Houston Mechatronics: Working with Robots to Transform Dreams into Reality

1) Why was the company set up? What put you on your innovation mission to serve robotics?

The three founding partners spent a large part of their careers in the NASA Robotics group in Houston.  We had the opportunity in those days to work on some of the most advanced robots in the world so we were well versed in all aspects of robotics and cutting-edge robotics technologies.  We formed the company in 2014 because we saw so many opportunities in the commercial sector.  Companies were clamoring for robotics and intelligent automation but didn’t necessarily have the capabilities and know how to do it internally. 

2) Tell us more about the company and the services/ products that your company offers?

Many of our clients don’t want it known the robots we are building for them but in general terms the robots we have designed and built include an internal pipe inspection robot, a large subsea robotic arm designed to permanently reside on subsea oil and gas infrastructure, a robotic work cell the performs a complex and hazardous manufacturing process, an intelligent automation solution that for the first time allows the automation of a large construction process, a host of intelligent electric actuators, and electric car drive motors and motor electrics.   Many of these systems have common elements and technologies that we hold and reuse to enable rapid deployment in new systems.

3) Tell us something about the proactive Founder/ CEO and his contributions towards the company.

We realized that true innovation comes from diverse thought and perspectives.  So our first objective was to have a leadership team that brought different views to the business.  The three founding partners, Matt Ondler CEO, Nic Radford, CTO, and Reg Berka COO, we all have different backgrounds, experiences and talents and contribute equally to the strategic vision of the company.  I believe our best contribution is valuing the dynamic of the partnership and getting the most out of not only the three of us but of the entire company.

4) What do you feel are the reasons behind your company’s success?

Four things. The first is we had deep and rare expertise in a technology field that was exploding. Second, we are very customer and market focused.  We are not trying to build something that we thought was cool.  We stayed laser focused on uncovering “wrongs” in the market place or problems customers were having that could be lucrative to solve and where we had technology or other advantages. Third was recruiting and developing a very talented team.  We pulled a lot from the NASA robotics pool but also purposely from other places to ensure the diversity of thought necessary for innovation.   Fourth is our innovation process and core tenets. These innovation tenets were developed over our years at NASA and we have honed them in the company and this allows us to build things that have never been built and to do so rapidly.

5) What are the challenges you have come across while establishing your company?

Probably the biggest for a small company is managing a long sales cycle for the kinds of products we are building.  No matter how large the customer it still takes a long time to convince them to spend $1M on a robotics project.  Related to that was getting past the impression in customers eyes that we were too small.  It’s the classic paradox, many customers want to see some company history before they’ll sign on.  But you can’t build history before they sign on.  Fortunately our NASA heritage gave us a lot of credibility and now in three short years we have a lot of company history to point to, so it is easier now.

6) Share your point of view on current scenario of Robotics and its future?

We believe the future is Robotics as a Service (RaaS) and cloud robotics.  We knew from the outset that customers don’t necessarily want to own and operate robots.  They really just want the service that the robot provides.  Now most often the robot does not exist in the world so we still need to conceive, design, develop and deploy the robots.  But the long-term business model is to operate robots as a service.  These robots are cloud connected and that brings several advantages.  As one robot develops and verifies a new more efficient capability, the knowledge is immediately available to all the other robots doing the same tasks.  Performing data analytics across multiple customers allows us to offer improvements that an individual customer could not have discovered on their own.  There are certainly still technical robotic challenges and lots of robots to invent, but the business of robotics will be more and more about managing, controlling, monitoring, analyzing, and upgrading robotic systems that are providing services that customers subscribe to.

7) Do you have any new products ready to be/getting ready to be rolled out into the market? Where do you see yourself and your company a couple of years from now?

A large internal initiative in the company is the development of a unique and innovative subsea robot to perform inspection, maintenance and repair (IMR).  We are developing the robot in-house and then we will operate it as a service.  We believe because of the technologies deployed on the robot that we will be able to upend the way IMR services are provided for subsea oil and gas operators.  We see ourselves continuing to grow rapidly and think the sky is the limit.  Robotics will be the iconic technology of this century and Houston Mechatronics is poised to be a major player in this field.