19. Turning Robotics Education on its Head, with Dan O'Mara

2022-05-17 · 1:31:44

In this episode, Audrow Nash speaks to Dan O'Mara, who is the founder and COO of Circuit Launch and Mechlabs. Circuit Launch is a space for hardware entrepreneurs to work in Oakland, California, and Mechlabs is a project-based course to learn robotics. This interview is mostly about Mechlabs, but talks about the origins of Circuit Launch, including how it is not a maker or coworking space and its business model. For Mechlabs, we talk about several of its aspects that make it different than a university education in robotics, including how there are mentors not instructors, how projects are scoped, and how people are invited to work on what is most interesting to them. We also talk about the future of Mechlabs and how it fits with current universities.




  • 0:00:00 - Start
  • 0:01:27 - Introducing Dan and Circuit Launch
  • 0:06:59 - Not coworking or a makerspace
  • 0:15:10 - Coming to current business model
  • 0:20:44 - Mentors not instructors
  • 0:28:28 - Introducing Reachy
  • 0:36:00 - Scoping projects
  • 0:44:48 - Scaling their education program
  • 0:59:27 - If companies paid people to learn
  • 1:06:14 - Marker 30
  • 1:10:14 - Importance of having students write documentation
  • 1:13:16 - Requirements
  • 1:21:27 - Comparing to today’s universities
  • 1:25:35 - Role of education
  • 1:29:30 - Expansion plans
  • 1:30:41 - Getting in touch


The transcript is for informational purposes and is not guaranteed to be correct.

(0:00:02) Audrow Nash

This is a conversation with Dan O'Mara, who is a founder and the COO of Circuit Launch and Mechlabs, Circuit Launches a space for hardware entrepreneurs in Oakland, California. And Mechlabs is a project-based course for robotics education. What does a robotics education look like to you? Dan jokes during the interview that if you're at a university that you need to major in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science, to get a robotics education, some universities do have a dedicated robotics program, but it's a big commitment, both in terms of time and money. And what if you already have a degree, even an engineering? Should you go back to school? I have friends and family considering this question. And I feel like there's a gap here, where a group of would-be roboticists don't know how to get started. And this seems to be one of the spots where mech lab fits well. I also find it interesting that Mechlabs basically does the opposite of what universities do on several levels, as you'll see during this interview, and that doing so has worked well for them. They are, as Dan says, during the interview, creating a program that they wanted to learn from. I'm Audrow Nash, this is the Sense Think Act Podcast. Thank you to our founding sponsor Open Robotics. And now, here's my conversation with Dan O'Mara. Dan, would you introduce yourself?

(0:01:29) Mara

Sure, I'm Dan O'Mara, the COO of Circuit Launch and Mechlabs, we are a basically a community space for robotics and hardware engineering, with corking shared labs, as well as a educational program for mechatronics.

(0:01:47) Audrow Nash

I don't want to talk about both of those things. Let's start with Circuit Launch, would you tell me kind of the story of Circuit Launch how it's come to what it is?

(0:01:56) Mara

Sure, I think Circuit Launch grew up in the bay area here as a space coming off the the tail end of like the fall of tech shop, and the understanding of like that, there were all of these entrepreneurs and people in this area who are doing hardware, electronics and robotics, and like, this is the Bay Area, we don't have space to do that, where you can run a business like this kind of in your garage and a lot of other places. But eventually, you do need some type of space to build things in a workshop and lab tools and all of the that stuff. And we just realized that there are all these entrepreneurs who are doing, you know, new companies, like because of the start of Kickstarter, and all of the great robotics technologies that are starting to become a lot more available. And we need, you know, they need space, they need shirt labs, they need facilities, they need that any you know, I make a joke that you know, we're not we work we don't have you know, we don't provide scented candles with your your members. We're a little messy, chic, we, you know, bow, you know, one of the things that really resonated on our marketing language and website is it's like, you know, do you want to put a soldering iron on your desk come work here, like this is where we, you know, we want you who are building stuff making stuff. During that I mean, we have we have one person right now has a metal lathe that he snuck onto his desk, basically. And so in the upstairs area, so like that, we realized that there is such a need for like a community and a place where you can work and you can share with other roboticists and other electronics, hardware specialists and, and everything and build a business. And so that's what we really focused on. We said entrepreneurs who are building hardware and robotics businesses, we want to have a space for them. And we want to make this work. And so that was the original side of it. We partnered with our building owner, which is also another crucial part of our business model, to be able to provide that space and to be able to make that so that we weren't going to just grow big, and then all of a sudden the building owner, you know, creates a lease situation where we could. And it was it was a wonderful match made in heaven. We found an incredible business building for about 32,000 square feet. And we've started building our community from just a few people. And we used to let you know any kind of company come in and now we're over 95% specifically, robotics not even like, like we used to do like oh, you know, if you're a lawyer that works in the patent space, you can come here if you're a you know, you do some software, somewhat something you could come in like there, and now it's just really our community has become all about robotics, which is great. And that's really what we're, we're we're creating and fostering and now people want to build their companies from marine robotics to you know, IoT devices to Krub the we have a company that just won the the department energy E robot prize From the robots, they're a carpet cleaning robot. So it's just all of these, these people came. And, you know, we rebuilt it. And they came. And that's really the kind of the story. And we've, we've been constantly working with startups to be like, give them what they need, which is sometimes the ability to have a desk, sometimes the ability to expand into an office. And then sometimes it's the ability to go bankrupt and have all of your employees start new businesses and new companies and go into little other places and downsize things. So that flexible space was what we really knew that our community needed. And then market tested it. And now we have a really flourishing awesome community that we're leveraging to create a, you know, an education program on top of and get more people, robotics experience and projects and mentorship and everything else.

(0:05:53) Audrow Nash

It's awesome that it's 95% occupancy.

(0:05:58) Mara

We're 100% occupied just 95% Robotics 95% Robotics. Where,

(0:06:03) Audrow Nash

yeah, that's so exciting. Yeah, cuz I was there with Hello, buddy. Two, three summers ago, as an intern for them. And it was really wonderful to be in the space. Like, I loved all the robotics that was going on around. And I think I don't remember numbers, but it was it didn't I don't think we were, I don't think it was 100% occupied two or three years ago. Now. That's wonderful. Gosh, and we just went to the block party, or you just had the block party, and it was wonderful to see the turnout for that

(0:06:37) Mara

robot, block party. Barbecue, we do that every, we're now that's our second one in six months, their second one, you know, in a year. So we've done we're hope planning to do those every six months, and it's been now we had 40 Different robotics companies and vendors and demos all come out. And with the job fair, and everything, it was really

(0:06:57) Audrow Nash

fun of it. Yeah. So I mean, from my perspective, it kind of seems like it's part co working space. And then part makerspace, with like laser printers and CNC machines, and I don't know all these things. And then the focus on community.

(0:07:13) Mara

So that, like, from our marketing side of point, we're trying to, kind of, in many ways, kill off those two terms, coworker, and robot and makerspace. And it's interesting, because that, that's really about where really, so the the co working side, obviously, we're shared offices, you can read desks and offices, that mean, it's co working. Yeah, but, you know, co working really kind of doesn't explain the fact that you have great labs and tools and 3d printers and, you know, an electronics bench and a soldering bench and that you can, you know, if you want to put a 3d printer on your, your dedicated desk, you know, you can put a 3d printer on your dedicated desk and run it all night long, right? All of that. And so that's really why we, you know, co working is very much this sense of, like, that's a dead business because of we work, right. And so we want

(0:08:02) Audrow Nash

to I mean, there's no more potential for a company to start there. Because we were kind of in applies that.

(0:08:08) Mara

Well, not even monopolize, but just that, you know, people aren't interested in the like, coworking has a bad rap because of it from an investment profile and everything else, right. And we're so much more than that. Like you, we don't want to be pigeon holed into the idea of just like, you know, you're you're we're all working together. And it's like, we have a full lap and facilities and we want to, you know, in a community there, which is so much more valuable than Makerspace side of it. Another business that is kind of doomed to fail for most most people's minds, right, especially after Tech Shop. Right?

(0:08:41) Audrow Nash

I don't know, Tech Shop.

