#StartupsEverywhere: Santa Clara, C.A.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Thuc Vu, cofounder and CEO of OhmniLabs

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

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Beware of the Helpful Robots!

Startups across the U.S. are innovating and using artificial intelligence to enhance and improve our everyday lives from how we communicate to how we care for our loved ones. In Washington, D.C. there is a lot of talk about AI, emerging technologies, and how we look at trade. This week, we met with Thuc Vu, cofounder and CEO of OhmniLabs, a startup that produces home robots that help people communicate at a distance. You may seen their robots on the Today Show! Vu and his team have partnered with policymakers to help communities in their healthcare and workforce development efforts. As OhmniLabs continues to grow, Vu hopes policymakers look for solutions to immigration reform and incentivizing research and development.

Tell me about you. What’s your background?

I am a research-scientist-turned-entrepreneur with a PhD from Stanford and Bachelor of Science degree from Carnegie Mellon, both in computer science. My expertise is game theory, machine learning, tournament design and multi-agent systems. I previously founded Katango and Tappy, which were acquired by Google and Webby.co, respectively. Then I founded OhmniLabs in 2015.

Tell me more about OhmniLabs. Why did you start OhmniLabs? How big is your company?

OhmniLabs’ mission is to re-imagine personal robots. We believe that robots can make a positive impact on people’s everyday lives, and are committed to accelerate the adoption of robots in the home by reinventing the traditional robotics development process. We wanted to build a hardware company that was a lot more like a software company in terms of flexibility and iteration speed. Our thesis was that no company in the world knows exactly what the perfect robot should be — so being able to move fast and iterate is what will win in the long run.

We launched our first product, the Ohmni Telepresence Robot, last April on Indiegogo. Ohmni is being used in the homes, classrooms, hospitals, and offices— to remove geographical barriers and connect people with people or services simpler and at much cheaper cost. We have customers who are using Ohmni to spend time with their family when they can’t physically be there, and Ohmni already saved a life!

We currently have 20 employees working from our office and facility in Santa Clara, C.A., Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and remotely around the world.

What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the robotics industry in the last few years?

We want to move faster and be more flexible in our production and manufacturing process, and 3D printing has played a huge role in our work. We started out using commercial 3D printers, but through working with them, we have developed and now built our own printers to support our production.

How have you partnered with government officials?

We are U.S.-based, but we have customers and partners from all over the world. We are working with the Ministry of Health in Vietnam for a telehealth pilot with rural health centers to improve their access to quality care and cut waiting time. In the U.S., we are working with Rep. Ro Khanna’s office to further our impacts to the local community.

How does OhmniLabs work with Kambria?

When we were prototyping the first generations of Ohmni, we spent lots of time looking for existing researches and projects that we could use for our robots, and couldn’t find much. We believe that the adoption of robots into the home has been slow because R&D has been mostly siloed. So we created Kambria to be the first blockchain project to build an open innovation platform for frontier technology. Kambria will allow for many verticals, including robotics and AI, where we are focusing first with the knowledge and technologies we already developed building Ohmni.

How are you using robots to innovate healthcare? What about education?

We are working with healthcare providers to develop telehealth solutions to remove inefficiencies, cut costs and waiting time. In the senior care space, our robots are helping to fight social isolation, and allowing seniors to age in place gracefully. In education, we are working with school districts to connect students with their classes when they can’t physically be there.

Another solution we provide is the Ohmni Developer Kit built on the proven technology used in our own robots. The developer kit is an affordable human-scale open platform that includes our cloud-based JS framework OhmniAPI. Our goal here is to offer developers, researchers, and students the ability to program Ohmni as easily as developing web pages. We are extending the capabilities of the framework over time to add higher-level navigation and image/audio recognition so that writing high level tasks will be possible.

What is the biggest challenge you still face?

We are growing so quickly and are learning along the way. Finding the right talent is so important, and finding talent who can adapt and grow with the company is difficult.

From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for the startup ecosystem?

I am an immigrant, and a lot of our team members come from diverse background and we benefit greatly from this variety of viewpoints and experience. I do hope for a solution to help immigration entrepreneurs start companies, grow and create jobs easier in the U.S., since that would benefit American workers and the local economy. As a new tech company, we would love to see more incentives for advanced tech manufacturing and R&D.

What is your goal for the next year? Next five years?

We definitely want to hit all of our goals next year and build even more robotics solutions. We are unveiling an exciting prototype at CES 2019, so come visit us at booth 42152 at the Sands if you are around!

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email jen@engine.is. Give us your feedback here.