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Sometimes it seems like there are only as many humanoid robotics companies as the industry can possibly sustain, but the potential for efficient, reliable, and affordable humanoids is so great that there is plenty of room for any company to make them work. can force. . Joining a dozen companies already in the quest is Persona AI, which was founded last month by Nic Radford and Jerry Pratt, two people who know better than anyone what it takes to build a successful robotics company. Although they are also known to be wary of trading humanoids.

“It took me a long time to warm to the idea,” Nic Radford tells us. “After I left Notex in January, I wanted nothing to do with humanoids, especially underwater humanoids, and I kept hearing the word 'robot.' Didn't want to either. But things are changing so fast, and I got excited and called Jerry, like, it's really possible. Jerry Pratt, who had basically left the figure recently . Two-body problemIt seems to be coming from a similar place: “In robotics you need to bang your head against the wall, and persistence is very important. Nic and I have both gone through phases of frustration with our robots over the years. We are now a bit more optimistic about the commercial aspects, but we also want to be pragmatic and realistic about things.”

Behind all the recent humanoid hype is the very difficult problem of making a highly technical piece of hardware and software compete effectively with humans in the labor market. But it's also a huge opportunity — so big that Persona doesn't need to be the first company in the space, or the best funded, or the highest profile. They just have to be successful, but of course sustainable commercial success with any robot (and bipedal robots in particular) is easy. The first phase will build a founding team in two locations: Houston and Pensacola, Fla. But Redford says the response to just a few LinkedIn posts about Persona so far has been “overwhelming.” And with a substantial seed investment in the works, Persona won't just have a vision to attract top talent.

For more details on Persona, we spoke to Persona AI co-founders Nic Radford and Jerry Pratt.

Why started this company, why now, and why you?

Nick Radford

Nick Radford: His idea started long ago. Jerry and I have been working together for a long time, have been in the field and share a love for humanoid potential as well as a frustration with where humanoids are at. As far back as probably 2008, we were thinking of starting a humanoids company, but for one reason or another it wasn't viable. We were both recently looking for our next project and we couldn't imagine it sitting out completely, so we're finally going to explore it, even though we know better than anyone that robots. are really difficult. They are not difficult to construct; But it's hard to make them work and make money, and the challenge for us is can we build a viable business with Persona: can we build a business that uses robots and makes money? This is our sole focus. We strongly believe that this is the best time in history to realize this potential.

Jerry Pratt: I've been interested in commercializing humanoids for a long time—thinking about it, and going at it here and there, but lately it's always been the wrong time from a commercial standpoint and a technological readiness standpoint. . You can think back to the days of the DARPA Robotics Challenge when we had to wait about 20 seconds to get a good lidar scan and process it, which made it really difficult to operate autonomously. But we've gotten much, much better at perception, and now, we can get a whole perception pipeline to run at the framerate of our sensor. This is probably the most important technology that has happened in the last 10 years.

From a commercial perspective, now that we're showing that these things are viable, there's been a lot of traction from the industry. It seems that we are at the next stage of the industrial revolution, where difficult problems that have not been robotized since the 60s can now be done. And so, there are really good opportunities in many different use cases.

A bunch of companies have started up in the last few years, and several were even earlier. Are you worried you're too late?

Radford: The concern is that we are still too early! Maybe there is only one person who collects a billion dollars, but I don't think it will happen. There's going to be more than one winner, and if the market is as big as people claim, you could see a lot of diversity in the classes of commercial humanoid robots.

Jerry Pratt

Pratt: We definitely have some work to do but we should be able to do it pretty quickly, and I'd say most people aren't really that far off the starting line at this point. There's still a lot to do, but all the technology is here now — we know what it takes to put together a really good team and build robots. We're also going to do what we can to increase speed, such as starting with a surrogate robot from someone else so that the autonomy team can build their own robot and run it in parallel.

Radford: I also believe that our capital structure is a big deal. We're taking an anti-stealth approach, and we want to bring everyone along as our company grows and give early joiners a significant part of the company. It was our worry that we would be considered a me too and no one would care, but with the overwhelming response from both investors and early potential team members it has been quite the opposite.