(0:08:43) Mara

Oh, okay. So, Tech Shop was. And that's partly because the space you're in fits more with what we're doing. Like we, we don't want to be a makerspace we want to be an on a shared Fab Lab, by intellect. It's mainly the difference is the level of entrepreneurs and robotics companies, rather than hobbyists and makers, right? Yeah. And not to say that we don't want makers and hobbyists, we were happy to take them. But we also realized that we want we want people cutting edge industry professionals in our space and doing right. And so Tech Shop was kind of the first big Makerspace like, I mean, make in magazine, they all kind of evolved with tech shop to be one of the largest, most well known makerspaces, you know, in the world, and Tech Shop, grew on this very unsustainable model. And then they made a lot of mistakes. And obviously, we don't want to go into that, but they went bankrupt. And then all of these makers and professionals and entrepreneurs who, who realized, hey, shared laboratories and shared resources is a it's a good thing and an economically viable thing for my business. And now I don't have have that

(0:10:00) Audrow Nash

anymore, right? Totally. Yeah, so but

(0:10:03) Mara

so what we do, and part of what tech shops issues, whereas they didn't support their entrepreneurs enough, they supported their hobbies and makers. But the problem with that is that there is a limited amount of money you can make off of a hobbyist, because there are always going to be, you know, where an entrepreneur is somebody who can be able to support a community and be able to invest in new tools, and have all of those things in a creates, and then build larger office, you know, and be in bigger offices and support a space because that, you know, having monthly memberships have just a small amount and can't, it can be hard to run an industrial space with all of these resources on whatever. So having those those places for entrepreneurs, and that's where we realize it's like, if we point ourselves towards the helping entrepreneurs and helping small businesses go from like a small desk all the way up to a larger office and help them you know, introduce them into networking and funding and all of these things. Like I think we're we're a little bit more akin to an incubator than we are a makerspace. Except we don't take, we don't take that percentage of equity from anybody, we just want people to pay for space and join our community. And then that in itself, has so many dividends.

(0:11:21) Audrow Nash

Definitely. Very interesting. Yeah, I've been. So I've gone to a ton of makerspaces. Because I find them quite useful. I just trying to be involved with hardware. And I often see they're incredibly underfunded, they're lacking, like, kind of like, the really knowledgeable people, like they'll get burned out, because they're helping everyone and then they end up leaving. And then often because of maybe the weird funding situation, they're very political often, which is kind of like stepping into a toxic environment, I just wanted to use a 3d printer, this kind of thing.

(0:11:55) Mara

Yeah, and it is hard, we found that, you know, we love our maker community, don't get me wrong, I don't want to say anything bad about the makers, and the hobbyists who come and use definitely is wonderful. But entrepreneurs are a lot more hands off. Like, I don't have to teach the most basic, like, everyone, when you when we focus on entrepreneurs, and robotics companies, everyone is an expert in something, right. And this will even come back to when we are when we're talking about education side of things, right? Because it's very much a pure we a pure learning system as well. Yeah. And that if everyone's coming as a an expert in something, they've learned how to learn, right. And the same thing with a space where if people are coming in, they have a large expertise in this one thing, they probably they don't know how to do all this other stuff. But the fact that they can learn it and do it, well is something that is is very likely, and they don't you don't do a lot of hand holding, right? Where I find that with some of the makerspaces particularly tech shop, I found that they they had the their their staff were called Dream coaches. Right. But they were minimum wage, people who maybe learned how to use the machines a day before everyone else. Right. And, and the amount of help that ever all of the members needed on all of the machines and how to do things, and all of that stuff that wasn't part of their business model that was just supplied as your membership for free. And they're understaffed. People, right. So yeah, it becomes really hard to run a space when you are educating every single person, the best makerspaces I found are they do have ways like where you say are very community are very like, like politics side, because the community has to provide that. Yeah. Not, you know, the tears and not the makerspace variable. But you have to create the community that does that, in many ways. We've, we've done that to a large degree, because then that, you know, but it's no longer how to use the laser cutter, it's how to get your batteries certified for shipping, how to get FCC certified for saying, and that's where, you know, if we had created a space that was kind of like makerspaces for that, you know, it's a lot to leave handhold every single person through, so that, you know, I'm just continually impressed by our community of just how high level they are. And then because of that, they understand what it means to have a shared facility and it doesn't mean that we still don't get messes and issues and politics and all that

(0:14:32) Audrow Nash

of course but yeah, but

(0:14:36) Mara

you know, it's when when a community is of a community of experts and everyone is kind of doing things that and learning to level up their businesses and their self and then being in that community of doing together the the the ability to share that is incredible. Right and where and the best makerspaces do that with the hobbyist level twos is they get their their members to Have other members and it's not expected to be like management teaches you everything.

(0:15:07) Audrow Nash

Yeah. Let's see. So that I mean, it's a very interesting, I really liked the model. How did you? How did you come to this model of like so coworking has its perks, but it's kind of saturated by Upwork. Or it's, like hard to improve upon that. And then makerspaces have their kind of business model level issues. How did you come to this idea of targeting people, not not targeting people, but like focusing on entrepreneurs? As opposed? Like, how did you come on the business model that we've just kind of described?

(0:15:44) Mara

Well, that from the very beginning, like we all saw what tech shop was doing, and knew that we wanted something more, because they didn't, they didn't serve the entrepreneurial like makerspaces don't serve entrepreneurs very well, right? Because it's like, well, it's got everybody's gotta have some time on the tool. Well, sometimes an entrepreneur needs all the time 100 tools, right? And you have to be able to provide some of that, that ability of ways to to work that out. And so we, from the very beginning, we were like, well, you know, I'm involved in hardware, one of our founders were involved in hardware, and like, this is, this is what we do and what we need. And so we were like, well, there are other people who are there, this is what a good space like, this would be great, because we were like, also, let's use the resource of from the building owner having the space. And so we built this all out from the carpets to the drop ceiling and everything, and saying, like, you need to have space, and you need to be able to have that customer group and find that niche. And that's where we really, we saw that this niche was underserved. And, you know, we took a big bet that this would be that there would be enough people here. And now you know, it's like we have a waiting list for most of our wonderful tables. And we're happy to hear that. It's wonderful for for that and we want to expand and we're you know, we are currently looking for for more funding for our round as well. And we're looking to put more Circuit Launchers out there. And specifically, the the tie in to education was is that after we built this community, people were like, Well, how did everyone here learn how to do robotics? Yeah, right. I want to do this, how do I do this? And we're like, go to school.

(0:17:27) Audrow Nash

Maybe? Yeah.

(0:17:29) Mara

And they're like, well, but but that they're not teaching robotics. They're just there, you know, I what degree do I get? I think well, you should go get an A, you should go get a computer science degree in mechanical engineering degree and an electrical engineering degree. And all of

(0:17:43) Audrow Nash

us learned business, if you want to do a stolen,

(0:17:45) Mara

you should learn business, too. Yeah. And like, maybe there's not enough time in the world to be able to learn all those things. So we we said, we were like, Okay, we need a mechatronics education program, that immediately gets people using the latest technology. And the latest things in building robots is the first step.

(0:18:05) Audrow Nash

And from a very pragmatic perspective to like, this is one of the things about having entrepreneurs and it like they probably won't be wasting your time, because they are, they have skin in the game, and their money is slowly depleting. And this kind of thing, while they're trying to get interest and grow. Like Time is of the essence for them. So they're gonna do whatever is most pragmatic for them. Well, that that was actually

(0:18:29) Mara

the model that like, led us to this type of learning, right? But entrepreneurs are not necessarily our target market are the learning curves, for the learning side of it was because most of most entrepreneurs are too. Like, there's a couple things. They're too busy to do the thing like they can only focus on the thing that they need the next step. Yeah, so unless there's some type of immediate coaching or whatever that they need, then the business model really is if you need that type of doesn't like good design services and prototyping services, get them connected with other people in the network, right. But there's a whole group, if you want to work in robotics, and you don't have a job and you're not willing to like, be the entrepreneur, like I want to work for a company or I want to build a robot, you know, or I want to learn to get better in my job, or upskill or do those things. There's all of those people, and that's kind of our market for Mechlabs, which is it's our education program.

