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TechVibe Radio Talks to Jake Loosararian of Gecko Robotics

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting

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TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.

 

 

Hear from one of Pittsburgh's most exciting robotics companies -- Gecko Robotics.

Gecko Founder and CEO Jake Loosararian stopped by our "Business as Usual" webcast last month to tell his story of founding and growing the company and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were so stoked with Jake's story that we will bring you top highlights of his interview from the webcast on TechVibe. Oh yeah, Gecko Robotics develops and operates robots to automate infrastructure inspections. Cool stuff!

Transcription:

So I tell you what, Audrey, we've been on like a robotics tear lately here, not only the Tech Council, but on Techvibe Radio. You know, last week, we had Jim Rock from Seegrid, hanging out with Mark Thomas from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance just talking about, you know, the growth of secret and how they're part of this great Pittsburgh success stories What's going on here? And you always say that, like, you know, robotics and tech and Pittsburgh has been this 40 year, you know, overnight success story.

But we're gonna have a chance to talk to Jake, definitely, he's not something comes out of Carnegie Mellon. He came from Grove City, Jake Loosararian, the CEO of Gecko Robotics. And I noticed he was an overnight success story. But in the course of like three or four years, he's built a pretty, pretty massive company with about 100 or so employees and growing and significant sales and significant investment as well, too. And, you know, we got you had a great interview with him on our business as usual webcasts that we host every noon on zoom. And I was like, You know what, let's grab some of those excerpts and playing because I think Jake is just making all the right moves.

Jake has a lot to say. And he really is he's very, very focused. He knows exactly what he wants to accomplish. He knows what's in his lane. I mean, these are some of the hardest things that people have to endure when they're building a, you know, a business. And I think that, you know, we pair that with profitability as well as culture, so that people want to stay in a highly competitive environment. roboticists are really in high demand, and to be able to keep them and working on things that matter. You know, it's a tricky, tricky business, and not everyone can succeed at it. Absolutely. I mean, I feel like Jake is like wise beyond his years. I know when you're interviewing him when I've interviewed him before on our podcast series for the one mic stand. I feel like this is someone who feels like they have experienced beyond what their age would say that they have. He's here in the region doing what he's doing.

Yeah, maybe a famous roboticist that died like seven years ago and came back into Jake's body or something like that. It's possible, we should ask him and find out. But let's play a clip right now from the show, just getting a little more fields to what Gecko robotics is all about. And learn a little bit more about his interesting story, building this company up. I mean, like, literally, he was sleeping on the floor of his friend's apartment. while putting this thing together, I think goes to show his passion and commitment. He turned down some pretty, pretty crazy offers to buy that company out before we even got off the ground, because he saw the vision. So let's check that out. Audrey, I really think you did a great job talking with them.

So yeah, it's great to be here. A little bit about me. I'm an engineer, by training, went to Grove City College, actually an hour north of here. And they're sort of electro engineering and learn about like, my journey as an entrepreneur. I started Gecko in college, and basically the impetus of solving the problem comes the company was there was a alumni of the school has a power plant manager nearby to 40% of the year was having plant shutdowns and not being able to make power. And I've always been kind of interested in power and renewables. And this was an interesting way to try to contribute to solving an important problem for this is engineering manager. And so I bought a world cleaning robot form as you do, and, and began to learn about the industry. And I learned about the different kinds of problems in the industry what they face from, but most of it are revolving around infrastructure integrity, and what happens. You know, infrastructure fails. The things that we rely on whether it's a bridge or a dam, a power plant refinery manufacturing States etc, they all have infrastructure, it's critical to their process. And when those pieces of infrastructure don't work like there should they, they end up causing these, these massive amounts of both environmental safety and, and also large, large opportunity cost loss of the customers as well as the repair side. And so it was a pretty compelling mission to begin to try to take these industries and the ways that they traditionally do things, which is with humans in dangerous environments, with little amounts of data and do the inverse. And so that's what we that's what I did. And in fourth, I ended up becoming basically homeless and broke. Really, yeah. So ended up becoming very poor, spent my whole life savings and about 2015 was bootstrapping the company at the time. My, my co founder, Troy, said, we should, we should check out this thing called Y Combinator. And I didn't really know what combinator was. And I met, I met a couple of the a couple people at CMU combinator. And around the same time, I got an offer to go up to do Y Combinator, I got an acquisition offer. And so at this point, you know, very poor $100 to my name, but you had a pretty interesting decision. And I decided to stay poor and the continue on the journey to pursue the vision of deca. Wow. And then from there, we raised a little over 2 million after Demo Day, and came out of yc as the as the odd duck from Pittsburgh, hey, doing hardware, and in the, you know, in the industrial sector, as the top company coming out of Y Combinator for a batch, and since then have raised about 60 $62 million.

