Building Gecko Robotics has been a walk on the wild side for CEO and Co-Founder Jake Loosararian. In the beginning, he was bootstrapping the company, living on his best friend's apartment floor and had $300 to his name. In 2016, he applied to Y Combinator out in Silicon Valley, was accepted into its Winter Batch, and received $2.1 million in funding on Demo Day. Gecko’s breakthrough year was 2017, finding product-market fit working with a handful of Power Generation customers inspecting their massive power boilers. This provided the growing Gecko with fertile ground to conduct R&D on the robots and proof to raise its A-round the following year. From there, Gecko doubled in revenue each year by expanding across those sites as well as being introduced to additional sites within their companies.
In 2018, Gecko raised $57M in its A-round with Founders Funds, The Westly Group, Mark Cuban and Justin Ka. With investment comes the imperative to grow. Loosararian and the Gecko team, determined the need to expand outside of Power, started doing work for the Industrial Paper and Oil and Gas markets. “All along, we’ve grown the company apace,” said Loosararian. “We’ve seen the most scaling within our R&D team -- software and hardware engineers -- and operations team. We ‘walk the talk’ with our robots by doing inspections in the field ourselves. We are now over 100 people with three offices in Pittsburgh, Austin, and Houston.”
We wanted to learn more about Loosararian and Gecko. Check out the conversation:
OnRamp: How were you able to get such big customers to trust and work with a startup?
Jake Loosararian: In short, grit. This is one of our core values. It means rolling up your sleeves and digging into the problem. For the first major customers, we started small. We asked them to collaborate closely with us. We showed the promise of a solution they desperately needed. By demonstrating our early technology, they gave us the opportunity to inspect during their planned outages. For many of those early sites, they still rely on us to come back every year to understand how their baseline is changing and gives us a known testbed to measure our technical and operational progress.
OnRamp: Can you give us a sense of how much better and safer it is for a Gecko robot to inspect infrastructure than a human being?
JL: The infrastructure we inspect supports industrial processes. They typically operate at very high temperatures or hold materials that are deemed hazardous. For instance, a power boiler is burning coal at 1,000s of degrees Fahrenheit or an atmospheric storage tank might hold crude oil. To inspect these units, the operator has to take them off-line, first, then provide proper cleaning to allow workers to enter safely.
Many of these units are extremely large, the size of small buildings. To conduct a traditional inspection, either roping, scaffolding, or JLGs (cherry-pickers) are used to hoist workers around the surface to use hand-held devices.
All of this extra equipment and harnessing makes for conditions conducive to more accidents and errors. It is also tedious and tiring since every data point needs to be recorded uniquely in their measurement logs. Imagine dropping your probe or even your writing implement at those heights.
Gecko’s robots are outfitted with magnetic drive wheels that can climb the entire “building.” This allows a much smaller crew to operate the machinery safely from the ground. This results in an inspection that is 10X faster than the purely human alternative. We pride ourselves on safety - both our own safety and the substitutes for hazardous working conditions we bring to our clients. In 2020, we were incident-free!
OnRamp: 2020 was a crazy year for everyone. Tell us about some of the cool work Gecko did in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and how did you manage to keep business running and growing at the same time?
JL: At the end of 2020, Gecko will come out slightly ahead of 2019, but behind our pre-COVID projections. It has been a crazy year for us, too!
When the pandemic set in, many of our customers took a hard look at their operations. While the world still needs power, the Oil and Gas industry saw a large drop in demand for its products as shelter-in-place, quarantine and remote work became the norm. But still, they couldn’t just shut down, either.
Many customers deferred routine maintenance, while others needed to continue operations. Gecko fits into this story since customers could easily outsource the traditional inspection to us.
Because Gecko can operate without as many people or logistics overhead and go into places that would normally require extra safety supervision, we were able to drop-ship into the site and help them without much fuss.
OnRamp: How do you see 2021 shaping up for you and Gecko? Any new, fun stuff on the horizon?
JL: We definitely see 2021 being a bounce-back year for Gecko. Many of those delayed projects in the core markets will restart as the economy gains steam. We are a startup; so we need to plug the gap from 2020 with strong growth.
As for new “stuff,” we are investing heavily in R&D this year. We are building out a new SaaS platform to bring new functionality and insights for our customers. To do this, we are hiring an entire software development team. On the hardware side, we have two new robots that will exit the stable this spring. In addition, we have been adding capability by buying off-the-shelf inspection components and integrating them into our ecosystem with our in-house engineering team. This is a unique advantage we have over our competitors.
On the business side, we are going to expand into new markets, just like we did in 2018. We see an opportunity to expand into more chemicals processing sites since they akin to Oil and Gas refineries. We’ll also look to expand our Power portfolio by addressing challenges in the nuclear and renewables sector. This will future-proof us to some extent. While we started in coal-fired boilers, we know we can’t live there forever.
Finally, there are some really great opportunities in the international market that we’ll look to tap. We’ve provided our services to a few, very large power facilities in Brazil and South Korea this fall. Our South Korea work was so popular, we were invited back on short-notice right after the holiday season wraps.
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