(0:19:26) Audrow Nash

Mechlabs. Yeah, it sounds like so when you focus on the entrepreneurs from the perspective of Circuit Launch, it seems like it's a it's a bit of an exclusive community where you come in and you're an entrepreneur, and you are highly skilled in at least one thing, and you're good at learning and you're pragmatic, and you can pay the bills to occupy desk space. And so that's a good business model for circuit launch, but being kind of exclusionary. Now, it's like how do we get the other people in a position where they might go into this and that's the education program. You got it. Gotcha. I really like that,

(0:20:02) Mara

that and then the benefit is is that we are filled in a community of mentors. All of those entrepreneurs are, you know, they're in the community, they've done it they are, they're on the bleeding edge of technology and doing cool stuff, right? So it's very easy to find someone who has a lot of skill and expertise to come in and help people and become mentors in a lot of the stuff and to be able to get answers from too for sure, if I have this very hard problem. Now we've created this community that that serves everyone, and they've been serving each other, and a lot. And now it's being able to also serve the, you know, the students that want to come in and be able to learn how to do this as

(0:20:42) Audrow Nash

well. Yeah. How do you incentivize entrepreneurs to be mentors? For this, because you were saying they're very busy. And I just imagine that's a challenge. Or maybe you pay them or maybe it's part of the like, you get your desk at half off, or something like this, if you're a mentor, there's

(0:21:00) Mara

obviously incentives to self to mentor. I think that in general, you know, so yes, we do pay our mentors that come in, but we have a very different model, like we're not looking for instructors. That's the big difference with our education program. And Mechlabs is a built to learn it program,

(0:21:19) Audrow Nash

it is difficult to you. Sure,

(0:21:22) Mara

so the Mechlabs is the building to learn it program. The idea is, is that you come in and you build a project, if you want to learn ROS, you either pick a project that has ROS in it, or you join a team project that has ROS in it, right. And then you build it. And then as you go along, you're you are either individually or in a team responsible for figuring out how to implement ROS. And so there's the side of that is that then what happens when you get stuck, right? That's why you join a program, traditionally, people just say, well, we're just going to teach you everything you could possibly need to know in an A to Z way. And we're going to start at A and it doesn't matter if you're on B or C and you need it, you need D and other people need to have like it doesn't matter, you're just all going to sit around and wait till you found the information get taught to you. And or in a book in this process, right. And that's what an instructor does, right? They have a curriculum. So we say no lectures, no textbooks, no curriculum, we say, what will happen is the way you're going to learn this, you're on D, someone else's on F. And then this is where it remember when I made the tie that everyone is an expert in something, people all people are that way, we are all human beings, we are all experts in something, we've all done something cool and can share that. So that's when you get the peer learning. So then people come into our program that when they get stuck, they then have an entire team of people who all have a ton of expertise in a lot of things that are in the program and can share their expertise. And, and we have, you know, for people who are like for really deep problems, this is where we can go to like our community of like, of experts that are working on really cutting edge technology and much more deeper technical stuff that is there. And then we ask them, then when they mentor, we're not asking them to build a curriculum. No, they don't need a PowerPoint presentation. They don't need they just come and help. Yep, right? Come for a few hours look where to go and be like, Oh, this is the wrong thing. Exactly. And so they meet zero preparation, their effort and their time commitment becomes a lot more useful. Right? And the and then of course, mentors are what they really like when you're mentoring, especially in Silicon Valley. That word means like giving back because of all the all the mentors and all the platoons. Yeah, right. It's not to say we don't pay our mentors for that. But it is a you know, it's it's expected that this is a community we're all giving back. And then the best part is, you get to work with really bright, upcoming roboticists that you can hire for. Right? And that's a really cool thing when you can say, Oh, wow, this guy is, you know, he's a Python genius, but he's never done an embedded software. Right. I bet I could help him a little bit along and then jump in, and he could help my car. Right? Yeah. Right. So that's where this that when you're all thinking about the ecosystem is what we're building. We're building an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, and the way to become entrepreneurs, the way to become employees of companies that are good and and to accelerate your career and close that loop. Because what we've seen, you know, one of our companies that are here is Silicon Valley robotics. They're an industry organization and BP probably know, the Andhra and all of that. And they, they're amazing. And they've been talking to a lot of the all of the companies that are in robotics, which unfortunately, all kind of are very siloed when they're not in a community. So it can be very hard to know what they need. And it can be hard for them to say, Well, what they need for from employees. Right? Yeah. And what what they're finding is, is that most of their, their applicants are mechanical engineers, right? But what they really need is some as more and they keep hiring, computer science degrees, their computer, they're, they're doing hiring programmers who have somewhere along the way, figured out hardware, right. And so there's, there's a real disconnect of what you can learn in school, and how you can prepare for a job in robotics and actually get the experience and the portfolio and the hands on of all of that. I mean, that's, that's been a real change. And what we've seen in, in people looking in robotics, to accelerate their skills and to get jobs and to be able to learn these things is that there's a disconnect from what industry needs and what traditional education is teaching. And we want to bridge that gap. We want people leaving our programs being like, Hey, I built the the, you know, I integrated the robotics SDK for these servos into a ROS node. And now this whole robot is made with ROS Yeah. And that's my portfolio and so you apply to a job that's like, you know, needs ROS experience, right? Everybody says, I need ROS experience that's on every little thing. But how do you get ROS experience what is out there building a robot, and not just a, you know, a turtle bot, right? We need you need to, to get deeper into some of this ROS language and, and on different things to be able to really be useful on that. And so that's where there's really, like, there are some great programs out there, but the hands on component is what's missing. And so we want people leaving with literally the like, this is what I built. Here's a tutorial that I wrote, here's my GitHub that shows what the code that I did. And there's me instead of just a resume that says, I know some ROS right, and then no one knows what that is. And that that provides people who are looking for jobs, killer way to get into the the industry.

(0:27:28) Audrow Nash

Definitely. Yeah, I can think so I've done some hiring while at open robotics. And it is funny, because it's like the first thing that I go to, it's not like I couldn't care less about the resume. And this is just my approach to it. But go right to the GitHub, and then look at kind of what they've done and try to sauce out what their commits are, and how much of it was just like, like, what they understand from how they're doing it. And that's really nice to be training people in very pragmatic ways on an actual project. I really liked that approach.

(0:28:01) Mara

And then they get to learn, like, well, how to use GitHub for for hardware. That's, that's not an easy thing, right there. And, and how are all of those things? And then we, you know, we asked people to like one of the minimum requirements every single week, everyone has to write it tutorial. And so they start learning, good communication skills and demonstration, documentation skills, and all of that, that we want to help them demonstrate.

(0:28:28) Audrow Nash

Yeah. Let's see. That's really interesting. One thing so this robot behind you, I'd like to introduce that robot. It was one Belcher in a project by some students that went through this correct.

(0:28:41) Mara

Yep. So this is Ricci. It's based on an open source robot robotics platform that was developed by Paul and robotics. They, they actually sell the robot that but they've completely open sourced the designs. So we were the first group outside of the developers to actually build a fully working robot, or off of reaching, right. So we originally, so the, there's a lot of, it's kind of grown as we've gone, but we started with the torso and the head, and one arm, and in 12 weeks, we went from not knowing anything about this robot to fully functional working robot, which was amazing, like, and these are students this is not like, you know, some of them had very little robotics experience, and some of them had a little bit more so in 12 weeks to build something that was incredible. Our second session with with Ricci, everyone wanted to work on the software side is the platform. I had, of course I bought all the motors for the extra arm, and everybody wasn't interested in doing the arm that okay, which is fine. That's our program. If you don't like you get to work on the things that you want to work on. It's a match Not the things you it's not a, it's not like that horrible group project you got in school where you're like, Okay, this is the thing you got to do. There's one person who's good at it, let's just make him do it. Right. Yeah, like, that's not what our program is ours very much like, you might be a Python, you know, a whiz. But you want to work on motor control systems in the power, you know, in power delivery and 3d printing and CAD, well, that's great. You provide your, your expertise to the rest of the students wanting to learn Python. And then the other people who have a lot more experienced the MES that are just graduated, they have a lot more experience in some of the, you know, the CAD and all of that. So that's how, how that gets trained. But so our second session, I built the arm because nobody wanted to do it. And so, but everybody else they did, they created, they put it on ROS, they it was on this thing called loops, which was kind of a semi open source, not like it was an odd thing. Never heard of the pollen head choice. Yeah, it's it's a, like a distributed microcontroller system that, you know, has a lot of potential, but because no one in the world could get the microcontrollers. But, Paul, and we were like, well, let's, you know, let's put this on ROS. And like, use the Dynamixel control system. Like, that's great. That seems like to be a good thing. And so we put them over that, put them on a mobile base, and then he became a concierge robot. And he actually walked around told jokes and gave tours and told told people in the pandemic, if they weren't wearing masks, that they want to put a mask on. Oh, funny. So that was the second the third session we did again, Ricci as the platform became a very deep object orientation and grasping techniques like work, so they they rewrote a lot of the control systems for for the the motors, integrated all through ROS worked with April tags, and you know, criminal, you know, creating a computer vision and learning how to be able to grab a block and we set it up so that, you know, if you picked up the block, the robot grabbed it and put it back where it was cool. And so that's kind of their their session is that was a smaller session of, of team. Yeah, there's a lot of became an amazing platform. That's awesome. I like and it's all open source, we publish all of our stuff, and all of the thing and so people who are interested in doing it, and that's a really important component that we found out for our program was the open source part, the open source part. So we first started, as you know, we're growing and building this as we go and figuring out what we wanted our very first pilot was to bill to take a already existing coffee robot that was working, it's a little bit you've seen our coffee robot, definitely. But it's basically the three axis palletizing, two arms that grab cups and things and then put it up to a big super automatic espresso machine and then delivers the cup, right. And it's all done on ROS. But it was done developed by a couple of Crazy Russian developers that are awesome. They were there interesting. It but it it needed a lot of work for for design. And so the person who owned it wanted us to upgrade it, and they're there. And we found that trying to get students to one manage client expectations, too much being in a little like an understanding what they really needed and all of that and ended up becoming really too. And then reverse engineering something is often much harder than just building it the first time. Oh, I'm sure right. And so that's something that I think we've all learned as you go along. But in the beginning, it can be very, like enticing to be like, Well, I have this thing, I can just improve it right? Sometimes it's really just better to kind of

(0:33:47) Audrow Nash

go back to the start over. Yes, yeah.

