Timothy Gifford: “Do not depend too heavily on another company for your success”

Do not depend too heavily on another company for your success. Always make sure that your product does not integrate with only one other product. That company may change their product line or their business plan and interrupt your ability to reach the market. I learned this the hard way in a previous company where […]

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Do not depend too heavily on another company for your success. Always make sure that your product does not integrate with only one other product. That company may change their product line or their business plan and interrupt your ability to reach the market. I learned this the hard way in a previous company where a hardware provider that we were integrating with was purchased and the parent company completely reorganized the third party integration strategy and we were left with no way to deliver.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Timothy Gifford.

The “brains behind the bots” Timothy Gifford is an internationally renowned scientist, researcher and entrepreneur who has worked with NASA, led the team that built the first virtual reality exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, and is a sought-after consultant and presenter on Robot Assisted Instruction, Autism, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Collaborative Robotics, Human Perception and Assistive Technology. Gifford is the President and Chief Scientist of MOVIA Robotics, Inc.

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”?

My career academically, independently and commercially has been multidisciplinary. My training began in aerospace engineering. I then expanded my program to include computer science with a focus in psychology. I was very interested in how the brain works and how these ideas can be applied to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and communication. While still in school, I branched out into film production and computer graphics. My parents had a strong effect on me and encouraged me to follow my interests and passions. My father had a career in education and film and video. I have a very technical mind and am also moved by art and experience which inspired me to take my technical training in engineering and computer science, and apply it to communication, doing work in experimental computer graphics and film. After leaving college I worked in film and video, producing training films for a medical school. While there I developed many integrations between technical tools and the medium, creating new visualizations to communicate the concepts needed. After a few years, I learned about Virtual Reality (VR) in 1992. I recognized that this was a new communication medium with a lot of opportunity for innovation and I started a company to produce VR in 1993. I felt that the end user of VR would need experts to produce virtual experiences much like films or videos. We would create stories with VR and use those stories to teach and train the audience. I set about to integrate the new hardware and software available for VR and build the tools and techniques to create and deliver finished VR experiences.

In order to create dynamic and interactive simulations we needed virtual characters who could dynamically react to the people who were immersed in the VR. I developed a set of autonomous agents that could be easily programmed to lead the user through activities and react instantly when the user wanted to change what they were doing and go to a new activity. I thought that these tools would be very good for robotics, specifically service robotics where robots interact directly with people in unstructured situations. At that time, the robotics industry for these types of robots was still immature, so I put these ideas on the shelf for a later time.

Through the 90’s, we built several high-end VR installations and applications culminating with the first VR exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in DC. Unfortunately, it was too early for VR and while it was very useful and effective, it was also very expensive. There was no mechanism to get the VR experiences to the mass market and as a result, I sold the VR company in 2000.

After working at the company that I sold to for a few years, I reentered academia to do research in Human Robotic Interaction (HRI) and collaborative robotics. I took a multidisciplinary approach starting my robotics lab in the psychology department. I wanted to learn about how we as humans perceive and interact with the world and each other. My goal was to apply these principals to robot control in order to make the robots more effective and easier for us to interact with.

While at the University of Connecticut, I started the Advanced Interactive Technology Center. This department provided production and system integration services to researchers who were interested in real time interaction with VR, mixed reality and robotics. We provided the technical support for any kind of sensor, display device, input device or robot that the researcher wanted to use in their experiments. Here we worked with real time systems providing unique installations for the various research initiatives. I led the center for 6 years culminating with an installation built in collaboration with the Digital Media Department for the Boston Children’s Hospital that enabled visitors to interact with animated characters on a 20 foot high video display while being tracked simultaneously with 13 Kinects and 6 optical cameras.

In 2008, I formalized a branch of my research around using robots to work with children with special needs, particularly children on the autism spectrum. I collaborated with several researchers at UCONN and was Co-Investigator on a series of NIH grants to explore the efficacy of interventions utilizing robots. My entrepreneurial nature led me to start Movia Robotics in 2010 to develop systems for collaborative robotics. In 2014, I left the university to focus on Movia Robotics. I continued to collaborate on various research grants and am active in academic research to this day. My efforts are in VR, AI, educational design, robotics and aspects of action and Perception particularly Intentional Dynamics.

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

My favorite quote comes from my father who taught me to find my own path in life and not to simply follow the usual route. He said, “Learn to write and you can write your own ticket.”

