Founder and CTO of Canvas Robotics. Jennifer Roberts interviewed her for her new series: Robots in the Wild.
Q: Hi Maria! Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in robotics?
I grew up in Mexico about 5 hours south of Texas in an industrial town. I came to the US when I was 14. We moved for my Dad’s work which sells tools to the automotive industry. I was always interested in Mechanical Engineering, Math and Science, maybe because my Dad was always fixing things around the house with me and a lot of my family members were engineers. I’m not going to lie, it was difficult to move at 14. Luckily, since I was in a lot of math and science classes, one of my high school teachers suggested I join the Robotics Club. That was an amazing opportunity I wouldn’t have had, if we hadn’t moved. It allowed me to join a group and make new friends. It was very cool to use robots to solve a new challenge every year. I also liked that the competitions were very collaborative. Everyone ran around the pits helping each other. You formed alliances and saw the same teams at the competitions each year. You helped each other because it was more fun if everyone’s machines worked.
Q: How did you end up at MIT?
I learned about their MITES program which sounded like an amazing opportunity so I applied. Note: Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) is a six-week residential academic program for rising high school seniors — many of whom come from underrepresented or underserved communities — who have a strong academic record and are interested in studying and exploring careers in science and engineering.
The part of the MITES program that spoke to me was the hands-on part of it. We had a small robotics competition that summer. The program showed me that MIT was more project oriented vs. other schools I’d visited which were more theory oriented. Another plus was the diverse group I got to spend the summer with, made me feel comfortable, like I belonged at MIT.
I also appreciated the smaller classes at MIT. My sister went to the University of Michigan which is considerably larger. When I attended MIT there were only about 1000 students in each class. It’s close to 50% women now. There was good diversity in general at MIT, including diversity of background a good friend grew up on a farm in a tiny town and another one in downtown Manhattan. There is definitely support once you get there too.
Q: Why did you decide to get a graduate degree?
I was lucky. My senior year I was doing undergraduate research and my advisor recommended grad school. He suggested that I go to the Career Fair and ask people whose jobs I found interesting about their career path. Most of them had Masters or PhDs. I became interested in investigative positions. I was interested in design and wanted to invent something new. So Robotics was high on the list. I kept getting pulled back to the cool robotics applications I’d seen. It also helped that I got NSF funding for my research.
Q: MIT has a strong entrepreneurial culture. Did that shape your thinking? How did you get interested in Entrepreneurship?
It surfaced later for me even though I took entrepreneurship classes. The startup thing felt foreign at the time. I didn’t know anyone who had started a company. I ended up working at Lincoln Labs for a year after grad school. Then I re-connected with Kevin Albert, my co-founder at Canvas. We originally met when I was in grad school and he was at Boston Dynamics and we did a project together. I also had friends who had moved to California and who were committed to doing startups. Soon the startup thing started to sound super interesting, so I took a position at Otherlab to work on exciting projects.
Q: When you started at Otherlab was it clear that you would become a founder?
I liked that it was a research lab but that the ultimate goal was to build a product. My projects at Lincoln Labs had ten year horizons, which was hard for me. Otherlab had already spun out companies including Othermill and we were writing business plans for the SBIR grants so the focus to pursue a commercial opportunity was there from day one.
It took about 3 years to come up with construction robotics and drywalling. We were working on a lot of exciting opportunities but the market opportunities weren’t big enough. We even explored a lot of underwater robotics use cases. But they weren’t any use cases you could build a company on. Construction is a place where new tools are desperately needed and it’s a huge market opportunity.
Q: You could see the extreme labor shortages and that construction opportunities are big, including drywalling. What made you think you could solve it?
We were working on a project sanding airplanes and because the airplane can’t be moved, you needed a mobile robot. The moment you start moving the robot, positioning gets tough. Construction has that same problem. We needed to be interacting with the environment around us and we knew we could position ourselves automatically.
Q: Was the drywalling as big a challenge?
Yes. We had to develop an understanding of how it’s done and we dove deep into the process. We were already good at sanding delicate surfaces. It was still a long road. Drywalling is so soft. You can scratch it with a nail and yet you have to do a smooth application, and we needed to be able to position the robot at the cm level. It took a long time to get there.
Q: Did you ever think you might not nail it? Or did you assume you could iterate and get there?
We knew we could iterate to get there. We just continued to learn and continued to push. You have to think about what assumptions you should hold true. We decided we aren’t going to do it how a person does it.
A robot has completely opposite qualities from a person. Humans are flexible and adaptable but they don’t repeat things over and over. Robots are not flexible and adaptable but they can guarantee they will move at .1 m/s every time. We had to be open to the end result and how to get there.
Probably the biggest challenge was introducing new technology into the construction industry. We didn’t know what the barriers to entry would be. The Business and adoption side were scarier, maybe because we were very technical. To learn as quickly as possible we took a pretty rough prototype to construction sites to test the parts we weren’t sure of and just learned on site.
Q: As a technical founder, what did you think your role was in getting to a successful prototype?
As a founder you are leading the technical team. But you need to step out of the technical details and look at the bigger picture and think about how decision making on the product going to interact with other functions. For example, you can’t design a solution in drywalling that takes an entire day to set up. As a founder, you also have to be invested in building the company. How do you recruit a diverse workforce? What are your values? What are your compensation strategies? All of this takes a lot of time. You need to build a company that people want to work for.
Q: What are the values at Canvas?
We focus on active inclusion. Early on we tackled diversity. You don’t wait until you have 50 employees. Seeing other people in the same role makes it easier to see yourself as part of that company. Another value is always wanting to be learning and being humble about it, we call it learning mindset. Remember you don’t know everything. Take a step back and listen to the customer, for example.
I always tell the team that engineering has failed construction. You haven’t given them new tools in 40 years. It’s our turn to bring better tools that will help them be more productive.
Q: When you first started working with the drywaller sub contractors what was their reaction?
I think we were good about engaging the unions early on. We went to them and said we believe this will help you. By just going over to them early we got them excited. We listened to them and sought their input.
Q: Where do you think the company will be in 5 years?
We want to build in bold new ways. We want to look at other trades that need new tools. We will learn and ask — how can we make construction better?
Q: Canvas is a venture-backed company. What is your experience with your venture investors?
I think one of the best parts of has been that VCs can recognize patterns and see big problems coming. Also VCs can take a step back and see things from a high level. Our investors have challenged us and asked us to try new things. For example, they urged us to initially be a drywall sub-contractor. The machine didn’t need to be perfect since we were operating it. Then they challenged us to look at new business models.
Q: Do you think being a women founders made it easier for the company to recruit diverse hires?
Yes, I think it definitely helped us recruit more women and minorities. We’ve also focused on making sure we have women and minorities in leadership positions.
Q: Do you see yourself as a role model?
I do think about representing when I accept invitations to speak. I think about it terms of inspiring others.
Q: What do you think companies can do to increase the % of women and underrepresented minorities?
One of the things I reflected on is that there wasn’t a parental leave until I needed one. I know friends who didn’t join a startup because they were having kids. We created the same 12 week leave for fathers and mothers. I didn’t want it to be just a founder taking leave. You need to think about these types of things early on to make sure your employees and candidates have the support structure they need.
Q: Do you think that having a graduate degree was an accelerant in your career?
Yes. I think it helped for my position, especially with investors. They would say, “Oh you have a PhD from MIT, check! Let’s move on.”
Thank you Maria. You are an inspiration to many founders and Grit couldn’t be more excited about your company, Canvas, and what you will accomplish there!