Threshold Ventures
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Threshold Ventures

Arye Barnehama, Elementary Robotics — Founder Q&A

We can turn ideas into reality. And you have a team that helps you do it better than you can do it yourself. And you can take these thoughts out of your mind and actually make them real. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that. It’s the best feeling to see that become reality.

Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, and Paul Allen.

Arye Barnehama finds himself in good company as another college dropout looking to shake up the world.

Barnehama, a 30 under 30 honoree on Forbes’ 2020 manufacturing and industry list, is already on his second startup. He previously founded and sold wearable technology company Melon, which invented a headband that could gauge people’s focus by performing an electroencephalogram to measure a brain’s electrical activity.

Nowadays he is CEO of Elementary Robotics, which is developing a new generation of intelligent robots that use visual AI and machine learning to automate the inspection of products for defects or other problems in manufacturing and logistics. Given how critical it is for manufacturers to spot flaws in their production lines, Barnehama is in a position to have a major impact by dramatically speeding up the process.

While companies have used computer vision in the past to find manufacturing defects, they had to rely upon hand-coded rules or manual processes which were more difficult to deploy, error-prone, and wasted time when it came to changing the equipment. No longer. Elementary, which was founded in 2017, came out of stealth mode three years later and is already working with a number of world-class manufacturing and logistics companies. For a former pre-med student who didn’t expect to become a technologist, that’s not a bad start.

We spoke with Barnehama recently to find out more about the backstory that led up to this point.

Q: Where did you grow up?

I’m from a really awesome area in western Massachusetts called Northampton. Boston is probably the biggest city nearby that you know, but it’s 1.5 hours away.

Q: I know the region. Lots of green.

I fell in love with nature growing up in the area. As a kid, there was a river in my backyard where I could swim after running through the woods. Similarly, my friend’s backyards had farms or forests. Now, in LA, it’s part of why I live in Pasadena. After living by the beach building Melon, I need trees around me as opposed to dessert. I just need to be surrounded by some greenery.

Q: Tell me about your parents.

My mom’s family were Syrian Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn. Mostly business-people. My dad’s parents were also immigrants from Germany and Austria, and he is an English professor who has also published some novels.

Q: What kind of influence did they have on you?

My Mom would always challenge me to do more and aspire me to have an impact. She would ask questions like, ‘Why aren’t you the best student in the school?’ or ‘What is holding you back?’ or ‘Why aren’t you achieving everything you want?’ With my Dad, if I was reading a book for school, he would always ask what I thought the writer was trying to say. And it really ingrained in me the idea that I can figure out the world around me and why it was built in a certain way and that I could be the type of person to create on my own someday.

Q: Did you think that one day you might end up working in technology?

No. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I thought that was what you do if you’re good at math and science. Also, I loved ‘Scrubs,’ the TV show.

Q: So, no interest back then in augmented reality or artificial intelligence?

Definitely not. I had no idea about that stuff.

Q: Fast-forward to college. You enrolled at Pomona. Was the plan still to enter medicine — because you dropped out after a couple of years?

Actually, I always loved the classroom and didn’t go to Pomona with any plan to leave early. It was a fun environment, and I did start out pre-med.

Q: What happened?

I saw an email newsletter announcing a business plan competition with a cash prize. And I was like, ‘OK, I’m a broke college freshman and that sounds like fun.’ I had a coffee shop idea based on the business model of Yogurtland, where customers put their own toppings on desserts. My idea was to allow people to make their own coffees and hot chocolates and teas where they would do their own blends or fill their own tea bags with different spices. I knew nothing about business but still ended up winning third place and getting a cash prize.

Q: Not bad for a beginner.

Yeah, but as part of the competition, you also had to pitch the idea to angel investors. I had zero business experience and in certain areas of the pitch, it showed. But I was hooked on this idea that people would actually fund you to turn your ideas into reality. From that second on, I was like, ‘whoa, that is incredible.’ I think that was my “aha moment” where I got hooked on the idea of startups and creating things.

Q: Talk about the chronology that led to the founding of your first company, Melon.

After my freshman year, I began spending time at a neuroscience lab in Boston that conducted research on people with Alzheimer’s and kids who had ADD and ADHD. They were using giant machines to do real-time brain scans and I got hooked on this idea that I could invent a way to make the process more efficient and more accessible.

That’s where I came up with the idea for Melon (a brain activity monitoring — electroencephalograph — headband that connected to iOS and Android apps.) I worked on the concept with my then-girlfriend (now wife, Laura) during our sophomore year. The following summer I wound up doing an internship at a Google Ventures company when I met Bill Warner, who had founded Avid Technology and came up with the first video editing software. He was speaking at an event and I went up after the speech to tell him I thought it was an awesome presentation. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was an intern. And he was like, “I don’t care where you’re interning. What do you care about?” I told him that I did have an idea that I was kicking around, and he invited me to his office the following day to discuss it. When I explained it to him, Bill told me, “this should be real.”