He felt that it is very important to be able to clearly articulate your ideas and to be able to make a complete argument. If you can succinctly communicate your proposal, answering any objections and solving the necessary details to show a path to success, you can get the support you need to follow your ideas. I have used this advice to great effect.

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?

It may be a clichéd answer but “2001” was a very influential movie for me. The perfection and precision of the execution were very powerful. The early representation of an effective AI in HAL intrigued me from an early age. Like so many, I was inspired to work on methods to produce a sentient program that could interact and help us in everyday life. I of course want things to turn out better for everyone involved.

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?

As a researcher at the University of Connecticut, in 2008 I was doing research on social robotics. The idea to focus on helping children on the Autism Spectrum came from wanting to help my wife, an elementary schoolteacher in West Hartford, CT. She identified high instances of autism continuing to increase in schools and how they required a large amount of one-on-one care, which was very difficult to staff in the school system. In my research on applications for social robotics, I found that several researchers around the world were having luck using robots to work with children with Autism. I thought if we can get this out of the labs and into the classroom, we could make a real difference. I combined my research into human robotic interaction with earlier work creating virtual characters, to build friendly robots that could interact with children in an engaging way. I wanted to make sure that there was a benefit though. I collaborated with researchers in autism at the University of Connecticut to determine if there actually is a benefit. Based on the success of those initial efforts I then started the company to bring the application to the children.

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?

In our case there was a very clear need in the community for solutions. We could see the positive response from the children but making an effective deployable product was not easy. We worked slowly and diligently with repeated testing. We continually put prototypes into the target environment with the children and worked closely with the teachers and therapists to refine the product to make it easier to use and to improve the engagement and efficacy with the children. It was also clear that the robotics hardware industry was going to need to advance to produce more robust and more affordable robot platforms to support product acceptance. We knew it would take a long time, but we didn’t realize it would take as long as it did.

One of the key elements is the need for the product. There has to be pull from the market and your product needs to solve a problem. If the end user does not perceive the problem you are solving, then it will be difficult to convince them to spend money on your product.

You have to have a unique solution that is not already being done. Your particular approach and execution have to be unique and more beneficial than other solutions.

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?

Start with internet searches using multiple ways to describe the product idea. Do a patent search again with multiple key word descriptions, then broaden your research. It is necessary to know the landscape and really learn about the technology and the market you are pursuing. Dig into the community that supports that area. Attending trade and academic conferences, researching articles and other documents are also necessary. It is important to get to know the customer and how they are currently solving the problem. Any opportunities to network with the community is very helpful.

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?

I see myself as an inventor. I like to solve problems and to create things that have not been done before. I often work by combining specialties that are not usually done together. My role models are those who have worked to create solutions and who have often needed to create the facility to realize that solution. I have started companies and departments within university to accomplish goals. Unfortunately, I am a better inventor and designer than I am a manager. It is very difficult to drive design and creation while maintaining an efficient business operation.

My role models are people like DaVinci, Edison and Tesla. They pursued their inventions passionately. They had to work to build the organizations to support their efforts while they pursued their inventions. They each overcame significant hurdles and had both success and failures in their professional careers.

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.

We went through a long road to get our product to the shelves. We started with research in collaboration with the University of Connecticut. I collaborated with Anjana Bhat and we won a National Institute of Health research grant. Within the grant, we looked at the efficacy of using robot interactions to improve the interpersonal coordination of children with Autism. We also looked at the viability of deploying the solution into classrooms. Based on the positive findings of the research, I licensed the techniques and procedures for UConn and started Movia Robotics. Simultaneously, I applied for a patent for one of the techniques developed. I worked with an IP attorney to first do a search to see if the patent space was available and that there were no other patents that would block this patent. We then applied for a provisional patent and followed that up with a full patent application. We then had to submit several clarifications in order to resolve some overlaps with other existing patents. It is very important to work with a patent attorney from the very start. The particular language of the initial application will constrain any future efforts, so you have to be very careful. This process took several years and led to our being successfully awarded the patent.

While this was going on, we worked with a local school system to deploy our application in its prototype form. This was very helpful as we were able to develop additional techniques and delivery methods in collaboration with the school system so that they fit in with the programs that the specialists were already using with their students.

Throughout this period, I attended many robotics conferences and visited many robotics companies around the world looking for appropriate robotic platforms. We worked with several robot manufacturers to find and integrate robot hardware that would fit for our market.

We also went through a long search for an appropriate management team. It is difficult to find good staff who are committed and have the appropriate skills needed for growing a company. We finally got a good business development team together as our product matured and our growth has really taken off.

