This billionaire who wrote Google’s original code created a robot revolution
In May 2010, in an office in Menlo Park, California, 11 450-pound humanoid robots stood before their proud “parents” and supporters.
Then, the lights went off and music rumbled on. Twirling their heads, the robots began a synchronized dance to the ’80s hit “Mr Roboto” with blue spotlights flashing, waving flags grasped in their “hands,” and moving with flaunts and flourishes that had the crowd shouting with happiness.
This noisy display was the “graduation ceremony” thrown for the ‘bots by Willow Garage, the company that had produced them with each at a rough cost of $400,000. They were all about to be given away to enter the real world for free.
The now out-dated research-lab-startup hybrid was one of the most influential forces in modern robotics. The current race was jump-started by the freewheeling robot collective to apply robotics components like manipulation, computer vision, and autonomy into applications for everything from autonomous cars to drones and to warehouse operations at places like Google, Amazon, and car companies like BMW. Google alone acquired three of the robot companies produced by Willow.
Willow Garage made massive strides in robotics hardware and software that was founded by an unusual billionaire who addressed a “robot revolution.” It is most remarkable through the research bots, called PR2s, and the creation of an open-source robot operating system that is still being used by academics, engineers, and hobbyists worldwide today.
The Garage was an imaginable menagerie of really bright people at its top with varied departments building really “smart” robots, until it eventually surrendered to some of the same forces that have tested many talented Silicon Valley startups.
Here’s the interesting story of how Willow Garage came to existence, fell apart, and continues to live on today.
Scott Hassan, founder of Willow Garage is a big-picture thinker. He is the type of person who will deviate from a conversation about telepresence into thinking on what the world will be like once money becomes completely insignificant because robots will be doing all our work for us.
Back in 2012, he was one of the first people to invest in mysterious augmented reality Magic Leap. More than $700 million at a whopping $4.5 billion valuation was raised by Magic Leap earlier this month.
In fact, he’s precisely the kind of person who you would expect to get along with “moonshot” king and Alphabet CEO Larry Page.
While Hassan was working on an Integrated Digital Libraries project at Stanford, he met Page and Sergey Brin. He ended up programming much of the original search engine that ultimately became Google.
In 1998, just 12 days after Page and Brin officially formed Google, Hassan also decided to invest $800 in the company. He then founded his own company: An email-list service called eGroups.com that Yahoo bought for about $432 million in 2000.
Thanks to that success and his early Google stake, Hassan collected the amount of money that finally enable him to buy office space in Menlo Park even before he knew precisely what he wanted to do with it. Its address — 68 Willow Road — eventually motivated his new company’s name.
No more reinventing the wheel
Hassan persuaded Steve Cousins, who had employed him as an undergraduate intern at Washington University years earlier, to become Willow’s first CEO.
“My job was to fill the building with interesting people doing interesting things around autonomous technology,” he tells Business Insider.
Hassan planned to devote enough funding to the startup to keep about 60 people working there per year, so they began hiring all the top roboticists and researchers they could get hold of.
The collective concentrated on personal assistants, driverless boats, and autonomous cars in the beginning, but finally started concentrating on building programmable bots.
“We had this vision that came together through the people who were there,” Cousins says. “Everybody brought something to the table.”
At a time when Roombas were the only kind of robot most people had seen in real life even back in 2006, Hassan could intensely picture the world where general-purpose autonomous robots would fill our homes and help us with everyday tasks that we would somewhat avoid. While he needed robots out in the world, but he also knew that there was still a lot of homework that was required to get done first.
“I wanted the robot revolution to get here sooner,” he tells Business Insider.
The team started concentrating on a common operating system that roboticists everywhere could use to stop wasting time “reinventing the wheel” on every research project, as Hassan had long been a big believer in open source.
“Sharing was what was important,” Hassan tells Business Insider. “We wanted to build something that could run on any other kind of robot anywhere else in the world.”
Robot marathons and gourmet food
Willow was building robots in tandem with the Robotics Operating System (ROS) to run it on.
The team made huge strides in human-robot interaction, robot manipulation, perception, planning, and more to create the PR2s.
The company had Silicon Valley’s move-fast attitude, but a motto of “impact first and return on capital second.”