(0:33:51) Mara

And so that was our very first session, we found that having an and having a closed, like we couldn't publish any of our work. And so ever since then we were like No, no open source right away. Like all of our projects, all of the things need to be like publishable because then you can manage, like you benefit from a community of people most of the time that are working on the open source group. You know, documentation is always hit or miss with all projects, but particularly open source at least, at least they have more information out there than something that's totally was right. Yeah. And so you're gonna look at the code doing as much reverse engineering, you can look at the code, you can download examples, you can work on that. And then you you have a place to be able to say like, you know, that something, at least somebody has done something, it's worked,

(0:34:41) Audrow Nash

right. And you can get an idea of the community around it, too. So you can see if it's supported or not, or like will other people who did

(0:34:48) Mara

this with no community, like Yeah, he had zero community at first. And so now we get tons of requests all the time, be like, Hey, how did you do this? Or here's, you know, we want to make this too. And so we can then cut Pretty to the community. And then the benefit for that is, is then all of the students learn to, you know, to better documentation and how to better, you know, support an open source and how to work in a community of people and how to do project management and all of the soft skills and kind of important things that you need to know, for running and being a roboticist company, right? Sure, all of that is available in the, you know, the in between building

(0:35:27) Audrow Nash

stuff. And also, I mean, it's all like, the skills are also just very valuable, in general, if you want to do anything. So teaching them how to do that, like, I mean, I use Git every day. And so like learning how to work with people on that, and get feedback and implement the feedback and this kind of thing, very valuable. So that's so cool, that you're exposing them to all of that. Let's see. So you mentioned that they do tutorials for this, or actually, before that, how do you how do you scope a project? Like how do you decide Ricci making it so Ricci grab looks at a fiducial marker, grabs a block moves it somewhere? Like how do you pick a scope? How do you make it not too hard? Or not too easy? Given the students that you're working with?

(0:36:19) Mara

Yeah, I mean, that's kind of been the interesting thing was, when we had a really, like, scoped out project, we found that we often had more trouble with that and reaching those goals and figuring out what what could be happening, what couldn't happen, then we do in our current system. So currently, what we try to do an overarching project idea whether you know, some of the things on the blocks right now is like, we'd like to do one of the millions or, or improve on the millions of open source Quadra pets out there, we'd like to, that's one of our ideas, we'd like to do some more. You know, like, autonomous driving, cars and tracks, and like the RC car kind of thing, like, those are some of the ones we like to do. We'd like to, we have a Boston Dynamics spot, we'd like to put him on ROS. That's another one. But so there's a perfect example of, you know, we'd like to do the ROS but we'd actually like to, you know, we need to choose a project that one will appeal to a bunch of people who are, are there. So you have like, we have to make it fun and interesting and exciting, right? So it's like if if our courses are, you know, learn inverse kinematics, we will get a small percentage of people, right. However, if we can be like, you know, build your own juggling robot, right. Yeah. But you know, sometimes, you know, you put that out there today. And then as you so let's take that, as example. Like, we're gonna do a juggling robot, right. Okay. So we have to one make sure that we have the budget know what, you know, what kind of actuators we're going to need, what kind of things to be able to even capable do that. And then we put like, maybe that's where we start, right? And say, Okay, we're going to build a juggling robot. And then like, all robots and all companies and everything that you do, you have to say, Okay, well, we're going to have to learn a ton along the way. And then we're going to change the scope as where we go based on what we have and where we need to be. So maybe that robot in the end is only throwing the ball up and catching it, right. And then, you know, maybe we get two hands to do that or there, but it's the beginnings of like, it's juggling, you know, we're, maybe the next session picks it up where we left off. Yeah, right. And then says, Okay, now we want to balls, and then we need to be able to have a vision system for tracking. And we need to be able to do that. And then you implement that. So the the project becomes, you know, make a juggling robot several sessions, and you make broad progress on that. And then part of it is, is to like, we don't, you know, unlike a business where you say, Okay, I'm gonna go hire the most capable people I can find to do these very particular jobs. We have the opposite problem. We want the most capable people in different things, not doing what they're good at. Yeah. Because unless they want to do that, like if people really, they're like, they're really good at this, and they just want to get better at it. Great that we have you too perfect. Yeah, but, and we get a bunch of that. But in general, like we want, if you're really good at something, you know, diversity, probably needing to know some other things and wanting to learn those things. So let's get you focused on that. You can help the other people who are not as good at these things with their Python, if you're a Python coder, or you know if you're a mechanical engineer, they're your cat. Like, there's such traits Yeah. And so the scope really happens based on like, who needs who needs to do what. And if we lock ourselves to the like, while we must get this end product done, right, then it isn't as efficient for for everybody, like, we want to hit our goals, but we're not afraid of also changing where that scope is to say, you know, so that it is achievable. And that you can then learn the things you learn, which is way more important than getting the end result. Yeah, but and so we do sometimes re scope a project.

(0:40:34) Audrow Nash

Like that is a great example. Yeah, yeah,

(0:40:37) Mara

juggling robot would, you know, maybe it's not a three ball juggling robot that's doing this. But you know, we've developed, you know, one ball and develop the beginnings of a vision system that can track those balls and catch it on another side, and then the next and then it gets bigger and better. As you go along. It's, it's more interesting that way, too.

(0:40:57) Audrow Nash

Definitely. And also really nice for people learning. And also seeing what's possible in this kind of thing. Like, you say, juggling robot, and it's like, oh, that sounds incredibly difficult. But it's like throwing a ball up and down. Just one still difficult, but not like incredibly infeasible. And then like, maybe you go from one arm to the other, and this kind of thing, maybe it's

(0:41:17) Mara

like air actuated tubes that are on a Trump rail system, right? Some way. Like, you can scope that in different ways, you know, trying to get Ricci to do juggling would be servos are just not, they're not going to that. Yeah, and so you do have to, and part of that, I think is where the scoping of things is actually a really interesting problem. Because you don't, you don't know how to get to the end of the thing you want to try to say this is the thing I want to go do this is you know, what I might need along the way, that's the one thing that you can't do on your own easily, right. That's why you need to join over with mentors, because a mentor will say, hey, you know, don't waste your time using these servos for juggling robot, and then you've just wasted six months of your life trying to get this robot to juggle. Yeah. And so that's why, you know, our programs are like, you know, we have mentors, and we have advisors to say, Hey, this is feasible. This is, you know, why don't we start here? Why don't we scope this in this way? You know, because people come to us for our individualized program, saying, hey, I want to make you know, we had another person come in and be like, I want a trash collecting robot, you know, is what I'd like to make. It's like, I'd like it to be a robot on wheels with an arm that picks up trash, and puts in there, and this is their first project that they had never done robotics before. Yeah. Right. And to have an expert to like say, Well, okay, you need a full base that can put around at least 25 pounds, right of like weight plus the weight of its own robot. And then if you're going to build some type of an extension arm system, you have to be it has to be able to deal with the mechanical torsion and the the reach and the counterbalance. And then you have to be able to carry all of that, like, that is not a it's not a first Prime first robot. Yeah, for sure. And so you say, Okay, well, that what could we start off first? Maybe we could put a trash can on a mobile base, and put a speaker and ask people to help

(0:43:25) Audrow Nash

like that. Yeah, right. But there's a trash can

(0:43:27) Mara

robot that's like, can you put a little mobile base, and then we can buy really cheap cheap powders and cheap things and, and that little speaker, and then it'd be like, Hey, can you help me pick this up? You've just created, right, it's like, so being creative with that scoping also allows people to choose the project that is right for them. And that's the first thing you do if you're not joining a team program with the project is kind of already scoped out. Our individualized program is you come and you talk to our advisor, and then we help choose a project for you that will achieve your learning goals. Yep. So if you're Where do you want to learn? ROS? Do you wanna learn motor control? Do you want to learn? You know, what are the parts of the robotics you want to learn first? Right, yeah. And then we kind of scope that project for where people are at and to their budgets to, you know, it's like, it's like, yes, I want to build an autonomous car, like, Okay, can you do you have a car? That's our sensors? And like, do we need to buy that? Yeah. So I mean, all of those things come into account. It's why robotics is so challenging, but in the community of program where we can support those components, and they expenses, like on a team project where you know, reaches was $6,000 worth of parts, right? Yeah. So, you know, then that becomes amortized, and everyone to work on and make something really cool.

