A Conversation with Dr. Nicholas Paine and Jeff Cardenas of Apptronik
When you talk to Dr. Nicholas Paine and Jeff Cardenas of Austin-based Apptronik, you definitely get the sense that you’re in the presence of visionaries.
The two 35-year-olds, who cofounded Apptronik and serve as its Chief Executive and Chief Strategy Officer respectively, didn’t get into the field of robotics to tinker around the edges. In fact, Nicholas told Jeff early on that his greatest fear was Apptronik becoming “a robot vacuum cleaner company.” These native Texans are thinking a lot bigger than an improved Roomba: We’re talking humanoid robots, Iron Man suits, and other innovations that have the potential to transform how humans live.
I talked with Paine and Cardenas recently about how Apptronik got started, about their current work—including projects with the US military—and about the leadership challenge of uniting a highly technical team around a bold and innovative vision.
They also told me why Texas is the place for the future of robotics. Autonomous resupply arms and liquid-cooled exoskeletons may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of our great state, but after talking to these two, I can’t wait to see what robotics pioneers like them are going to achieve right here in our own backyard.
—Donna Bragg, Publisher & CEO, Texas CEO Magazine
Were both of you interested in robotics from an early age? Did you grow up thinking, “This is what I want to do?”
Paine: I was always a tinkerer. But for me, the light bulb turned on in college when I was working on a project about 13 years ago. There’s a moment where you implement your software on a piece of hardware and it starts moving around on its own. It’s very exciting to breathe life into a machine. From then on, I knew what I wanted to spend the bulk of my career working toward.
Cardenas: I grew up watching Transformers and loving the robots. I didn’t know there was any way to make a career out of it. I was really lucky to have met Nick coming out of grad school and realize I was interested in the future of robotics. Since then, we’ve been on this journey to make our dreams into a reality, and we’ve come pretty far.
Can you tell us how Apptronik came to be, and what its connection with the University of Texas is?
Paine: Apptronik is a spin-out of UT Austin’s Human Centered Robotics Lab. I did my PhD there, under Dr. Luis Sentis. UT has very much grown as a robotics hub over the last decade, but back in 2010 Dr. Sentis was one of the first robotics professors they hired. Together, we worked on pushing the boundaries of robotics and had a lot of success early on. That brought some exciting opportunities and exposure to high-end, cutting-edge robotics, including working with NASA’s Johnson Space Center on a robot called Valkyrie.
Then, through research grants we were able to get some funded projects. We created Apptronik to serve those customers. It was really a bootstrapped effort from there.
Cardenas: In 2011, UT hired Bob Metcalf [entrepreneur, Internet pioneer, and coinventor of Ethernet] because they wanted to get serious about innovation and commercializing new technologies. Later, Bob and his wife, Robin, gave a gift to the Cockrell School of Engineering for several Innovation Grants. Apptronik received one of the first of those grants, for $40,000, to look at commercialization.
At that time, I had just finished a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization and was working in IC2 Institute’s commercialization group. Nick and Dr. Sentis had just come off the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] robotics challenge and received that Innovation Grant. They were assessing whether this technology had a path toward the market. Clearly I was convinced there was, because I joined the company. The rest is history.
What products have you worked on or are you working on currently?
Cardenas: At Apptronik, we’re focused on what we call “general-purpose robots.” There’s a big shift happening in robotics right now, which is that instead of focusing on one robot that does one thing—for example, a Roomba, which just vacuums the floor—people are focusing more on one robot that can do a wide range of tasks.
We’re also very interested in building robots for humans. So far, that’s taken three forms. We started with humanoid robots, branched into exoskeleton suits, and most recently we’ve added mobile robotic arms to our technology portfolio.
The humanoid robot was how we started out. It originated with the DARPA robotics challenge, which was about building machines that could do a wide range of tasks for disaster relief. The challenge was originally developed as a response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The humanoid robot is designed to operate in and around human spaces. It looks like a human—it can use all the same tools we can.
From there, we built what’s called a “force augmentation exoskeleton,” a.k.a. an Iron Man suit, for US Army Special Forces. Our first one was a liquid-cooled exoskeleton. Later, we built a new, state-of-the-art version of that suit called Apexx.
The third phase began when we said, “How do we apply this stuff to the market?” From there, people came to us and said, “You guys should build a new type of robotic arm.” There were a lot of robotic arms in the space prior to this, but we decided we could differentiate by making one designed to be energy-efficient, built for the age of AI, and safe for use in everyday human spaces.
Those are the three pieces of general-purpose robots as we see them—the humanoid, the exoskeleton, and the robotic arm.
Would you say that the ultimate goal of all this is to improve human lives? Is that what motivates you?
Paine: Yes. It’s really exciting and very challenging. The aha moment for us from a business perspective was connecting the technology problem to societal needs. There’s a huge need for these types of systems in the world. Our goal as a company is to free humans from the types of work we shouldn’t be doing and don’t want to do. When robots are doing that stuff, it allows humans to work on what we’re passionate about. There turned out to be a big market for offloading that type of work onto robots.
Can you tell us about your work with the US military? Or is it top secret?
Cardenas: We’ve worked with the military from the very beginning. It makes sense, because so much of the innovation ecosystem in this country has been funded by the military: computers, the first silicon chips, even the Internet.
Our work on the Iron Man suit was part of the TALOS [Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit] program for US Special Forces. Right now, we’re focused field logistics, which we feel is an underserved market within defense. The new project we’re working on is with Army Futures Command, which recently came here to Austin. One of their top priorities is autonomous resupply. When humans have to do munitions resupply, they have to lift extremely heavy things and there are high rates of injury. But machines—specifically our robotic arm—can help them resupply faster and more safely. We can put this arm on trucks and have the trucks load themselves. That frees service-people to do higher-value tasks.