It took about four years of hustling for Willow to be ready to release PR2 to the 11 hand-picked research institutions that had exhibited worthy ambitions for the bots, which each had a no-cost, two-year lease, though every organization eventually found a way to keep their PR2 indefinitely. The ROS software in that time had caught on beyond the team’s wildest dreams, scaling the company’s name into the mainstream.
Willow built up a strong intern program that eventually transferred more than 130 students or visiting researchers through its headquarters to get the most out of and upsurge that recognition.
It soon became like a badge of honor in the robotics community by spending time at WG. Many of the former employees used the phrase “Willow Mafia” to define the resulting kinship, and one, Matei Ciocarlie, laughed remembering how at a hug robotics conference in 2010, the steep number of Willow Garage T-shirts, sweaters, and backpacks popping up had blown him away.
“You knew you were contributing to something that was going to be big,” Kaijen Hsiao, another Willow alum, said. “But it was also just a really great place to be. It was like a playground funded by a billionaire.”
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Willow had fresh, communal meals prepared on site every day. Unlike with most other companies, you could also find robots folding laundry, playing pool, or fetching a beer in Willow’s office.
The team once tested the capabilities of the programmed PR2 to plug itself in when running out of batteries by making it run a 2 “pi” kilometer marathon (6.28 kilometers) around the office, recharging itself autonomously whenever it needed.
Willow started to focus on other projects and spin-offs when ROS had once officially infected the robotics community in 2011, wherein the initial PR2s had been distributed.
The company started looking for opportunities in the market for autonomous bots and educating the team about entrepreneurship.
In what many of the employees mentioned as Willow’s second act, it began selling its PR2s and turned off eight companies, including three foundations.
Google took over three of the four-profits as part of its aspiring robotics buying spree. (This proved good news for everyone, as Willow employees had stock in each spin-off.)
One particular idea caught the eye of Hassan. Together, the team had hacked iPad-on-wheels to let a remote employee to roam around the office, which it developed into a robot called “Beam.” The potentials of telepresence stimulated Hassan and he made a team called Suitable Technologies in 2011 by taking a group of WG employees with him.
That meant Hassan was financing two companies from that point on. Willow Garage was shelling about $20 million a year. He had realized that getting autonomous personal robots into people’s homes was still a long way off (even though ROS could support countless functions, the cost of developing the hardware to handle something reportedly just as picking up an article of clothing was way too expensive).
In late 2013, he finally decided to pull out his investment and concentrate all his resources on the more near-term telepresence market with Suitable.
Hassan explains Willow’s end emotionlessly:
“I saw people starting to get restless, so I just decided to shut things down and go, ‘You’re free!'” Hassan says. “And what happened next was, everyone started companies.”
That did ultimately happen, but not before Cousins and the remaining team made one last effort to save Willow.
“I’d put my heart and soul into the organization — I’d hate to lose it,” Cousins says. “I wanted to see if we could keep it alive.”
All the remaining team members joined together to work on one product from February 2013 until August that year. Cousins achieved to get someone eager to finance the new idea. However, the deal would have required Hassan to sell a big piece of his ownership, which he did not want to do.
All the employees seriously shut down their computers when it became clear Willow was over on a bright summer day before trampling out to a local park for a giant softball game (though unfortunately the remaining PR2s weren’t invited).
Just about everyone who was working at Willow until the shutdown ended up either joining one founded by fellow co-workers or starting their own robotics company. For example, Cousins now runs a company called Savioke, which develops robots that can deliver items to hotel guests.
Mizra Shah who worked at WG in its last year and a half, and is the cofounder and CTO of a robotics company called Simbe, says “Willow went down but now we’re all like the Phoenix. We’re out there building new things, stronger than before.”
Hassan says he invested more than $80 million into Willow Garage, which he regards the cost well worth the reward of robotics progress. And, his sights as always are pinned on the future.
“In the next few years you’re going to see an explosion of robotics,” he says. “It’s all happening right now. The rest of this decade is gonna be pretty crazy. By 2021, people are going to have robots all over their lives doing all these different tasks.”
More than $150 million venture capital funding went to businesses last year that use Willow’s ROS.
Another former employee, Maya Cakmak says, “A large portion of current roboticists in the world have one degree of separation with WG. I think in the future, when we look back, WG will be what Bell Labs or Xerox Parc was for personal computers, for robotics.”