So wait, so let's just pause for a second. Were you homeless?

I was living on the floor of my best friend's apartment. So for probably about nine to 12 months.

Wow. Okay, so I just I just wanted to be sure, okay. You weren't living in your car, but you close to it too far. Yeah.

I did. I did. Yeah. It was a nice hanging out from my, from my father. So that was that was really awesome.

So when you um, so here you are, you leave Y Combinator. And then you say, okay, you're gonna come back to Pittsburgh? Are you native Pittsburgher?

I'm not No. I. So I'm originally from the Columbia, Maryland area near DC. And, you know, went up here for for university and then worked in the area, and then moved out to California. And to be honest, I wasn't sure if I was going to come back. I love CMU we had hired a couple people out of CMU in the robotics sector, and I knew, you know, some some amazing investors and business leaders in the in the city. But, you know, my whole, my whole network became Silicon Valley. And so, you know, after we launched, you know, I had to think really hard about Okay, well, what are the competitive advantages that could help Gecko succeed and become the next unicorn and beyond. And one of the competitive advantages is actually cost living. The other competitive advantage is CMU. And the other competitive advantage is close to customers. And for those that advantages, Pittsburgh made some sense. The thing that was going to be hard to give up was the knowledge sharing of the valley and the talent of the valley. Those are difficult trade offs. But we decided to come back to Pittsburgh in April or May of 2016. And, and so we're actually nearby Bakery Square now. And, you know, we're about 70 people at that point. And now we're about 115 employees.

We have offices in Austin, that's been expanding our Austin office as well.

Okay. And so, talk about the local customers, you're close, you were talking about one of the advantages.

So we actually started in the, the power industry when we launched yc. And so we were we are our tagline was we we build robots, we're putting robots for industrial inspection starting in the power space. And just what we do, we make these robots that collect infrastructure data that helps predict when things will break. And in the power space, you know, we have a lot of power plants in Pennsylvania, a lot of power plants in West Virginia, and the shopping tries to area. So that was helpful being able to live with these power plants, whether it be gas or coal. And just began to learn about the problems that these industries face and the different types of applications that robots could be used for, and actually accelerated our ability to develop robots that didn't stop.

And so what's going on in? So you have people in Austin, right. So you, you have customers all over the world? Because I believe that when we were in Japan, that someone from your team went to Japan, right?

That's correct. Yeah, we work with Plug and Play. It's an it's a program in Japan. We're actually doing a job right now, in Seoul, Korea. We do jobs in South America pretty pretty often. And we are in pretty deep discussions with your middle east, but but because of the pandemic, we're not, we're not our international is a lot less than that we were planning on this year, for obvious reasons.

So when if you think of just the biggest problems that you're solving right now, I know that you mentioned a few different things. And then we're going to talk about what's happened in a couple of things that you've done during the pandemic, the biggest problem that you think you're solving, we're in an elevator together, you're gonna tell me

Yeah, that's a great question. So. So in these really critical industries, these industries don't know when they're going to have a affiliate of their process or not. And if you're a refinery, and you don't know that, you know, tomorrow, you wake up or middle, the night you wake up, and a pipeline has exploded, and you're really seeing bad emissions into the environment, people are injured or worse. And then also, you have to shut down production. And if you're that refinery, you're losing 25 to $40 million a day, depending on price of oil. So really, really rough in terms of the impact of that to the business and the environment, humanitarian etc. So, the big impact that we're, what we're trying to solve at its core is, you know, the, in the, the infrastructure integrity, objective, is to try and stop things from breaking, right. And so the, the way that we've always done it to this point, is send humans into these environments, and use handheld sensors together, infrastructure integrity, data points, corrosion, erosion, etc. and try to, you know, sample these large amounts of these layers of infrastructure like pipelines, tanks, etc. and try to hope that you're finding the right, the right, you know, point that's going to cause and lead to failure. So reflecting, you know, you collecting very little amounts of data point 0000 1%, of potential damage area, you are doing it with a human, which about 100 people a year either direct and you're doing these inspections, and then you're also spending a lot of time doing it. So you're you're spending compared to the robot 10 times that 100 times more to get, you know, 50,000 100,000 less data points. So what we're doing is basically flipping on its head and accelerating, how quickly you can catch the data, we're structuring the data, so we can use it on the machine learning and AI side to predict when things will break and beyond. And we're also doing it safely. So that's kind of the value prop

See Audrey, I told you, man, Jake, just, I just think he's cool. I'm just so glad he's in Pittsburgh, doing what he's doing.