Laura and I kept tinkering and would give periodic updates to Bill along the way. And eventually, we got to the point where he liked what we presented, and he decided to invest $25,000. Then, he connected us with a program funded by another VC firm where they let you live and work in Shenzhen, China.

Q: How long did you stay in Shenzhen?

In total, about six months. I really learned a lot about international business, supply chains, and obviously, manufacturing and building products. I told people at the accelerator that we were going to leave with a working prototype (of the electroencephalogram headband) and they thought we were crazy. But this was one of those ignorance-is-bliss situations as an early founder because I didn’t realize that doing a hardware startup has a reputation for being everyone’s nightmare. They say that it’s the hardest thing you can do. But we decided that we were going to leave with a working prototype and that’s what we did.

Q: What was the reaction when you actually came up with a working version?

They were blown away. And then we had a very successful Kickstarter campaign. We ended up basing the headquarters for Melon in Los Angeles and growing the team. But before selling the company to a private equity firm, we had shipped thousands of units. It was an amazing experience.

Q: As you considered what to do next, what led you to artificial intelligence?

I love bringing things to life in the physical world and what could be more exciting than bringing AI and automation to life? I was very interested in the idea of enabling AI and automation to be accessible to more than just engineers and democratizing it in manufacturing.

Q: But you’re not a robotics PhD?

No, but I like to go really deep and consume all of the content on a topic that I can possibly find. And I fell in love with this space. I had just come from working in augmented reality, where we were putting depth-sensing cameras, RGB cameras, thermal cameras — and really sophisticated computers on people’s heads to do computer vision and machine learning. Why were we putting this stuff on someone’s head and asking the human just to be the thing that moves cameras around when we could be deploying automation? If we can already do computer vision and machine learning that segments out objects, and overlays work instructions, and does object recognition, then you really don’t need the human under that. From day one I knew that it came back to visual AI for me.

Q: What got you excited about the AI side of the equation?

There’s this joke about asking 10 inspectors what a defect looks like and you get 11 answers. Companies need help inspecting things with automation. But while humans are subjective by nature, we can train systems with datasets to perform visual tasks in a scalable and repeatable fashion. AI turns these visual problems into data-driven problems making and great user interfaces can make this accessible to a wider audience of those who can use and deploy AI.

Q: If this works out the way that you hope, what do you think AI and machine learning will mean for companies that do a lot of inspection and quality checks?

It’s really about building better physical goods. As an example, I was talking to a customer who’s moving their packaging from plastics to plant-based products. But given how different the process is to turn plant-based products into packaging, as opposed to plastics, the defects are totally different and there’s no inspection system that supports them. The world is changing how we manufacture things to be more sustainable and more flexible as we build more SKUs of things than ever before. That’s where AI and machine learning, which is a data-driven approach, really unlocks a new future.

Q: In practice, how might that look?

It’s going to help people build new things — and build existing things faster. And as they find defects, they’ll know where the defects are coming from. If something fails, machine learning will offer the analytics and the insights that lead people to tag root causes. So now they’ll be able to say, “Oh, it looks like we should go check the vacuum seal on machine three.” It’s really about helping them operate their production lines in a different way.

Q: Thinking about current trends in machine learning, adaptive learning, and computer vision, what are the implications for the manufacturing world?

I think what manufacturers are really looking for is systems that can easily be reprogrammed and be more flexible and intelligent. We’re producing things in different ways and doing it faster than ever before, so you need to be more adaptive and data-driven. That’s happening everywhere in manufacturing; instead of rigid conveyor lines, we’re seeing things like mobile robots, because you don’t always want to build something exactly the same way. If you’re an automaker, you might make different SKUs where you might make a midsize SUV and a sedan in the same factory, and you want the production of each of those to be slightly different. I think that adaptive nature and the ability to change over is a key trend in manufacturing.

Q: Switching gears, what is it that fires you up about entrepreneurship?

The number one thing is this feeling I’ve had from the first day; it’s like, wow, we can turn ideas into reality. And you have a team that helps you do it better than you can do it yourself. And you can take these thoughts out of your mind and actually make them real. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that. It’s the best feeling to see that become reality.

Q: Do you have a favorite book?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

Q: Is there a motto that’s been a guidepost in your professional career?

If you don’t quit, you don’t fail. When we were doing Melon, we had no idea what we were doing. We were just kids building this thing. I’m sure we could have quit along the way. But we didn’t. That’s one of the things that has stayed with me ever since.

Q: Who’s been the most important or influential person in your career?

My wife Laura. Not only did we start our careers by founding Melon together, but she’s now my life partner and my supporter. And I think she’s been really essential in allowing me to get where I am.

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