We are now working with resellers who have experience with our target market. We are continuing to sell directly to customers in our region so that we have direct contact with our customers. This is very important for our product development.

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?

Early in our work with virtual agents we built an application to talk to patients while they were waiting to see their doctor. The idea was to give them some instruction so they would be able to tell the doctor about their conditions more easily. If the patient started talking while the virtual agent was talking, the agent would stop and say, “Excuse me” and wait for the patient to continue. We thought this would make the virtual character very polite but instead it worked out that the character would actually interrupt the patient by saying “Excuse me” as if to say “Excuse me, I am talking. Please don’t interrupt me!” Needless to say, we changed that response in the next release.

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?

We started to see success when two main things happened. The first was that we were able to simplify the operational software that the facilitator (being the teacher, therapist or parent) was using to control the robot. When the level of effort to deliver a session of Robot Assisted Instruction (RAI) to the child was low enough then the product was much more attractive to the end user. The product was tailored for the classroom and as a result, due to the high cost of the robot and the long sales cycle for school systems it made early sales difficult. We then shifted focus to try to make a home product and greatly simplified the operation of the system so that a parent could run the system instead of a teacher or therapist. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a robust, capable and inexpensive robot that was appropriate for the home market. We then took the improvements we had made to the system and applied them to the school version. The teachers really appreciated the ease of use and our system started to move. Our diligent development efforts paid off with the winning of a contract with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). We bid against 5 other companies to provide RAI to schools on military bases worldwide. Our product was determined to be more effective and easier to use than the competition. In early 2020, we finally found the low cost-high end robot that we had been looking for. We quickly integrated the robot into our system and have started selling into the home market. This has been very timely as it has helped many families to cope with being isolated by the COVID 19 pandemic.

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.)

  1. Don’t listen to everything that a business advisor or investor will tell you. As we pitched our idea, we got all sorts of advice about how we should structure the company and product. We did a lot of extra work to change ourselves and respond to these specific requests that turned out to be a waste of time due to the advisors not understanding our product or market.
  2. Always listen to advice given by potential investors and advisors. No matter how well you think you understand your product or market, there are always good insights that may reveal a barrier to market or other aspect that can affect your success. Telling the difference between the good and bad advice is the trick!
  3. Do not sell to customers or bring on clients too early. There will always be pressure to prove the viability of your idea. Showing that customers are willing to spend money on it is a great way. If you sell the product before you have the resources to support them those sales can sap all of your capital and stifle your development.
  4. Something I learned in my first company is don’t make the product too complicated. We attempted to build a system that was very capable and could solve multiple problems. This led to a diverse development plan and made it difficult to complete it for sales. We were continually starving for resources and had to take service contracts to generate revenue. This effort pulled us away from developing the central product. In the current company we are very careful to develop the product incrementally with a strong but finite set of capabilities. This enables us to manage and sell the product effectively and then add the next level of complexity. We have a very robust technical roadmap that will ensure good product and market growth while providing good value and satisfaction to our customers today.
  5. Do not depend too heavily on another company for your success. Always make sure that your product does not integrate with only one other product. That company may change their product line or their business plan and interrupt your ability to reach the market. I learned this the hard way in a previous company where a hardware provider that we were integrating with was purchased and the parent company completely reorganized the third party integration strategy and we were left with no way to deliver.

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?

The most important thing is to test the idea. Make sure that what you are envisioning will actually work with the target population. Build some sort of a prototype, which can look very different from the final product and see if it has the desired effect.

The second most important thing is to test the business case. Find out if the intended market segment wants your solution and is willing to pay what you think it will cost.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It is different in each case. It is better to seek funding later in the process as there will be more value in the company and the funding will be less expensive in terms of the amount of equity that needs to be given up. On the other hand, assuming costs of development personally can be very risky. It really depends on the circumstances and the amount of effort that can be accomplished with the available resources.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We are making our product available with various forms of assistance for those families who cannot afford the full price. We are also investigating hiring people with special needs to participate in the development of the products. Our goal is to get these tools into the hands of as many children, families, schools and clinics as possible. We want to help change the trajectory of these kids to help them have a better life.

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.

Take a multidisciplinary approach. Look for solutions that are simple and take advantage of existing technology while bringing in new ideas and innovations. Learn your specialty well but always be learning new things and new techniques. A hard problem in your field may have already been solved in another area. Sometimes a simple implementation can bring two very different technologies together and solve a large problem and create a huge opportunity.

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.

Cynthia Breazeal, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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