(0:44:47) Audrow Nash

So one thing that strikes me with this, it seems like so it seems absolutely wonderful, like what are what an absolutely great way for people to learn. I'm wondering, I'm thinking about how it would scale ill, because one thing that it strikes me about, or it strikes me about it is that you really need a knowledgeable, engaged instructor or mentor, I suppose, like someone to facilitate this whole process. What do you call them? Because they're not they're not exactly maybe their mentor.

(0:45:21) Mara

So, you know, advisor is an easy advisor do that. But we actually created as we create a system so that the mentors and advisors can help run this help run the sessions. Yeah, right. And those sessions are lead. They're very structured in like the what what you do, you know, you have, like our team session, we have a project management, like, you know, Monday, we do our project management, we talked about all the things that were done, we follow kind of a scrum platforms, we've divided we choose our sprint, we get all of the things together. And someone kind of runs that. And we've played around with actually different people running that each time. Oh, I like that, which is also really helpful. And some things or students Yeah. Oh, so the students often run the sessions, right. And then we have collaborative work sessions where everybody's working together. And then we have like a show and tell day, where people are actually, they show what their work is, they get feedback from in person, all of that kind of stuff. And, you know, what's often what's amazing is is though that, like it's with mentorship, everyone thinks like, Oh, I gotta have that really, really highly. It is accessible person or intelligent person to run all of those meetings, and all of that stuff. And the structure helps with a lot of that. And then peers, because a lot of the expertise comes from mostly from their peers, because again, everyone's an expert in something. And the mentors spend less time. And they also don't teach like mentors don't lecture. There's no one anyone lecture. So we train our mentors to simply say, to help them find the thing that they need the next step, right? Because in a world where you can learn anything on the internet streaming thing, it's not, you know, where will you get the information from? I must have the person in the information in their head, it's how you find that information becomes the real challenge, right? Yeah. And mentors become less than the purveyors of information and more the guidance along your own path for you finding the information. Yes, like, you know, I think of my exploration of, you know, I've been building an espresso machine on my bicycle. I'm in middle, like, I'm in the middle robotics area, like I'm an advisor and the technical mentors, but I'm also loved, I have a passion about it, as well. And I'm not an expert in any one thing, right? So I was learning some basic, like, learning to do certain basic electronics, really, I've done a cabinet on maker stuff, but I've never really done basic electronics stuff. And so I was learning, the the beginnings of putting a whole bunch of sensors in my espresso machine, because I'm also a coffee nerd. And I was working on learning how to build a PCB and, and how to wire this all together. And I was like, well, so then I ran across this problem that like microcontrollers. Take, have logic, voltage and power supplies aren't often different than that about and so like, but I was like, so do I need a step down converter? How do I get the signal from my sensor to the voltage and still keep the signal going? And I just had, I was like, how do you search for that? If you don't even know what you're searching for? Right? Yeah, obviously, we had somebody with more electronics experience, like know what you need to look, it's explore voltage divider, and then a bi directional voltage divider. And that's that circuit that was like, Oh, great. They gave me the jargon, that I could go Google to find. And then I can learn it myself. Right? They didn't need to sit there and explain Voltage dividers for me. I don't need that. And so what it does is it puts less like previously, when you talked about how do you incentivize other entrepreneurs to be mentors, is if you take this impetus that they have to explain everything, and do everything for the students that instead all they really have to be available. This is like, Hey, have you explored the concept of a voltage divider? Have you explored the concept of, you know, the Ohms law like what is this is kind of the thing you need next, and then the student goes, looks it up, implements it, and they have a problem with that. And so that's where the change in things and in fact, our mentors, we're not looking for people who are experts in everything. What I'd much rather have in mentors and teach students how to do is to be to learn how to learn. Our best mentors are people who probably could learn the thing that you The students were doing the day before. Right? Like, oh, you're you're, you know, we don't get experts in everything. There's no expert in everything with robotics, right? So instead, I'd much rather have somebody who can look up and say, like, well, I've got the basics of ROS down, I've done a little bit with machine learning and computer vision. But I bet you, we could probably figure out how to integrate a point cloud and be able to get a depth map and be able to create that kind of a thing. Right, you don't have to have someone is that the but a mentor will be able to help lead the students and then they do it with them. And then they all learn together. And that's kind of where I feel like I'm, I guess I'd be considered a mentor, also, because I'm also often in my groups, and learning that, you know, but that's the real change in it. And it takes a a thought change a paradigm shift in this, like, I'm gonna sit here and wait till someone teaches me exactly what I need. Right? That's where what education has taught us, like original education is taught. Yeah, we just have to take the class to get the thing that we eventually someone's telling us what we need. Yeah, it's

(0:51:06) Audrow Nash

very instead, in a sense, yeah. Instead,

(0:51:08) Mara

it's active. You say, this is the project I'm making? What do I need? Oh, it's run, you know, it's computer language. It's got a, you know, it's running Linux. And Oh, guess what I can control with Python. I guess I should go take a weekend course in Python Crash Course and then write a ROS node. Right? Yeah. And that, that's kind of and then I mean, that's kind of how I learned Python was like, hey, this robot was cool. It ran on Python. I guess I should learn that. But I had not been incentivized to learn it in my entire life. Because I was like, Well, why I don't like websites, I don't want to run a write another website, I've got HTML, that's fine. I don't want to write back. Like, oh, he does cool things, I want to learn Python. And it's the same kind of thing with Project learning where we've been, you know, I'm sure everyone who's listening to this has done this in their life is like it worked on a project, they haven't known something, so they had to go learn it. And if you have that project, like if you're working with robot arms, you know, the linear algebra with for inverse kinematics and all of that stuff, that's a thing you need to kind of know, a lot of times. And so that was something that, you know, all of a sudden, we had everybody like looking up and learning doing doing like linear 100 projects on the side, because they wanted to, to learn those things. That you know, so we believe that instead of going, starting from A to Z, and trying to start with all the foundational you've ever you ever need, and then you will immediately forget and have to relearn anyway, no total, we just say, hey, when you get to the point that you need this, you will be incentivized to learn. And then all of the foundational knowledge that you need, will start coming in and you'll be incentivized when you're actually using. It's a different way people are, you know, they're not, they're not these experts in fields, they're people who got a little bit of everything can probably figure it out along the way.

(0:53:01) Audrow Nash

Yeah, I really like that. It's, it's kind of it's a flip in the hole thinking about how to learn and how to structure groups to do things, which I really like. It's like, you put people to work where they're motivated, because they think it's interesting. And you have them in this group, where they can ask questions, and they can contribute where they want. Yeah. And so because of that, the mentor is really just the person that gets them unstuck. Yeah, occasionally, and that's really low overhead for the mentor, you just need someone who's like, good at thinking, to be the mentor. I really like that. It seems like a great structure. It's like a stable structure for a team to do a productive, dude, do something and learn a lot. That sounds great to me.

(0:53:50) Mara

Yeah. And it creates a real interesting thing with like, you know, everybody hated group projects. I know I did in, in school, right? And it was because the whole power structure in the way that you were doing things were was really flawed. You know, it was like, Okay, you guys all don't want to do this thing. And I'm gonna make you do this thing. And I'm gonna put you to a bunch of people also, who don't want to do this thing. And what's the easiest way out is you give the person you think that will know, like, who won't say no. And who doesn't want a bad grade on it, you force them to do all the work. Right? It's it's horrible, like social experiment, that bad incentive structure for sure incentive structure, right? Where instead our group's people that come in, and it's like, well, you get to work on the thing you actually want to learn, which is great. And then you become motivated, motivated, you do a lot of work. And if if there's literally no one that wants to work on something, right? That we figure it out, either, you know, everybody gets together and they do this one thing or that thing to get over the hump. Right. Yeah. And we all agree to it. or, you know, use free scope it like, Why does a robot have to have two arms? Yeah, it doesn't. We just bought all the parts. And so I was like, Well, fine. If you guys, you guys don't need a second arm, but I, well, I bought all the parts, so I'll build it for you and make it happen. And they were more interested in the software and the, you know, the control systems rather than the actual hardware at that point. So they weren't forced to do it. And that's really a crucial part is there is no like, it can be flexible, a project is flexible, and it can be developed in a way that everybody's efforts are working towards the thing that is awesome. And then then the things that aren't as awesome, you at least are motivated to do them because you understand why they're important.

