I’m Dan, and I’m an ex-academic.
For more than half my life, I thought, lived, and breathed academia, but something was missing: real-world impact. The techniques and technologies I was working on were so out there, so purely conceptual, so abstract, that they wouldn’t be applicable to everyday use for decades. Pure science and exploration is great and necessary, and can lead to wonder and awe (as I write this we’ve just witnessed the first powered flight on another planet!) but it doesn’t always address pressing, current needs.
Now, I have the chance to do both, heading up the Research and Development arm of Plus One Robotics. I look at it as an opportunity to combine my interests in the ‘head-in-the-sky’ ideation with the ‘feet-on-the-ground’ applications, bringing some of the latest and greatest research into products that people use today (or will in the very near future).
Of course, R&D is not without its (perceived) downfalls, the largest of which is that research ideas generally don’t make it into a product, and thus don’t start generating revenue, for some time. (Often more time than a startup’s current runway allows.) Most companies like Plus One Robotics grew out of research projects in labs, but in the effort to bring those ideas to market, continuing research gets put on hold while the company works to “productize” their offering. The playbook usually involves developing the technology just enough to (im)prove market-product fit, get some (more) clients, and close the next round of funding. The prevailing wisdom is often that R&D is a luxury we can’t afford as a fundamental department, but is something to be ‘unlocked’ by continued success.
But I think it’s a necessity we can’t afford to go without.
The R&D Experiment at Plus One Robotics
There are some roadblocks to keeping an active R&D department at a startup as an ongoing development team. First, R&D doesn’t lend itself well to being broken up into separate sprint-sized segments, in the manner that most software-centric companies are run today. Instead, projects tend to be long-running, and somewhat amorphous, splitting and combining as they evolve. Secondly, R&D has a longer time horizon than most other efforts at the company. As alluded to above, R&D efforts may not make it into the next release, or even the next (or next-next-next) one. These characteristics (high uncertainty and high risk) set R&D apart from the rest of the work at the company and can lead to a disconnect between R&D and product development.
Our goal at Plus One is to make R&D a part of the normal operations of the company. Here’s how we’re doing it.
Plus One Robotics’ R&D team focuses on high-risk, high-uncertainty projects beyond the roadmap of product development. To support this work, and keep the two teams connected, the R&D team consists of two types of staff. Permanent staff are those assigned to the R&D team full time, usually with specialized knowledge or training relating to one of the core technology areas of the company. Rotating staff come from other divisions of the company, who join R&D for one to three-month rotations to de-risk ideas, or explore novel technologies or fundamental questions. The goal of each rotation is a “proof-of” or “path-to” integration, demonstrating how a novel approach could be incorporated into the company’s products or processes (internal or external).
The goal is that the constant and regular flow of people between R&D and other parts of the company will act as glue, keeping R&D tethered to the immediate problems our clients and our teams face, as well as pulling products into the future by infusing them with fresh ideas. Research and development is all about combining the exploration of novelty with client-directed problem solving. Doing it well requires keeping both of these goals in mind and in sight at all times.
This setup is an experiment (inspired in part by others), and it will evolve and require tweaks along the way, but we are very optimistic about the potential. Check back in a few months and I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Dan works at the intersection of Machine Learning, Robotics, & Human Interaction, and is passionate about building technology that improves life. Dan leads Plus One Robotics’ R&D Lab, and the Boulder, CO office.