It’s Not About the Robots. It’s About Helping People Where They Live and Work.
A VentureLabs Interview with Jessica Yip, COO and Cofounder at A&K Robotics.
Jessica Yip (front row, right), COO and Cofounder, with some of the wonder women of A&K Robotics at SFU VentureLabs.
Jessica Yip is not building an early-exit Canadian tech entity; she and her team at A&K Robotics want to build the next Canadian growth company. And they are focusing on Artificial Intelligence and robots to do it. They have already sold their first product to Fortune 500 companies and are moving forward to bring intelligence to robots, so that they can work collaboratively with people.
We had the chance to chat with Jessica on how her Vancouver-based start-up – now a team of over 25 – are helping people both where they live and work.
VentureLabs (VL): Tell us more about A&K Robotics.
Jessica: We have developed an intelligent navigation system that transforms manual machines into self-driving robots. We want to enable people to get more out of life by automating movement and travel indoors, where we spend 87% of our time.
We founded the company in Vancouver because of the amazing technical talent here. Our intellectual property hits the intersection between hardware, software, electrical engineering, and artificial intelligence. We use commercial off-the-shelf sensors (since those change all the time) and focus our core value on the AI around mobility.
We want to build an innovation factory here in Vancouver, where we can focus on our core products but also have teams do applied research as AI and robotics technologies evolve.
VL: How did you decide what market to target?
Jessica: We all know that AI and robotics will play a huge role in the future and that there’s a myriad of ways the technology can be used to improve the quality of human life.
For our first product, we deliberately selected a low-barrier market to tackle first. It may sound odd, but the commercial cleaning market is huge (approximately $60B) and it’s a great place to hone our expertise with AI and robots. The sector does not face the same sort of regulations as others, its workforce is aging out (with not a lot of people entering the field), and there’s little chance that something could go drastically wrong when cleaning buildings afterhours. We have sold our autonomous cleaning robots to a number of places – universities, malls, and airports, and we now have repeat orders. No staff at our customer environments were displaced; workers were redeployed to take on other tasks that needed to be done because our robots handled the tasks that could be automated.
But I want to clarify something. A&K is not about designing cleaning robots; we are doing something much bigger – we are designing autonomous mobility solutions for indoor environments. There are so many use cases for this. For example, our core navigation capabilities are being applied to move people with mobility restrictions around airports. We have signed contracts for our Autonomous People Mover (APM) and will be releasing this in 2020. Our autonomous mobility capabilities can also be applied to roboticize many organizations’ assets, enable them with our growing fleet intelligence, and help make workflows more efficient and consistent.
VL: What did you do before starting A&K Robotics?
Jessica: I’ve had a varied career; I managed real estate portfolios, served as an operations manager, and run many programs. I’ve always loved providing exceptional customer experiences, and I bring that to A&K.
When Matt (Anderson) and Anson (Kung) and I started having much deeper discussions about the potential of autonomous indoor vehicles, I was hooked. Despite my non-technical background – or perhaps because of it – I could easily see how AI and robotics can be used to benefit people and help shape a knowledge-based economy for future generations.
VL: What makes your company unique?
Jessica: We’re unique in a number of ways:
- While we know that being first to market can matter, we really care about being best in market. We’d rather build the product that best meets our customer needs than put something out there that doesn’t really work. Our customers respect this.
- We care deeply about the diversity of opinions on our team, so we deliberately started with three co founders with very different backgrounds and skill sets. It’s our different approaches and skills – and I include our whole team here – that make us learn more and function better.
- We want to be in this for the long haul. We want to be an employer of choice, a Canadian company that will be around as a leader in AI and robotics for years to come.
Jessica speaking about AI, mobility, and purpose to an audience at Google New York
VL: What do you see as the big opportunity for A&K Robotics and others in your industry?
Jessica: Our core navigation stack, which provides the fundamental ability for a robot to know where it is, where it is going, and how to get there. There is so much opportunity related to “how do we move people faster and more efficiently?”
VL: Tell us what an ideal customer looks like for you.
Jessica: We are focusing on customers who can purchase deeply. We have certainly had interested parties who want to purchase a one-off system, but that’s not where we want to go. We want to roll out multiple units to the same organization. It helps our customer support team and helps us solidify the relationship. We love working with organizations that want to remove the more repetitive (and sometimes boring) parts of a person’s mobility-related job. We sell via a SaaS model, which seems to fit most organizations’ budgeting processes much better than a capital expenditure.
VL: What are the challenges or frustrations right now?
Jessica: Right now, the lack of funding in Vancouver is challenging. Sometimes it feels like the venture community favors the more US approach of “Succeed big and fast or fail big and fast” which is not our model. We’ve been at it four years, we’ve got customers and market growth, we’ve got proven technology, and we have a long-term vision of growing a viable company in Canada. We’ve had a few VCs try to pigeonhole us solely as a robotic cleaning company. We are ready for a raise but are looking for funding partners that share our long-term vision. We also want to build an innovation factory, and that’s really tough in the Vancouver real estate market.
VL: What impact do you want to have in the world or change you want to see or make happen?
Jessica: We want to bring autonomous mobility to everybody! We design and build helpful robots and want to change the world for the better through automation.
1. What podcasts do you listen to?
How I built This (NPR)
2. What’s your favorite thing to do in your free time?
Visit my dad and step-mom.
VL: Can you comment on being a female entrepreneur in 2019?
Jessica: I grew up where attributes like quietness, thoughtfulness, and a measured approach were instilled. Sometimes, in business – or maybe it’s more around the VC table – it seems like these things are less valued. I do find that female entrepreneurs are often encouraged to be something they are not (louder, more brash) yet we all know that not being true to yourself only sets you up for problems later.
I think I’m part of the wave we are seeing where the traditional attributes we once associated with leadership are shifting. There are many different types of leadership models and I look forward to celebrating more of those differences.
VL: What is the biggest challenge for you as an entrepreneur?
Jessica: This is tougher to explain. Our company is quintessentially Canadian in that we are quietly confident. We don’t hide or obfuscate, we don’t over-exaggerate, and we believe firmly in honesty and integrity. There has been external pressure on us to behave a bit more “flashily” or “bombastically;” that’s just not us. We stay true to our core values.
VL: If you had a “magic wand,” what thing would make it easier for you to succeed in your business?
Jessica: I would like to see funding models that support different types of businesses and different approaches to business.
A&K’s AI-powered robot in action at the airport.
VL: What keeps you going in the difficult times?
Jessica: This business. This team. We have the opportunity to impact so many things positively.
VL: What do you look for in your team members as you grow?
Jessica: People skills first. Technical skills second. We work very closely and cohesively, so good interpersonal skills are crucial. I’m not saying we all have to agree, but how we disagree matters. Respectful, honest, smart, and hardworking – that’s what matters as we grow.
VL: With the knowledge you have today, what advice would you give your younger self at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?
Jessica: Not all advice is good advice. It can be challenging to shift through the many opinions coming our way. We’re now far enough along in our journey where I trust my gut far more!
VL: If we were sitting here one year from today what would you and your team be celebrating together?
Jessica: We will have delivered our 1,000th robot, we will have broken into international markets, and our team will have at least doubled. Also, we will have sourced a location for our innovation factory!
VL: What does success look like for you?
Jessica: It’s all about our customers. If they are successful, we are successful.
VL: Do you have a mantra you live by?
Jessica: This is a multi-billion-dollar business. We can’t think any less.