(0:55:48) Audrow Nash

Yeah, I think I was thinking about it just now. And it's, I was wondering about like the unsexy tasks, in a sense, like, as you're saying, and what it seems to me is that so say there's this one critic because often the unsexy tasks might be very important. But people don't want to do that. Maybe it's like developer ops kind of thing. And so what I see or what I'm thinking is that with this structure, what happens is everyone learns basic skill, or everyone learns skills in what they're interested in. And then they get to a point where they're fairly good at what they're like they've learned a good bit, they're fairly invested in the idea of continuing and then on their own, maybe, then they can go and they can learn some required infrastructure or best practices or whatever it might be. But this has kind of prepared them by giving them enough skill to get somewhere interesting. So that they might eventually go over the unsexy task, go and complete that one.

(0:56:55) Mara

And because it's a project, right, you know, it's like if the, if the unsexy task is like, you know, a power control system like, well, nothing is gonna run unless you have so that everybody gets pretty motivated, even for the unsexy tasks to battle notion when it's a bottleneck and that they won't get there. And then and then you're all working collaboratively to split up the tasks that no one wants to do. Right. And, and that people volunteer and actually help out with that. And so And there's usually somebody who, who is excited about learning, like, it is robotics it is, and somebody understands why, you know, or at worst, there's someone who's really good at it, who can hammer it out way quicker than anyone else, then everyone else. Yeah. And then they help other people do that really quick, you know, so all of those things are your tools to be able to create a great group and actually succeed in a project. And, and learn a whole bunch on the way. But the whole point is, is unlike business, where it's you, everybody has their silos, well, what's really created. And that's a bit of a disservice in the robotics industry, what we see is, is a lot of our students are coming that are, you know, automation, engineers, QA, it's all sorts of like, deep company, like people in larger robotic civic roles. Yeah. But they want to learn one's role something else, because they don't have any of opportunity to do that at their work. Because, like, the way companies are set up is like you don't give thought, you know, tasks to somebody who's not good at them, you give them to this person who's really good at them. And then that's all they do. Right? But I mean, you know, it's it, as a business side of things in my brain, I'm always looking for something that somebody might excel at, that they don't currently do. Right? Because then you get happier, better employees that are learning more things, rather than giving only the things that are to the people who are good at, like, we get excited about learning, we want to grow by employees doing new things, and what what else might they be good at that they're not doing right now, then they grow into new positions and stuff. And it's the same thing, you know, with with this group, but it but when you have a lot of people coming from some of these other other companies that aren't doing that they're hungry to learn all the new stuff, and we want to we want to give them that opportunity to to learn the things that they're not good at.

(0:59:27) Audrow Nash

What do you think would happen? If so I understand from a company's perspective, that desire to specialize people and have them do the thing because they're going to be really good at it. And also, you can kind of pit pay them like the minimum amount because the majority of their time is on the most specialized, highest value added thing. Whereas if you pay them to learn about something that's irrelevant to whatever it is that they're most specialize on. You could think of it as last time, but as you're saying, maybe it's they're pivoting into a thing that they're really really good at but they're very happy to do. But I just What would you think if companies were to adopt this approach where maybe like, I don't know, there's some things where it's like 20% of your time is your own for side projects or something, but what what would a company look like that did this? And what do you think the outcome would be?

(1:00:19) Mara

Well, I think that, you know, as a side thing, like, we have a whole enterprise side that we would love to be able to do and have people doing that. And it's like, that's a really easy way that they can provide that for their students, or for their employees be like, Hey, you guys want to learn to get trained on a whole bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with it? Like, let's put you through Mechlabs, and then not only you're going to gain a lot of experience, be able to help, and really pull this back to your teams and new a new way of thinking. So that is something we want to provide for companies and enterprise as as well. But I didn't realize that business model. Yeah, I mean, but I do think that that's like companies getting someone very specialized is it's important for for speed and effectiveness, right. Because obviously, if you want to build something and get it to market, you need to be really fast. And and the fastest way to do that is to get a whole bunch of people already know how to do it. But no one truly knows how to do it. If we're actually working on good technology, right? It's all new. No one's done it before, if it's exciting, cool stuff. And so what we want to do is we want to foster the, the AI and we want to foster companies who realize that it's not what the skills that people know, that will make them successful, it's how well that they they can learn. Right? And that's like that metric is something that, you know, we really have to train our companies to look for. And we have to train our people to be able to demonstrate. And that's one metric

(1:01:57) Audrow Nash


(1:01:57) Mara

how how, how easily, like how quickly you can learn to learn?

(1:02:03) Audrow Nash

Oh, yeah, definitely. I think it's so valuable, right? For sure. And it's something that by keeping that muscle strong, it seems so valuable.

(1:02:12) Mara

Absolutely. Because you want somebody who can figure things out and learn how to learn a new skill yet, if you put them doing the same thing all the time, that just that they're good at, and they aren't as good at learning. You know, you get your job done, but you don't, like succeed if that job changes.

(1:02:29) Audrow Nash

Yeah. And I think also over time, if people are not engaged in their work, they start slowly falling behind, because they were really specialized ones. But the jobs responsibilities are a moving target, and they're moving away from their core competences. Yeah. So

(1:02:44) Mara

you have to if I'm not learning something new, or like, growing in something that I'm doing in some way, I get really bored. Right, yeah, that's why I've been, you know, I've been a weird employee to hire in many ways, because I went through so many things that are so many has, like my resume, bizarre looking, right. I have a degree in ethnobotany. And I do robot interest now. You know, it's, like, what, but I know, it's bad. And so basically, I just created a, like an education program that can justify the way that I like to learn. That's really what we've done. I just feel like, you know, I'm good at learning things. And I can get to that, like, 80% of competency really quickly, pretty quick, you know, and so I wanted to be able to help people who are interested in not only that, like learning that last top 20%, but also the people who want to get up to that at that first 80% quickly. And, you know, realizing robotics is something that's changing so quick. And like the the last five years, the availability of hardware, that at a low price point that you can start building at has just exploded, right. Yeah, think of all of the like, you know, it's like, right now we're getting little, the, like the Itsy Bitsy and the feathers and the you know, all of the cool stuff from Adafruit, the microcontrollers that not only now use, you know, Arduino and see but they also you could do circuit Python. And so basically, you can take a weekend workshop to learn Python, you can you can take a microcontroller with and use that Python on it, you know, and then in a very short time, you can be writing, we're doing robotics code, and bad code, and making sensors work and building this stuff for you know, so cool. You know, so much less than what we used to have to pay to get into robotics, right? You don't have to have a platform like Ricci to understand robotics anymore. Like you could there's so much more remember when bait like if you'd wanted to make a robot, just a simple base with a couple of wheels, and they hundreds of dollars, you know, and now you can, you know, obviously you get what you pay for it but you can You can buy a $30 kit on Amazon and have a base of a robot that you can put the Asbury pie on, and put ROS on and then beat then put a camera on and you know, under $150, you could actually be having a full like ROS implemented computer vision robot.

(1:05:15) Audrow Nash

Oh, totally. Yeah, no. I just, I just spoke with our friends from Meg Dang, who does the spot mini looking robot mini buffer. And like, that's a quadra pet for $500 that has pretty sophisticated sensors and a Raspberry Pi. Like, that's so cool. That's totally new, like buying a quadra pet at an affordable price. Exactly. Like, unbelievable. Yeah, and you're right, yeah, the explosion of hardware, it's

(1:05:42) Mara

moving so fast. Right. And right now is the time to get deeper in robotics or learn other things in robotics, because it's so much like the availability of learn this stuff is finally to anyone, you don't have to be, you know, a researcher, you know, when million dollar lab to learn, you know, inverse kinematics with a with arms, you know, 3d printed with a few few stepper motors, and, you know, you could be learning it for less than than $100.

(1:06:13) Audrow Nash

Yeah, it's not going back to thinking about corporations or like larger businesses and having them do something similar to your courses. One, one thing, one challenge that I could imagine is that if the people don't want to be there, because you have, it's sort of a biased group that comes to you for these courses, where they're all really engaged and very excited to do it for themselves, like they're literally paying their own money to spend their time learning and working with you on some projects. How do you imagine it? Would I just What do you think about the idea of people having their company send them to this kind of time? Where they would work on something in line with the projects we've been discussing?

(1:07:05) Mara

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the part of it is, is that, you know, as we have to make it fun, we have to make it interesting. That's kind of the point is, is that and that's scoping those projects, right? Yep. So 14 projects, you know, we do have to make a fun and interesting project that people are going to be excited about, right? If someone really doesn't want to be there. Like, we can also think can just sit the corner and read their phone if they want, like, I'm talking. Like, if they want to contribute, they can. And the way our programs are, is there's no one's relying on like the fifth person who's breathing his phone to get the job done. Right. You know, and so we did a program just yesterday for a Brazilian Innovation Tour Company that that brought in about 3030 students all have different corporate backgrounds, who had not no robotics experience, per se. And we brought them in, set them down on a little platform, which is a I don't know if you've seen their polo zumo bots, they are.