You have a crush on him. It's okay. It's okay.

I know, I'll get it straight. Solving really hard problems doing things that humans probably shouldn't need to do.

Exactly. Right.

You know, when you think about the United States of America and the world, really, the issues of infrastructure are, you know, that's really what's going to help us get into the next decade is trying to address you know, some of these issues. And hopefully, as our economy rebounds, there'll be opportunities, you know, even further for a company like Gecko robotics. Absolutely. So we're taking a quick break audio, we're going to come back play some more excerpts from our business as usual webcast and when everybody who wanted to attend one of our business As a usual webcast, just go to PGH tech.org with a nice drop down under programs or business as usual, sign up, get the zoom link and we are having conversations with some of the most interesting people in Pittsburgh in the world. As far as that goes, I'm so proud of the work that we've done with that series so far. And I like bring a little chunks of that right here to tech five radio that is for shorts. Keep it out to me right here. This is Jonathan Kersting.

And this is Audrey Russo. So once again, we're from the Pittsburgh Technology Council, to PGH tech.org.

 

So glad your dial is to right here to ESPN 970 for a big old dose of TechVibe Radio. You know, I think we are the only thing on the air bringing you these kick butt stories are folks like Jake loose, varying from Gecko robotics, starting companies out of their dorm rooms for crying out loud solving huge problems like inspecting dangerous infrastructure places you don't want to send human beings to a robot can do it, you know, a lot more safely and more accurately. And Jake keeps talking all the data they're collecting. They're always becoming more of a data company now than a robotics company.

But actually, his passion and the origins of this passion are really around power. Right? purity and safety of power.

Absolutely.

You think about that when you were a freshman in college? No, absolutely not. I wish I was because

I don't think I was. People think at different levels and Jake's on a different level than me. That's for sure. We just launched the new website Oh, a few weeks ago called Get pgh.com for get pittsburgh.com we're featuring folks like Jake on the site as often as we can just to show that there are some dedicated people you never even know exist that are just making Pittsburgh completely kick butt.

Well, I you know, what I like about this microsite is this channel that we've developed is first of all, I love the tagline get close. Stay close go far. Yeah. I love that. And because I think that does epitomize Pittsburgh, right? You know, sort of stay, stay close on the ground, stay around us, but we're gonna we're gonna kick off, man, you can do that from Pittsburgh. Absolutely.

Right. And you can do that from here. And I totally love that. And the other is to talk about people who are the next generation of leaders and change agents. And we're making Pittsburgh very unique because of the kinds of things that they're actually interested in building. And that's always been that's that's what keeps me in Pittsburgh.

Yeah. And we could not launch this site, obviously without now I know machine Carlos Tribino and Naera Kim. I mean, they just really helped us dial this thing in and just does Yeomans worth of work to get this initiative out because we especially over the whole COVID lockdown we're like man, we need new ways to tell stories we got more stories coming in then we know what to do with how do we get them out there and then Carlos and Kim are like we have an idea let's let's build this thing. And so working with the Machine I thought was just so much fun, and we're gonna keep adding to this site. And more functionality is gonna be coming to it so you can better connect into what's happening here in Pittsburgh. So we're gonna get t shirts, and you'll be the first one to get one Adriene I'll be the second one to get one.

I know I want to get I want to get like little one to so many people. I know. They're all getting ones you got a lot of views. Because one of the things that I learned is that that you can brand things that the earliest ages you can think I'd be pretty actually pretty, it's pretty, pretty appropriate. We're on a Wednesday it says get PGH and it says, you know, stay close go far. I think I like that for my kid. I won't go far. Yeah, he finally makes sense to you after all these years. It's finally like I said, some people think at some levels, I think in other levels at finding we should jump back into your conversation that we had on business as usual with Jake Loosararian vary from Gecko Robotics. He's such a cool, dude, he's got some great insight. And he's gonna explain a little more about what Gecko is all about. And really some of the data and stuff that they're capturing and how they've been growing like crazy in Pittsburgh, like a lot of weight in this guy shoulders, and I think he's doing a great job carrying it. So let's see what else Jake has to say. We'll get right back to it.

So do you have a standard robot that can apply across all these different customers? Or do you build custom to solve based on the industry?