So your approach here isn't to look at all these other humanoid robotics companies and try to be something they're not, but instead to achieve the same goals in a market where everyone Is there room for that?

Pratt: All robotics companies, and AI companies in general, stand on the shoulders of giants. It's the thousands of robotics and AI researchers who have been collectively wrestling with these myriad problems for decades — some of the first humanoids running at the University of Waseda in the late 1960s. While there are some secret sauces we can bring to the table, it's really the collaborative efforts of the research community that now enable commercialization.

So if you're at a point where you need to invent something new to reach applications, you're in trouble, because with invention you never know how long it's going to take. From what is available today, the technology that various communities have developed over the last 50+ years—we all have what we need for the first three applications that are widely mentioned: warehousing; , manufacturing, and logistics. The big question is, what is the fourth request? And the fifth and sixth? And if you can start figuring them out and planning for them, you can get a leg up on each one.

The difficulty lies in implementation and integration. It's a ten-thousand—no, it's probably too small—a million-piece puzzle where you have to fit every single piece, and occasionally you lose pieces on the floor that you can't find. So you need a broad team with expertise in 30 different disciplines to try to solve the challenge of an end-to-end labor solution with humanoid robots.

Radford: The idea is like a percentage of starting a company. The rest of it, and why companies fail, is in execution. Things like, not understanding market and product-market fit, or how to run a company, not understanding the dimensions of the actual business. I believe we're different because with our background and our experience we bring a very strong view of execution, and that's our focus on day one. There is enough interest in the VC community that we could fund this company with a single focus on commercializing humanoids for a few different verticals.

But listen, we got some new ideas in activation and other tricks that could be very compelling for him, but we don't want to emphasize that aspect. I don't think Persona's ultimate success comes from the tech component alone. I think it's mostly 'do we understand the customer, the market needs, the business model, and can we avoid the mistakes of the past?'

How will this change things about the way you play Persona?

Radford: I started a company. [Houston Mechatronics] With a group of research engineers. They don't make the best product managers. More broadly, if you're staffing all of your departments with roboticists and engineers, you'll know that this may not be the most efficient way to bring something to market. Yes, we need these skills. They are essential. But there are many other aspects of business that get overlooked when you're primarily a research lab trying to commercialize robots. I've been there, done that, and I have no interest in making that mistake again.

Pratt: It's important to have a really good product team working with a customer from day one to do all the engineering the customer needs. Another approach is to 'build it and they will come' but then you probably don't build the right thing. Of course, we want to make a multi-purpose robot, and we're avoiding saying 'general purpose' at this point. We don't want to fit too much into a single application, but if we can get to a dozen use cases, two or three per user site, then we have something.

There still seem to be unsolved technical challenges with humanoids, including hands, batteries and safety. How will Persona deal with these things?

Pratt: Hands are such a tricky thing – getting a hand that has the desired degree of freedom and is strong enough that if you accidentally hit it on your desk, you won't just break all your fingers. But we've seen robotic hand companies pop up now showing videos of their hands being hammered, so I'm optimistic.

Getting one to two hours of battery life is relatively achievable. Pushing to five hours is very difficult. But batteries can now charge in 20 minutes or more, as long as you're going from 20 percent to 80 percent. So we'll need a cadence where the robots are switching in and out and charging as they go. And batteries will continue to improve.

Radford: Our focus is on safety. This was paramount at NASA, and when we were working on Robonaut, it led to a lot of morphological considerations with padding. In fact, the first concepts and images of our robot describe extensive padding, but we have to do it carefully, because at the end of the day it has volume and it connects.

What does the near future look like for you?

Pratt: Building the team is really important – getting the first 10 to 20 people on board in the next few months. Then we'll want to get some hardware and move really fast, maybe we'll start our robot design in parallel with some robot arms or something to push our behavior and learning pipelines. buy From our experience, after assembling a good team and starting with a clean sheet, it takes about a year to design and build a new robot. And then during that period we might be securing one or two or three customers.

Radford: We're also hard at work on some very high-profile partnerships that could dramatically impact our early thinking. As Jerry said earlier, this is a massive 100,000 piece puzzle, and we're working on the basics: people, cash and customers.

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