(1:08:14) Audrow Nash

Yep, use them as like a sumo thing. Yeah. Robots,

(1:08:17) Mara

but they have an IMU they have proximity sensors, they have line following they have, they have all of these things, and an example library. And so we basically set them up, I made a quick tutorial on the, you know, on our wiki, and I said, you know, this is, you guys are going to figure this out. So you're going to learn how to connect the robot, you're gonna learn how to install your IDE, you're gonna learn how to, to load it up and understand that all the things that you want to pull your hair out with Arduinos. And like, I don't like it, the Comm port, where do I find the library. And so we made some of the tutorials to make that easier, but we put them through the paces, and then let them explore all the examples. And we said, hey, there might be a fighting robot example, in there somewhere, see if you can figure it out. And they all did. And then we let them decorate the robots. And then and then we had a big tournament of a battling, you know, bots. And so these, you know, and they got a chance, if they wanted to get into the code and learn a little bit of coding, they could do that if they wanted to play around, you know, with the hardware, like they could do that. And so that that's really the thing is, is to like, you know, aim it at wherever, you know, we're not going to get them into the you know, the deep math and deep coding of stuff if it's if that's not where, where they need to be. But having a cool product like if you are Bible is the project, you build it to learn it. If you get a good project, there will be something there that will interest most people and if it really doesn't interest them at all. It doesn't hurt them to be on their phone over there to help in any way that they do. Like we often we occasionally have students that that fall off the, you know, fall off the beaten path a little bit and so that we have to pull them back in, or they don't contribute as much. But the way it works is they get what they need and what they put in.

(1:10:12) Audrow Nash

Oh, definitely. Let's see. So you were speaking about tutorials over earlier? Can you tell me a bit about having students? Because it sounds like it's one of the like, few things that you're taking more of an active stance and encouraging students to do in the program? Would you tell me a bit about that?

(1:10:32) Mara

Sure. So a lot of it is is like understanding the process of accountability, right? With a project based program? The big question is like, Well, why don't I just do it myself? Right. And rightly, so if that's like, we want you to learn it yourself. And we want you to grow those things like that. And a lot of people can. But we also want to offer the points for like, a, when you get stuck, you have mentors, and you have people who can help you, right. And that's what you don't have doing your product on your own. And we all get stuck, right? The other side of it is is the, you need some kind of structure of accountability, right? We all know that we were, there's no way that we're going to continue going to the gym, if we, if it were a pay by the day kind of thing. Right? The fact that we've paid for them on and we have to go to the gym, that's the only way that really gets us to go to the gym sometimes, right? And so you have to create some levels of structures of accountability. And so documentation is one of those things that we just found. You know, I'd like to say everybody, but there I have some people that like I love documentation that like good to help us with, right? Because most people don't do well with writing documentation. Right? They're great on building stuff, but they don't want to document it. And so part of the, the learning process for, you know, the classic thing is, is the, you know, show and demonstrate and then involve the other person into learning, like, that's the classic way of teaching something, right? Yeah, well, in this situation where, you know, it's a little bit flipped, right, you're learning it along with them. It's like the, the demonstrate and the teach someone else, what you're learning is part of that documentation process. All of those put together creates accountability, it creates a ability for people to ingrain what they've learned, because they have to explain it. And then it's documented so that when other people need that information, it can be there, as well as when we need that information. You know, they say documentation is a love letter to your future self. Yeah, definitely. It is. And so it's super important. And so we that's, that's one of those unsexy things that we, you know, we require people to do. And so that that's just one really important thing we found that really helps on so many levels, that we want to make sure that it's it's part of every single person's like, kind of requirements to that.

(1:13:15) Audrow Nash

Are there any other requirements that you have? Or is that really like? I mean, you show up at certain times, and you have like, these are the hours we'll be all together. But other than that, is there any real hard structure in the whole program?

(1:13:31) Mara

Well, there's a lot of structure, but requirements, like, don't have any other requirements. We don't have any, like, you know, school is filled with prerequisites, right? You can't take this unless you've taken this and you can't take this. And, you know, I don't know about you, but I opened right up to the back page of the manual. But I want to take all of that, like I really, four or 500 classes. That's what I want

(1:13:54) Audrow Nash

to take those interesting ones. Yeah. Why do I have

(1:13:57) Mara

to take Intro to Computers? Like, really? Like, I've been using computers, thank you. And like, so we realize, like, there are no prerequisites we do for our team programs, we do choose people that have a we need to have one skill in strong the team that not have been strong, but you need to have a bear like your competence, you have to have some competency in one of the fields that is needed to complete this project. And so, and again, you don't even have to do those things. But we do want to piece in your resource for the group. And so we try to match people in that and if there's really truly a spot that has no competency in that area, that's where we'll bring a mentor and to be able to help sense that there. And so for our team levels, it's the our one requirement is that you have some competency and some level of that and we can be pretty loose with that if you're a maker and you've done a lot of CAD to be 3d print But you've never done anything professionally or you've never done a bunch of other things with it, that's still really valuable. Because we find that you've learned that thing. It's that like, what did you get expert T said, we just want you to have some expertise in something, so that we know that you, you can can do that. And that helps with the team project for the individualized project, there are no requirements, you can come in as green as you could possibly be. And, and it's really amazing, because you do see, you know, it's not just the people who are, you know, experts getting other be like, there's so many things that this person, for example, that person who's really green in robotics, has really good business sense. And this other person who is an electrical engineer, is now learning about basic marketing for the very first time, you can contribute to their basic marketing, right, like, yeah, and that ends up being still really valuable because of this community thing. So we, we just kind of say, forget the prerequisites. You know, most people have some level of something there, and then they can join us, or we can help put them into a group, maybe you're not jumping into the deep object orientation and grasping class, you're working on the mini, you know, DIY pup, you know, mini pumper where you're, you know, just working with Raspberry Pi, that some of those things. So, you know, it's, it's about scoping the people for the prior matching the people for the project to those that we don't, other requirements is just you need to show up at sessions. But we also have a really cool way of doing an asynchronous thanks. So we have even talked about how this whole like you actually asked earlier, how do you scale this, and I don't think we got to that right.

(1:16:43) Audrow Nash

Now I definitely want to talk about it, you can do the

(1:16:47) Mara

scaling is that this is all a hybrid model. Not only can you be in person, but you can do this completely remote. Right, that's all. So that's how we scale a lot of this group. And we found so it can be literally double the amount of students because we can do half in person and half out of, you know, being completely virtual. And then even so our facility wise of this, even our students who are in person, they don't need to be here doing things all the time. If we're at a meeting, like we're having a Zoom meeting, there's no point in us all being in in one room. And, and so they can all be home and like, you know, in their bathrobe, doing it doing a project planning project. And some people might come into the lab. And so that's how we really scale this is that you create a hands on experience, even if you don't have an experience now and I'd like to tell this quick story about Noelle who is one of our Argentinian students. He lived in Argentina. And he was an automation engineer, but he had never done cat never done any type of cat design. And, you know, just like, like, this is something I want to learn. But I just again, he's like, Well, do I go back to school for this? Do I take a course to learn how to use basics, I've never had anything fun to make. Right. And so now we're like, hey, so the the neck piece of this was originally scoped with the Paul on robotics as this really fascinating but very intricate mechanism where it was a three degree of freedom system that was called the orbiter, it was really cool. It was a little outside of what we were going to build and recreate. So we just put a pan tilt servo in there. But all of this had been designed. And so we needed to actually design the mounting of those servos into the program. So we needed somebody to Cat up the whole structural mechanism to hold that. And so he was like, Oh, I'd love to learn CAD. So I literally went on a, you know, a call with him spent 20 minutes to be like here, this is how you set up your components and your you know, your your components and your parts in Fusion 360 so that you can be successful, here's how you turn on your device, you know, your, your actual changes history so that you can get back to things. And here's like two other tips. Here are the models for the servos that you could put in and this is how you put them in. And now I want you to build this. Right yeah. And it gave him kind of the specs of what what we want to hear the measurements. There's that he you know, he went home and by the very next night had built something. And so he put it on our 3d printers over the air. And so it was literally printing out in the morning when I came in. I come in, I hand it to the team, they assemble it for him, they give him notes. He goes back and re revive designs it and it's like he's hands on calving and 3d printing. He's just not necessarily touching the thing. Which is incredible. So he basically learned to CAD better than most of us in two weeks. That's awesome. Right and manage managed to do all the things that we needed. So that's kind of the process is like, you know, you have something cool that you need somebody who wants to learn it. And even if they're completely virtual, you know, they can buy, you know, a cheaper robot, a servo and a control module and then start working on the code to control that and understanding it, even hands on at their desk, that then that code can go and be uploaded into our project and work in a much bigger system. So yeah, you kind of on a micro level do quite a bit hands on, even if you're not in our lab, then in most of our programming, like a lot of our programmers, that we're mostly interested in just doing the code for the robot, they didn't even come into the lab, they were working with everybody, but we'd have them up on the big screen and talking to them. And they would be uploading code and controlling the robot from their home. That's so cool, right? And being able to test this, while we're all working on this, you know, it becomes like, we aren't limited anymore to in, in, in classroom, you know, experience, the pandemic is taught like this was developed during our pandemic, because we were like, well, we can't wait, we need to create this amazing program for people now. And the pandemic shows just how well we can be able to do that and what the limitations are, as well. But yeah, allows us to create a system where we can scale this. And the actual in you can be hands on without necessarily having to be in a school, nine to five every single day.

