notice that I use the skills I learned in my other classes just as much as my engineering classes. Knowing how to write well is a skill that distinguishes engineers since many do not focus on the humanities. Understanding psychology and why people behave the way they do helps tremendously in business. I wish I had taken more business and finance classes as well since I’ve had to self-study in a number of those areas after transitioning from an engineering to a leadership role.
2. Spend more time getting to know people. I’m amazed how many of my classmates from Stanford are now leaders in major companies. While I did socialize a little bit in graduate school, I wish I had spent more time really getting to know people better and connecting. The people I did stay in touch with have been wonderful, and I even hired one to lead our Bay Area office, but how much better would it be had I gotten to know even more of them?
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I remember early in my project management career, I didn’t understand the electrical engineering decisions that some of the engineers were making. Rather than accepting them without getting into the details, I should have asked for help understanding the pros and cons of using a DSP versus an FPGA for a design. Those terms were new to me and being new in my role I was afraid to ask too many questions. I wish I had. We had to switch from one to the other mid-project once it became clear that an FPGA would not meet our client’s needs. That was an early lesson for me as a project manager, that it is more important to ask for help in understanding something rather than just going along because you are afraid of looking foolish.
4. Sign up for assignments and jobs you don’t know how to do. This is how you learn and it is only through pushing your boundaries that you grow. I had no idea what it meant to be a CEO when I signed up to be one, yet I figured it out, learned from others, and found success. You might just surprise yourself with what you can achieve.
5. Developing a new product that is manufacturable and reliable takes longer than you think. It can be fairly quick to come up with a design and build a prototype to show how it works. But designing a product for manufacturing, particularly in high volume, requires a lot more attention to detail and difficult decisions that can have long-lasting consequences. There are so many factors that go into optimizing everything so that a product can be reliably built thousands or possibly millions of times, even when parts are coming from multiple suppliers and coordination is necessary between different factories. Good design is about more than just the idea for a product- it requires analysis, testing, and experience with manufacturing.
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. 🙂
I really liked the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement that took place a few years ago where women engineers were taking pictures of themselves and posting them on social media to crush the stereotype of what an engineer looks like. During a recent talk I gave to the Society of Women Engineers, I pointed out that the statistics for how many women are CEOs of companies is even worse than how many women are engineers. If I could inspire a #ILookLikeACEO movement for women to start identifying themselves as CEOs I think that would encourage more women to rise to the top ranks of their organizations and also inspire the next generation of girls to do the same.
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What we usually consider as impossible are simply engineering problems… there’s no law of physics preventing them.” — Michio Kaku
I tend to see limitless possibilities in what humans can create and invent. It’s already amazing to see the advances over my lifetime and I look forward to seeing what other advances will come to be. If we can imagine it, we’ll find a way to embody it.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
What if every company you funded had a well-oiled engineering team that had successfully designed and manufactured products in the thousands and even millions? What if that team was led by experienced project managers, stayed on schedule, on budget, and was completely accountable for the launch of the product? Not only would that reduce risk, it would accelerate time to market and improve your return on investment. That vision can become a reality by encouraging the companies you fund to partner with experienced product development firms like Simplexity. While talented founders should build an internal team that understands their core technology, the rest of the engineering and product development can be outsourced to a proven team. It’s a much better return on founders’ time to focus on productizing their IP rather than spending time interviewing, hiring, and managing engineers that aren’t needed in the long-term.
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Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.