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MATLAB for Startups – Notes from a founder with You Wu

You Wu is currently the Robotics and Autonomous System Industry Manager at MathWorks where he works on strategies to expand MathWorks products’ usage among robotics developers. Unforeseen, I met You a few years ago when he was operating under a different mindset, one of an inspired and driven startup founder. You was working out of a lab at MIT when we met to discuss his use of MATLAB and how MathWorks Startup Program could support his then company, WatchTower Robotics. Fast-forward to today, and we are brought back together as we hear You’s tips from a founder and why entrepreneurs should choose MATLAB for startups.

Madeline: Can you tell the audience about Watchtower Robotics?
You: Watchtower Robotics produced a robot to inspect underground water pipes, locating leaks for municipal utilities. We built those robots and deployed them into water pipes in Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia and Indiana. This experience was all I wished for as an engineer; design and develop a product and deploy the product in real life to help customers solve their problems.

M: How did your startup idea come about?
Y: The idea comes from customers who really need to solve their water problem. The technology was originally developed at MIT as part of my PhD research, and Watchtower licensed the patented technology from MIT. My research was started by visionary leaders in Saudi Arabia. They are aware that, while it costs a lot more to produce clean water in the desert nation, they are constantly losing their produced water due to leaks in transmission. Their water pipe network was losing about 30% of all produced water every day. They wanted to stop the leaks but, at a first step, they could not find and locate those leaks with available solutions back then. Thus, they came to MIT to fund the development of a leak detection solution that would work for them. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work on their project and developed this technology.

M: Pipe inspection robot! It is surely a unique application. What do you see as the current trends for startups in robotics and autonomous systems?
Y: In the robotics industry, I see startups heading in all directions. A few years ago, we thought of robots as robot arms in assembly lines. Now, we see robots crawling into pipes, and robots doing the camera work at movie studios. Robotics startups are diverging and extending the application of robotics into all edges of all industries.

Watchtower Robotics’ pipe inspection robot (courtesy of You Wu)

M: It must take a lot of effort to build a robotic product. How many engineers were there at Watchtower Robotics? What was most important when you were building an engineering team in a startup?
Y: At the peak time in 2019, we had 11 engineers.

I learnt two key things through my startup life. First, make engineers owners of the product. Their work produces the value proposition for customers. I found it draws out the best of the engineers’ productively when we respect them as the owner of the products. Rather than telling them how they should build it, tell them the customer’s pain and let them solve the problem with their own creativity.

Second, it can be chaotic when you have a group of engineers, or now, a group of owners. It is important to have a communication system that brings everyone together. For example, daily standup and cadence. In early days I ran into these two situations a lot. When engineer Bob was speaking at the cadence, he spoke directly on the improvement he made without first telling everyone, first hand, what he was working on and why an improvement was needed. Another situation was that every engineer has his or her preferred development tools or programming language. It took a lot of time to integrate different people’s code into one application. Having a communication system, a set of rules in place, such as how we communicate to each other and how our code communicates to each other, is very impactful on the startup’s productivity.

M: What lead you to pick MATLAB for your development?
Y: At Watchtower Robotics, we used many other tools before converging to MATLAB. When every engineer was using his or her preferred programming environment, it incurred a lot of overhead, non-productive work hours, to integrate everyone’s code modules. Everyone was familiar with MATLAB, and there was not a steep learning curve to switch to MATLAB for people. With MATLAB as a single environment, it saved us a lot of the overhead to connect different code modules together.

M: How did MathWorks tools help you in your development?
Y: MathWorks tools really accelerated our development. As one example, we were trying to do data processing on the readings from an Inertia sensor (IMU). The goal was to understand how the robot was rotating when it was moving through the pipe. Our engineer, who has a computer science background, did a lot of research, found some opensource libraries in Python, and put together his own code. It took one week. During the demo, I turned the IMU upside down very quickly. His code predicted that the IMU was flying through the roof—a bug was found. It took him another few days to debug and fix the problem. In comparison, we tried the same IMU in MATLAB. Using the IMU features in the Navigation Toolbox, we got the same IMU working in an hour. And when I flip the IMU, the MATLAB feature predicted the motion perfectly. No bugs. That was about ten days of engineering time saved.

M: MathWorks has a partnership with MassChallenge to sponsor startups with free licensing and engineering support. How did this impact you when you were a member?
Y: The free licensing is a huge benefit, especially as a startup with limited resources. But I want to highlight the additional free MATLAB resource I wish I knew about back in my startup days. At Watchtower Robotics, we thought that is all we get from MathWorks for startups, free licenses. What I did not know until I came to work at MathWorks, is that startups can get free technical support from experienced application engineers at MathWorks. This is not just coding and debugging assistance, it is discussions with senior engineers with many years of industry experience on how to solve an engineering problem. I’ve since supported multiple startups in this type of technical support calls. Startups, make sure you take advantage of this free technical support!

M: Do you have any other advice outside of MathWorks tools for startup founders?
Y: For at least hardware product focused startups, would you like to spend your team’s valuable time on building applications and user experience, or reinventing certain backend software that you saw useful somewhere else? Like in the IMU story, I found it very efficient to use the toolboxes in MATLAB to accelerate the backend software development, so my team can focus on building applications and user experience. I hope you find this advantage as well.

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