(1:21:29) Audrow Nash

Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it's so interesting. To me, it seems like the whole approach that you're taking in this, how do you call it again, Mechi, or with labs, Mechlabs, the whole approach you're taking in the Mechlabs, course, or program? It seems like, I'm comparing it in my head to like universities, or these kinds of things, where it seems like they go against a lot. So for example, people have to take courses they're not motivated to do, you have to learn things that are kind of abstract, and not directly applicable to what you're working on, or what you're even interested in. But it's like a to z learning, as you were saying. They have a rigorous measures in place for accountability, like all the exams, and things like this, and the like hierarchy that forms from all of that. Whereas you guys, and also then they have they have the high paid lectures relatively. They have the intricate infrastructure around like TAs and graders, and all of this kind of thing,

(1:22:32) Mara

multimillion dollar labs that very few people can access that money. Yeah,

(1:22:35) Audrow Nash

that's totally true, too. And so you guys kind of took everything and you flipped it on its head. And so it's like, people are motivated to do whatever it is, you need very little of an expert's time. Those are your advisors and mentors. The people it's like, if they want to disengage, that's totally fine. But for the most part, they're doing it because they're totally interested in it. Yep. It's very interesting. And then the accountability with documentation, providing it so that it's good for them in the future, it's good for you to build off of their work. And it's helping them kind of skill up in how they communicate, and also in their own understanding, by leveraging the idea that they teach, to learn because they are writing documentation, teaching it to their future selves, or whoever their reader may be. readers may be, it feels very clever to me. With all this, it's like you're working with the grain of human nature very well, as opposed to other structures is how I'm thinking of it now.

(1:23:40) Mara

Well, it's like, we we develop something that we wanted to learn from, and how we've kind of learned these things, right. And so it's, that's been modeled on that. And then, you know, we put it to test we got groups of people, we, we built this stuff, and said, Hey, this is where we refined over time, and we refined it with all of this is a giant experiment as well. And we're going to continue to grow. One of the things we hope to do is micro credentialing with like NFT badges where if you were actually you own your certificate, and you can demonstrate value along with, you know, we can say, hey, you know, you want to get a badge in motor control theory, right, your project is right in there, all you have to do is is maybe hit a few of these other kinds of things and demonstrate that in your project, and you will earn this badge, and then you can put that on your LinkedIn and your resume and everything else. Right. Yeah. Other stuff that we hope is is that we'd like to create even a reward structure structure based around a crypto coin, where you can be able to somewhat like a miles program, you know, you're in a in a program and you're you're actually learning and you get rewarded by a crypto token. And then as you go through there, you're actually being able to find like, earn your way through your program and, and you know, if it ever becomes successful, and we're something maybe that crypto pays for your entire education itself just by you learning, right? That would be super cool, throw everything up into the air and say, Hey, we've just run radicalized all of this education system by, you know, that and if it's worth nothing, at least you get an education. So, yeah.

(1:25:16) Audrow Nash

And you guys had fun making a cryptocurrency? Yeah,

(1:25:19) Mara

exactly. So like there's, there's a lot of really interesting things that we hope will come down the pipeline as we as we build this and and experiment with it. And we're excited to have people who come and be part of this journey with us.

(1:25:33) Audrow Nash

What do you think is the role of typical? Like, I mean, I guess K through 12 education, but then university education? And like, how does all that relate to this? Can it supplemented? Is it meant to be torn down by this is like, Where does it all fit?

(1:25:55) Mara

I think it can fit both. I mean, you know, right now, I would say that it's a great supplement, to, you know, an engineering degree to get actual hands on experience and portfolio projects. Electronics degree, I mean, any of those degrees, you can you will gain by joining a program like this, we, you know, we have aspirations in 10 years to maybe make actual universities just not as relevant, you know, relevant. I mean, who knows, maybe we can do it. Like we'd like to, that's what we're shooting for. I mean, you know, how we see a problem. And we think that our solution can do a lot for things. And it doesn't mean that we're also just because I say, that doesn't mean that we're not open to like, hey, you know, you're we can partnership with universities, we have partnership with programs and boot camps. And, you know, you're learning and embedded embedded programming bootcamp, right, we can be able to provide the hardware and the projects that you could actually cut your teeth on even virtually right. And so that, you know, all of those things can be possible. And so the, there's a lot of opportunity for us to create good partnerships and work with organizations as per, you know, we're focused mostly on, you know, 16, to 18 year olds, and up, we're looking for kind of, you know, post high school graduate, we get a lot of people who are already graduated. And we keep seeing this like this. The sad part is, we also see a lot of people who are experts, so called experts, we get the literally on paper, and we see like, wow, why are they even taking this course? It's like, they don't know why paper, they're great. But you know, time after time, I can't tell you how many masters of mechanical engineering degree, you know, people that we've come in, and they can't cap their way out of a paperback. Yep. Right. Like, there are some really basic skills that are not being taught by these programs, then, that we need, right? And what they need the most out of anything, regardless of what whether they're good academy or not. They need practical projects to learn from you need, like you have to do the thing. It like we live in a world where you can learn to be an expert woodworker on YouTube. Yeah, it's not but unless you actually do the woodworking he won't give it. So you can learn to be an expert, you can know all the things you can collect all the knowledge. Yeah, but you have to do it. And that's that everything. It's the builder to learn it approach is what we we think, is the way of the future.

(1:28:28) Audrow Nash

Definitely. Yeah, I had a professor, at some point that we used to say something like I can watch all the golf on TV, but it doesn't make me any better at golf, this kind of thing. Same with watching all the woodworking videos,

(1:28:42) Mara

and all the college courses and all this to all of the lectures in the world of all the things but it's not going to make you an expert in those things. The only way you get to be good at these things is actually just doing and yeah, in failing out of it been learning. Oh, totally. You know, all of that part of the process?

(1:29:00) Audrow Nash

Yeah, I think it's really important to me to try to build something and then by trying to build it, you see the limitations, you see where it's difficult, you see why you can't do the first thing you wanted to do immediately. And then you start to think creatively and learn the skills to keep growing. It's a wonderful check on reality or on yourself with reality. So just cutting their teeth on actual projects. It sounds like a wonderful thing for your students. Were so you mentioned expansion, like looking at different areas. Can you tell me a bit about your expansion plans.

(1:29:38) Mara

So right now we are looking to expand more circuit launch locations, expand more labs for Mechlabs, kind of we've the we're in the middle of a funding round that will allow us to to be able to do that. Of course a lot of because we are dealing with space, there's a lot of like kind of long term planning that has to happen when you open spaces and everything else. So we are exploring a lot of things from working with governments to be able to provide economic centers of innovation. And a lot of you know, we're looking at the venture model, we're looking at a lot of different stuff to to go. And so there will be, you know, big things in the future that we're having, but we're not quite sure. And so right now, if you are interested in being part of that future, we'd love to talk to you as an investor or student or an entrepreneur or roboticist. But at the at the moment, we, you know, it's, it's a giant experiment, even to us, we got to figure out what will work and where we can, can provide value and create the change that we want to want to make.

(1:30:41) Audrow Nash

Let's see. So if people are interested, how should they follow up? Or what would the what would the good approach be?

(1:30:47) Mara

Yeah, if you're interested in becoming like an entrepreneur in our in our bay area, Oakland facility, circuit launch.com, as we open up other facilities, hopefully that will be, you know, that will also be the website until we have them. Right now. It's just the Oakland facility. And if you are interested in learning, learning robotics, or you know, building some of these cool things, mech labs.ai is the best way to come and, and find us and get in contact, see what what projects are there and, and build. We've got some some really fun stuff up on the on the horizon.

(1:31:25) Audrow Nash

All right. Well, that's all we have time for. Thank you, Dan. Thank you. All right. Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening to this conversation with Dan O'Meara. Thank you again to our founding sponsor, open robotics. See you next time.