Delayed Gratification: Building A Product-Based Business For The Third World

By Samuel Reeves, Wharton Undergraduate 2005; Co-founder, Humanistic Robotics

I co-founded Humanistic Robotics, Inc. (HRI) in 2004 while I was a student at Penn and taking great classes like Ian MacMillan’s Societal Wealth Venturing (MGMT 212). In contrast to some of the more famous stories of dorm room entrepreneurs whose ventures grow so fast they have to drop out of college, mine has taken its time. Fortunately, we’ve survived the valley of death that many companies fall victims to between invention and adoption, (fingers crossed) and have some great things on the horizon.

While at Penn, I got caught up in the idea of doing well and doing good by using business school frameworks like Ian MacMillan’s Discovery Driven Planning to make a difference in the world. My business partner just got back from the Balkans, where he saw the landmine problem firsthand, and sketched out an idea for a small robot that would detonate mines by applying pressure to the ground. We hatched the concept of HRI as a technology company that would tackle the world’s nasty problems, the first being landmines. Even now, when we’re much more commercially focused by necessity, our original orientation towards our mission, “making the world safer with engineering and design,” still stands out in the way we talk about ourselves and develop product.

We set out to make an impact on the landmine problem by first learning about what exactly was keeping it from going away. All I knew at the time was that Princess Diana was involved in the issue, so I called her NGO and asked them why they couldn’t go faster. After a short education and a little head scratching, they passed me off to some folks in Geneva that ran a think tank doing exactly what I was doing – trying to figure out new ways to solve the problem. After a few months of conversations, they decided a new study had to be done…and who better to do it than the guys asking the questions already? They hired my partner and I for a summer-long study of demining operations worldwide, with plans to send us to Afghanistan, Thailand, Bosnia, Croatia, a few of the Ministries of Defense, and back to Geneva. They apologized that they could only pay me the equivalent of about four times what I would have made in a New York finance internship, and I decided that I had to come clean that I was a college student, not the older entrepreneur with whom they thought they were working.

After spending the summer in Afghanistan, I graduated Penn with the best customer research I could have done, and seed money in the form of profits from the consulting work. We poured the cash into prototypes, engineers, lawyers, and trips to convince people to give us more money. By 2006, we were about to run out of money, and we had seen how hard it was to raise capital as entrepreneurial neophytes for a physical product that would take teams of engineers and an assembly line to produce, for a problem that only exists on the other side of the world. Fortunately, we met some folks in the US Army that thought our ideas were smart, and they had some cash lying around to try new things. After years of avoiding the military side of the landmine issue in favor of the humanitarian crowd, we quickly realized that all money was green and became a defense contractor. Over the next few years, our Army funding, team, floor space, and technology all flourished.

It took about six years to finish our first product – a mine roller – which is an attachment to a vehicle or robot that puts pressure on the ground to trigger landmines and improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Unfortunately, the threat of these munitions is growing as conflicts continue to bubble up in regions with poor governance and anemic economic opportunity, but we’re trying our best to help.  In our first big deployment, the UN bought several containers of the product for use in South Sudan, and we traveled to Juba, the capital, in December 2012 to oversee deployment of our rollers. Along the road to finishing the roller product, we developed some innovative robotic technologies for safe remote control of big machinery. The original purpose of the robotic technology was landmine clearance, but we see a lot of opportunities to provide innovative remote products in domestic industries like healthcare, firefighting, construction, and manufacturing. As we expand into these industries that are a bit less dangerous and more domestic, we still look for opportunities to mix our mission with our profit. These are all areas where our products can help save lives.

In reflecting on the road to fielding product, I’m struck by how we complicated our task, just by our choice of industry. We chose to develop a product for a niche market that only exists in the most chaotic countries, with a technology that required massive front-end engineering and testing, whose export is controlled by the US State Department, with a purchasing process that is influenced by a global cadre of characters with incentives that are not always aligned, with usage scenarios that are sometimes classified, and if you’re lucky, the ship with your product on it doesn’t get taken over by pirates. But now that the product is in the field and we get the chance to think about how to expand our impact, the end result is extraordinarily satisfying.

There are a lot of innovative thinkers out there coming up with new ways to improve societies in war-torn and under-developed countries – the world needs this more than ever. For them I hope this serves as a motivator, as well as a cautionary tale…you can make the impact you seek, but don’t think it’s going to be easy.

 

Samuel HeadshotBio: Samuel Reeves is Co-Founder and President of Humanistic Robotics, Inc. Samuel got his start in the landmine clearance field as a researcher for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, a multilateral think-tank that is a leading innovator on the global landmine issue. Previously, Samuel worked at the Wharton Small Business Development Center (SBDC), was an active member of the Wharton Venture Initiation Program (VIP), and won the PennVention competition. Samuel has also held positions at financial firms Apex Capital Corp and Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital). Samuel Reeves earned a B.S. in Economics with concentrations in Finance and Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.