#NEXTFounderChats: James Schuback

James Schuback is a Next AI entrepreneur and the founder of Big Solve Robotics.

Tell us a bit about you and your venture! What was your inspiration for creating Big Solve Robotics?

Originally I wanted a decent quality robot that I could program and use for research myself. I was working as a data scientist at the time, following current machine learning research, and saw some really exciting stuff coming out of the labs. But those labs were using a platform that cost on the order of a quarter million, and wasn’t even being sold anymore. I learned that robots generally segments into two main product categories: industrial products starting at $50K USD, and toy robots less than $1K but completely impractical for trying any real-world tasks.

BSR creates low cost industrial robots for smart manufacturing, as well as platforms for researchers, particularly those in artificial intelligence.

When you first started, what were your biggest hurdles in building Big Solve Robotics?

Money and lack of experience. Having worked on various hardware projects before, I developed this ‘trick’ of trading money for experience (and time): the more parts you order, the more you build in parallel, the faster you see how things work. So while I wanted to start the venture even earlier, I decided to save for another half year before going full-time.

You can read part datasheets all day, but until you physically have them and start building it’s not clear what will work for you and why. Except for specialty hardware, I never wasted much time obsessing over 5–6 similar parts — it’s better to just buy as many as you can, only suffer the shipping time once (which is a much higher cost), and try them all.

We also built the wrong things to start. Mobile robots, telepresence robots, and humanoids were some of the early projects that ended up making no sense to us after some investigation. But if you maintain a tight loop of fast building and gathering feedback, you can converge on something that does make sense. Just don’t run out of money before then.

How was your experience as part of the Next 36 cohort in 2014, and what influenced you to come back for Next AI?

It was great because it gave me a preview into entrepreneurship — both the highs and lows. I learned a lot about what types of roles and partnerships work well for me in startups. Being able to pursue our wearable tech project — Onyx Motion — was exciting as well, and N36 is very supportive and forward-thinking when it comes to newer technologies. Being put in certain stressful situations and in front of certain types of people provided really unique reference experiences that changed my expectations of what I could accomplish.

But it was tough too, and by the end of the summer I had decided to step away from the venture. I felt like I disappointed a lot of people, especially those who had given me this opportunity. The end-of-program graduation was probably supposed to be a time of celebration, but honestly it was pretty depressing for me. No venture, no jobs lined up, no savings, a fair bit of debt, and a relationship that went down the drain — what a great way to end the summer.

Oh well, life goes on. Eventually I found a few different types of engineering jobs and contracts, took a graduate course to see if I’d be interested in grad school, and generally just explored options while making some money. At some point a vision started forming for what I needed to do next, in robotics. So I saved and got started again.

By the end of 2016 I was pretty much broke again. We had a long list of accelerator rejections too, then someone forwarded me a message about this new program, Next AI. Financing aside, the incubator looked pretty cool in terms of programming, and relevant too since our early products are geared towards AI researchers. This was the last program I applied to, then I would start job hunting again and/or run off to the States. I almost didn’t apply because after my N36 experience I figured I didn’t look like a great prospect. So I consider myself very fortunate to have an opportunity like this again, and I work as hard as I can to earn it.

What do you think is the most important innovation of your lifetime thus far?

While the World Wide Web existed before I was born, I think it’s fair to count it as really coming online during the late 90’s, so let’s go with that. The networking and communication made possible has really accelerated the speed at which one can do business, and has opened up new opportunities. An example for us in particular: if Alibaba never made Chinese suppliers more accessible, then this venture likely wouldn’t exist.

How do you believe robotics will impact the way we do business over the next decade?

First, I believe that starting a manufacturing business will become much easier, especially as robot performance and intelligence keeps increasing in tandem with dropping prices. Right now, if you have a unique idea for a (simple) widget, you can buy a few 3D printers, create and upload your design, feed some raw materials (e.g. plastics) into the printers/tools, and automatically your widgets get built.

Imagine a similar process that could be set up with a few robot arms sitting on a table, assembling more complex widgets using a variety of techniques. 3D printers do a simple polymer-based additive manufacturing process; imagine multiple arms with multiple tools: cutters, drill bits, welders, solders, etc. The hardware is more than physically possible already, although we still need to bring down prices to boost accessibility. What’s missing is the intelligence to generate instructions for the robots. They need to do what you want without you needing to explicitly program low-level commands that branch out into a million potential ways to coordinate different tools and arms to build a widget.

Secondly, robots will start to creep into service jobs that involve any type of repeatable physical labor. Burger flipping is coming very soon, and has already started actually. I would bet in 10 years that at least 25% of all fast food is made using robots.

What inspired you to take the leap into entrepreneurship?

Part of it was trying out — and eliminating — other options. Regular salaried engineer jobs, contracting/consulting, and some odd non-tech jobs didn’t feel like the right fit. And I realized early on that more money in a marginal sense (say a salary of $50K vs. $200K) didn’t really matter much for me.

My drivers are freedom, control, and seeing if I can add something new and valuable to the world. During my last year of undergrad I came across The Next 36 program, of which I’m an alumni, and that experience solidified in my mind what I was going to do with my career: keep taking swings at the bat. I’m also now participating in the new Next AI program with BSR — they can’t seem to get rid of me.

What was your favorite class in school?

Math courses were always fun because they came naturally. But I think my favorite was probably Operating Systems. It was hard, and I didn’t get as high a mark as I should’ve because I bombed the final. However, it taught me that if you put in a ton of hours into a seemingly daunting task then you can really accomplish a lot and build something great. It also taught me that progress is very non-linear: I think at least half the software functionality was created in the last few weeks of the project. Both these lessons have given me the confidence to take on increasingly complex technical projects.

That semester I spent over 500 hours in the lab, which looks like 10 hours a day for 2 months. I had to skip a lot of my other courses.

If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be?

Benjamin Franklin. I’ve always held up America as an ideal example of what a nation can accomplish, in terms of wealth, freedom, and liberty. As one of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin had some unique insights that had positive effects lasting hundreds of years. That, and he was a prolific inventor. Plus we could sit down and play a game of Chess. As a bonus, it’d be great to have his take on the country today.

What company or founder do you admire the most?

Elon Musk. Humble beginnings, big world-changing visions, technically brilliant with an appetite for knowledge, and he’s great at building businesses. Putting together the teams, raising money, and making large sales are not things you typically see in technical founders.

A runner-up for me would be Jack Ma. He had a slower start in life after many failures (1 in 24 to be rejected from KFC? Ouch) but his pure persistence is awe-inspiring. Plus I’m a big fan of his company’s products. He’s got a great quote: “Today is cruel. Tomorrow is crueler. And the day after tomorrow is beautiful.”

When you’re feeling drained, what do you do to recharge?

Workout, cook a nice meal, and sleep. Maybe watch a movie.

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