A common theme in science fiction is the fear of artificial intelligence and the big bad robot taking over. Do you think we need to be afraid?
Paine: Robots are tools, and like all tools, they can be used for good or for bad. With great power comes great responsibility. That’s our mindset. We’re very careful in how we apply this technology.
Looking in from the outside, you would think that fully autonomous robots are much closer than they actually are. There are a lot of challenges still to overcome, and also many layers of built-in protection to prevent the scenarios you’re talking about.
Cardenas: Our motto is “Robots for Humans.” We keep that at the center of everything we do. Humans are toolmakers, and robots are the ultimate tool. They give humans the scarcest resource on the planet: time.
Imagine if you didn’t have to do laundry or dishes or a million other tasks you don’t want to. What could you do with that reclaimed time? A lot of thinkers in the early 20th century predicted that by this time innovation would’ve gotten us to a four-hour workweek. Instead we now have 80-hour work weeks. But robotics offers the promise of giving humans back more time.
Humans are toolmakers, and robots are the ultimate tool. They give humans the scarcest resource on the planet: time.
Certainly, science fiction is a warning. We take it seriously. We’re all science-fiction nerds here. But the potential positives that robotics can give us is limitless. On philosophical and technical level, we think less in terms of “man versus machine” and more in terms of “man and machine.”
Have you guys ever seen The Jetsons?
Cardenas: Of course. Rosie the Robot is an inspiration to us all.
Speaking on behalf of every woman, if you could create the robot that does your hair and makeup and dresses you—I’d be all for it.
Cardenas: We’re working on it!
What excites you about the long-term future of robotics?
Paine: A big part of it is the ability to inspire the next generation. In the sixties and seventies, people had spaceflight to look forward to. That energized an entire generation of scientists and engineers. I think this pursuit is similarly inspirational to our generation.
This being Texas CEO Magazine, can you tell us about any advantages that being here in Texas has given you?
Cardenas: We’re both looking forward to the future of Texas. Marc Andreessen once said, “Software is going to eat the world.” That describes the past decade well. I think the next decade is going to be about combining software and hardware—and I think Texas is where a lot of that is going to happen.
Texans are risk takers, wildcatters. These oil-field services companies, they’re really machine companies. They’re building some of the most complex machines in the world to, for example, drill for oil below the ocean. They’re pushing the boundaries of what humans can do.
Texas has the infrastructure, the talent, and the ethos to make the robotic revolution happen. And with the Army Futures Command coming to Austin, we’ve really bolstered the research environment so we can create the next generation of roboticists to feed Apptronik and others. We’ve got all the right pieces in place to really take advantage of the wave that’s coming.
Texans are risk takers, wildcatters.
Paine: Jeff and I were both born and raised here. We have a lot of pride in our state. We closely watch the trends and growth here. Hays and Travis County have been among the most explosively growing counties in the entire country for the last two years. It seems like everyone’s moving to Texas. In terms of recruiting, It helps that people are very motivated to move here. We have great opportunities and a much lower cost of living compared to California. Not to mention the craft beer scene.
When you’re thinking about bringing talent to Apptronik, what do you look for? What’s a sign that someone would be a really good fit there?
Paine: Our values are a key part of how we hire. Passion is a huge one—we want people who are extremely motivated by the mission of building robots for humanity. That’s first and foremost.
We also seek very high-caliber talent, but we’re looking for people who couple excellence with humility. We don’t have a lot of patience for big egos at our company. We’re trying to find the best solution, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
Curiosity and integrity are the other two things we’re really looking for. If you work at Apptronik, it’s important to try and think outside the box.
We seek very high-caliber talent, but we’re looking for people who couple excellence with humility. We don’t have a lot of patience for big egos at our company.
That speaks to your leadership ability. It’s not as easy as gathering a bunch of smart people who love robots. You also have to get them to work well together!
Paine: Culture is a big part of the company. As Jeff always says, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” So you need to have a good strategy, but you also need to ensure that your team is cohesive and aligned and supportive of each other. It’s a delicate balance of technical excellence with hiring people that you enjoy working with.
What advice would you give to other Texans who want to be entrepreneurs or CEOs?
Paine: Having a company and being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It requires persistence and patience. I always talk to young engineers about pursuing their passions—focusing on what you want to be doing versus what other people tell you to do.
Cardenas: One of the things that defines Apptronik’s trajectory is sticking with your vision, even if other people don’t see it. When we said we wanted to do general-purpose humanoid robots, people told us over and over that it was a crazy idea, that we were way too far ahead of the market. We were constantly encouraged to build these very mundane things. But we’ve resisted going the easy path in favor of going after the really society-transforming stuff. Very early on, Nick told me, “My greatest fear is that Apptronik turns into a robot vacuum cleaner company.”
We’ve had to find smart ways to keep the Apptronik vision alive, even as some outside people doubt it. In the coming years, we think you’ll see the payoff. So to those aspiring entrepreneurs and CEOs out there, you’ll question yourself a lot along the way. Sticking with your vision can be your greatest victory.
That’s a very Texan attitude too: “We’re going after the big thing.”
Cardenas: Whatever it is that you’re passionate about, Texas is the right place to do it. The wind’s at your back here, and you’ll always find people who will support you. Despite some naysayers, Texas really does have a risk-taking culture, and people have supported us. Mentors and advisors like Gordon Daugherty [Capital Factory president and regular Texas CEO Magazine contributor] have been very important to us. He’s one of the best we have in Texas. You’ve got to find those people who believe in you and who will give you the confidence to go on whatever crazy journey is in front of you.