Company Builders: Brad Porter, CEO and founder of Collaborative Robotics
Collaborative Robotics is a newly formed company at the cutting edge of AI, robotics and automation. Led by CEO and Founder Brad Porter, former head of Amazon’s robotics division, Collaborative Robotics is working to redefine the future of human-robot collaboration. Their mission is to build robots that are a trusted extension of the way people work, connect, and communicate. We recently sat down with Brad, who led a team of over 10,000 people and oversaw the deployment of over 200,000 robots during his tenure at Amazon Robotics, to find out why co-bots must be trustable, adaptable, and useful, and what it’s like to take a leap of faith to start a moonshot company.
What drove you to start a company?
What drove me to start a company and what drove me to start Collaborative Robotics specifically are a little different. I’ll credit the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition as inspiring me to think about starting my own company back when I was just a sophomore in college. As an engineer at heart, I’m naturally cautious and risk-averse, but also self-aware and objective. I decided I needed more experience before I could really be confident I’d be successful as an entrepreneur. I went to work to gain engineering and leadership experience. I got that experience first by joining Netscape, then Tellme Networks as an early employee, and moving on to work for nearly 14 years at Amazon, followed by taking the CTO position at Scale AI. When you’re having that much fun and that much impact, the idea of starting your own company fades into the background. So when I decided to hand over the engineering reins at Scale and take a bit of a break, it was disorienting at first; I have worked since I was 14. After taking three days off and planting a garden, my wife looked at me and said “yeah, this isn’t going to work.” I agreed; gardening is great, but it wasn’t going to fill my need to build. So I reconnected with a couple of long-time friends, Jane Mooney and Steph Tryphonas, and started to discuss ideas.
What’s unique about Collaborative Robotics?
I’ll credit Elon Musk and his Tesla Bot announcement for motivating us to actually create Collaborative Robotics. When that announcement came out, I was heads-down at Scale AI at the time, but it gnawed at me. I have a deeply different vision for the future of human-robot collaboration. I don’t see robots as human replacements or droid clones. I see robots as incredibly trustworthy and useful participants in a more sustainable and hospitable society, improving every aspect of our daily lives. I concluded that if we didn’t go and build that future, I wasn’t sure the future of robotics would benefit humankind in the way I believed possible. Ensuring that robotics benefit humankind is a mission worth building a company around.
Looking back to your company’s earliest days, what is one thing you got absolutely right?
It’s still pretty early for us. We’re about four months old. One thing we’re very focused on is continued customer engagement, even though we’re still early in product development. Once you’ve done enough customer validation to know you have a solid product, it is tempting to just focus on the product for a while. But, as long as you’re not wasting anyone’s time, it’s really almost impossible to have too many meaningful conversations with prospective customers. Also, we decided to build a rigorous talent pipeline patterned after big tech rather than just hiring from connections in our network. I have a reputation for my ability to build great engineering teams, but a large part of my success is that I focus first on partnering with the best recruiters. One of the very first people I called was Sarah Rathbun, a tremendous talent acquisition leader whom I’d worked with at Amazon. She had since gone on to build the unique team of scientists powering Meta’s metaverse investment under Michael Abrash. Thankfully the timing was right and she was excited to join us at the very beginning. Sarah came with the conviction that there’s only really one way to build a highly specialized team…and that’s doing it the proper, rigorous way. Building the pipeline took about six weeks, which feels like eternity when you’re just starting out. But now that our rigorous recruiting structure is rolling, we’re confident we can close even the toughest, most unique skill sets. That’s a huge advantage for a company our size.
What is one milestone you’re particularly proud of?
Hiring our first engineer. We hired Jack Erdozain, an incredibly talented hardware engineer out of Apple, very early. He’s been an anchor for us as we’ve continued to grow the engineering team.
If you could give one piece of advice to a new founder, what would it be?
Sometimes as a founder, you just don’t know yet which way to go. The best thing you can do in that situation is to not stress about it, but instead ask yourself “how long is it ok for me to not know the answer to this?” If you have a few days or a few weeks, then just calm down and trust that it will come to you. Your subconscious mind will process it and new data will come in. The difficult decision you’re facing will become more obvious in time, often faster than you expect.
What does success mean for you?
Success is accomplishing something as a team that seemed impossible when you started. The success we’re aiming for right now is to transform the world into a better, more hospitable place, through human collaborative robots, while simultaneously building the greatest robotics company in the world.