That's a really good question. And one of the one of the hard things about robotics is, it typically only solves a couple things, a couple of problems, it's not very modular. And the trick is making your robots modular, making them cost effective, making them pack able to be packaged and traveling to places. And then when you get on site, being able to have to do as many things as you possibly can. So our, our team of our hardware team has done an incredible job of paying close attention to architecture. And if you think about hardware architecture, the same way that let's say Tesla thinks about architecture, they use very similar base models to be able to make different kinds of cars. So you have to do similar kinds of trashy drunk trustees and drive trains, and then you know, kind of make the form factors look different with some different with some other changes, kind of similar to the way we think about it, if we can make a platform that, you know, that's very good, has very good architecture, and we can adjust its form factor to, you know, whether it's a six inch pipe inspection or, you know, a boiler inspection, you know, we can very quickly iterate. So we have about two main platforms. One's called the Toka for one's called it took a mini. And so we can do about, I think we're up to like 60-70 different types of assets, with different form factors on those assets.

We have some questions here that I want Jonathan, to just start to grab out some great questions here. And thanks for joining us today. Jake. We really appreciate it. So from Jason hunt is no is good goes work entirely in the inspection space? Or do you also work on other industrial automation as well? Yeah, that's a good question. I'm in industrial automation is an interesting term, would like to probably know what that means a little more. But basically, we're in the business of inside think about robots. Robots are very exciting to develop, I love them myself, made them myself. But, you know, IV robots as the vehicle by which we gather data that doesn't exist. And then the ability to take that data and do something helpful with it is, is its value. And our objective is to help our customers immediately by doing the inspections and finding the key areas that have been missed, that will cause major damage, and major health and safety risks. And, but also use that structured information to then provide help with recalls about why things are going wrong, use the data to predict when things will will break into the future, how to extend the life of those assets. and beyond. So it's a it's this idea of, you know, with with companies are doing AI or ml, you know, you think about data from a hierarchical perspective. And we are basically found that, you know, the data that exists out there, from an integrity standpoint is very, has very low integrity, captured by humans reported on paper, kind of data. And so what we're how we're approaching it is, were we biased towards capturing massive amounts, you know, terabytes of data, and validating those ourselves, then using that information to drive efficiencies that never before been possible, because that data doesn't exist. So we basically found that, right. There's no data. There's no data here that is usable. So we have to create our own. And so robots have been a helpful way to go, creator.

Very cool. And so I'm guessing better feel of the work that you do. Can you share a specific example of a customer you work with and how you've been able to help them out? Yeah, so there was actually a really good article by BP that came out a week or so ago. And that was describing from the executive level how Gecko has helped them during the pandemic. So basically, what we will do was we'll take you know, 234 robots. However, there must have been robots will go out to their sights. And we'll work with them as a partner, to not only do the inspection, but help them think about how to solve the problems. And so, you know, we'll do an inspection on, let's say, a 32 inch pipe at BP, and do an inspection that you should take, you know, 40 days and do it in one day, and gather, you know, 1030 40,000 times more data and find areas that have been historically missed. And not just the areas that they were always assuming problems existed, but in other areas as well. That's why full coverage is really important. And we, we try to get that to be our standards. And so we're basically going in, we're doing the inspection and then we are we are looking at it together within our software. We call it the gecko portal. So they get a portal or 3d visualize, for the customer, their their assets, all their areas of concerns. And then, you know, talking through how to mitigate.

Well, Audrey, it's time to kind of wind this show up. At this point, I get a little sad. That's okay. Because every Saturday, we're back here on ESPN, brainy, some of the coolest stories happening in Pittsburgh's ecosystem. I just love doing it.

It is fun. It is fun, that we're very lucky that we can we get a chance to meet all these different people and help, like unleash the stories or unlock the stories that are so they're just busy doing work heads down. And I think it's been even more powerful, and more impactful during COVID Yeah, I agree. So many things that you know, I don't know about our listeners, but I can tell you, there's so many things that I've learned about myself as a person, a leader, a colleague, a citizen in all the roles that I've had since in this COVID this pandemic. I feel like it's just it's one a lesson right? What a lesson with you more I think we've all done lots of introspection. And this is all taken us to our limits to figure out like what makes us tick and what makes us fired up.

The other thing that's really freaking me out Audrey is that like it's gonna be 2021 in a few weeks. And that means we've been doing this show and its various iterations in various stations for 14 years, which to me is kind of like oh, my fun and beyond insane, and we're still laughing and we're still meeting like amazing people absolutely.

It never ends. It never ends. So much fun. And we love it. We're gonna keep bringing that to the airwaves. That is for sure. And if you want to keep getting more what we do, because we have so many things in our archive, go to get pgh.com or go to PGH tech.org. And we have tech five radio that goes back to the years. It's like a little time capsule of what's gone on it's protect sector and we've been at stewards, and it's storytellers for quite a while. So it's always great hanging out with you telling these stories are good at PGH tech.org are all about the tech Council and all the great companies.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai