Q&A: Apprentice CEO Angelo Stracquatanio on the Future of Manufacturing and Human-Robot Collaboration
Hemi invested in Apprentice in autumn 2017 when there were only the two founders. Since then, Apprentice has grown into the leading enterprise augmented reality (AR) provider for all lab, line, and suite environments, with extensive specialization in pharma and biotech industries.
Apprentice co-founder and CEO, Angelo Stracquatanio, spoke with Hemi Ventures about his experiences on starting and scaling the company and his story as the inventor of the first conversational AR & AI platform.
Hemi: Apprentice is the creator of the first conversational AR & AI platform. What inspired the invention?
Angelo: Way back in 2014, my co-founder and I had a conversation about the challenges of different types of life science companies. Life science manufacturing is experiencing structural changes, going from simple molecule drugs to more complex biologics and personalized medicine. For these ever more difficult drug campaigns, all processing is still largely on paper. In 2014, as AR was starting to get going, we put our heads together and built the first conversational AR and AI platform to execute batches and procedures faster with higher reliability. Now, many years later, we've deployed this technology around the world to execute drug campaigns.
H: Apprentice was named the best new product/service at Interphex. The New Jersey Tech Council also selected Apprentice as the recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Technology Award. What made the product stand out?
A: The Interphex award was a really big deal because we were competing with massive billion dollar companies like GE and Thermo Fisher. The level of innovation that we brought stood out because the industry was very stale. When people saw the capability of the platform, the engineers and scientists had a powerful "Aha" moment about how this could transform the way this industry works. For instance, our customers have told us that up to 60% of their time is spent transcribing the content and data. This is a very manual labor intensive process. With Apprentice, they can automatically capture this data for electronic documentation.
H: As the only 21 CFR Part 11 compliant AR solution for biotech and pharma industries, how do you think the industry will evolve in the next 3-5 years?
A: There is a big push by the FDA to modernize the way in which these organizations execute their drug processes. The industry, as a whole, is not just changing from a structural perspective but also with a mindset to adopt new technologies. In the next two to three years, we're going to see an acceleration of technologies used to make research and drug discovery faster and better. Overall the willingness of this industry to adopt new technologies will bring a lot of opportunities, which is really exciting.
H: Recently you were named as a “2019 Entrepreneur of the Year” finalist by EY. How did you transition from the financial and software industry to pharma and biotech?
A: It was a really interesting progression to go from finance around 2008 during the financial crisis to software engineering. Prior to even going back to study Computer Science, I had already been writing code professionally for mobile applicants for a few years. Startups married two things I was very passionate about and combined both of my strengths to build things with the financial component. When the opportunity for Apprentice came up, it was a natural jump to leverage my skills and change my career.
H: Apprentice has tripled in size and customer reach, adding numerous top Fortune 100 clients across the U.S., Asia, South America, and Europe. What contributes to such fast growth?
A: There are two factors. First, AR has evolved over the last five years. Second, as a company, we now truly understand how drugs are made and we built an entire solution around that process. The timing works great for us. Being able to combine really cutting-edge technology with a deep understanding of the space has allowed us to scale up and work incredibly quickly because the industry has reacted so positively to this combination. Our customers are telling us, “Wow, you really understand my process." It comes down to listening to your customers as much as you can. This year we're already projecting 4X our customer growth. So far so good for 2019.
H: You once said, “We don’t just augment reality, we augment human ability.” What’s the biggest impact Apprentice is trying to create?
A: We see a fundamental change in how humans work. We are moving away from repetitive, or "deterministic tasks" to "probabilistic tasks" where humans work with machines to come up with an outcome that neither could have done alone. We're starting with an industry that we know and love, but ultimately there's a much bigger opportunity to capitalize on the structural changes that are happening. In the long-term, our vision is to truly empower humans as they are executing any type of process.
H: What is your personal mission that led you to found Apprentice?
A: It’s made up of two key drivers. One, I really want to inflict positive change for humanity through the power of human work. I do not believe in a dystopian future where humans will have no jobs. I want to buck the trend of saying that we're replacing humans with AI. I truly believe that humans just need the right tools and that we’re way better than robots for many reasons. Two, I enjoy working in life sciences, an industry that helps heal billions of patients around the world. Apprentice is an incredible vehicle to help hit those two things that I personally care deeply about. Every single day I wake up, there's not a moment where I feel beat up and tired. The core mission is just too powerful –– it will always spring me out of bed in the morning.
H: What makes you excited to go to work every day?
A: One thing that I love about Apprentice is we've developed a culture around being able to execute very, very quickly. My team has this exceptional passion, drive, energy, and determination to execute. We're a very small team right now, but we are building a highly-complex product. From a managerial perspective, I've spent a lot of time creating alignment within my organization to ultimately empower people to make faster decisions. We created a very strict weekly cadence, and at a quarterly level we set up OKRs. Everyone understands where we're going, what we're doing, and why we're doing it. Every Sunday I go through my personal process and review that of the entire organization. Every week we are marching and racing towards our common goal. I love working on these big problems with my team.
H: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: I was formerly a swimmer in college, so I spent most of my life looking at a black line at the bottom of a pool. Swimming has really helped me develop the discipline to create because as my coach once said, “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Every single day you're feeling some sort of pain, and that's just how it goes. Swimming has helped me develop a nice cadence in startup land because everyday something new happens. It’s funny how I spent a good portion of my life in a pool alone, but now I'm in a very social sport –– building startups.
H: What’s your favorite memory of working with Hemi?
A: My experience working with Hemi has been truly phenomenal. Hemi has backed us when we were just two people, my co-founder and myself. Amy has seen both the company’s growth and my own personal growth. She provided advice and guidance throughout the various stages of our company, from hiring our first employees to going into a very complex market and to scaling our customers, products, and team. Amy has not just been empathetic, but she's truly leaned on her experience at Evernote to provide powerful guidance at an operational level. Recently, I had a challenging employee situation. Amy immediately got on the phone with me. Hearing how she had gone through something similar in her career still sticks with me today. We managed through that situation together and now we came out on the other side of it way better. We've been together through two rounds and hopefully now a third. I want to continue this relationship for many, many years to come.
Thanks, Angelo, for the great interview. We look forward to continuing our relationship with Apprentice for many, many years to come as well.