May 6, 2020, Interview by Cheryl Dunigan
Balaji Viswanathan started his career at Microsoft, and moved from there to develop startups in such diverse areas as robotics, education and finance. He has embraced the true calling of an entrepreneur, using long term goals to develop companies that actively seek to make a global impact. This is exemplified by his Bengaluru-based company, Invento Robotics, which is currently using its humanoid robots to provide a myriad of services, from taking temperatures to collecting patient information to bringing medications and food to patients in isolation wards, in an effort to fight COVID-19.
For the UMBC community, perhaps the most interesting fact about Mr. Viswanathan is that he is an alumnus of UMBC, graduating with an MS in Computer Science in 2007.
How did UMBC prepare you for your career as an entrepreneur?
I learned robotics and AI at UMBC with Professors Finin, Oates, DesJardins and Peng. I took masters level courses in the topic (AI, Artifical Neural Networks and Robotics) published a workshop paper on Swarm robotics 15 years ago that we are now implementing in the field.
A lot of ideas talked about at the Ebiquity lab by Finin, Joshi et. al. were years later implemented in the industry, only under different names. UMBC’s work was quite ahead of its time.
Please talk a bit about any faculty or staff that had a positive impact on your experience as a student at UMBC.
I was a TA for 2 years at UMBC. This gave me exposure to a variety of faculty and their teaching methods. I liked the laid back approach of Yun Peng, the very energetic approach of Tim Oates and the to-the-point approach of Marie desJardins.
What’s one piece of career advice you would give to current UMBC engineering, biotech and/or IT students?
What Universities think of now, industries will plan 10 years from now. Don’t forget to dream and don’t be guided by what industries want now. You have to pull the industry rather than allow industry’s mediocrity to pull you.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time at Microsoft?
I have never encountered as many smart people as I did at Microsoft. And despite that, the company was struggling at that time. My biggest takeaway was it takes far beyond just having talent to succeed in business. I saw so many great ideas — like App Store, multi touch interfaces get buried only to be used later by Apple and other companies.
You are the most followed writer on Quora, a question-and-answer website. Of the thousands of questions you have answered, which one sticks in your mind the most?
My favourite one that I have also pinned is recounting my experience of meeting my childhood idol — the famed scientist Dr. Abdul Kalam, who was President of India at the time.
On Quora, you discussed how aspiring entrepreneurs can convert crises into opportunities. Can you discuss the role a widespread problem or crisis played in the development of your startups?
We were building healthcare related tech for over 3 years, but until COVID hit there was no demand for them. Thus, we put it in cold storage. However, when COVID hit China we thought it was time to pull those ideas from cold storage and revive the company with it. We were heavily dependent on events & hospitality industry and our customers came to a grounding halt. We had to execute a fast pivot.
You have developed many robots to help in the fight against COVID-19. Mitra provides patient screening, and Astra is remote-controlled and can disinfect a standard-sized room in 15 minutes using UV rays. What is the timeline for bringing these kinds of robots to the commercial market?
The Mitra is already commercial in the market and getting deployed in hospitals across India. The Astra is going through testing and certification and should be commercial by end of May. The RoboDoc — our dream product — might take about 6 months to be commercial.
In addition to being used for patient screening at hospitals, the temperature sensor attachment that your team has developed has enormous distribution possibilities (in airports, sporting facilities, etc…). Which functions of your robots, either current or in production, do you think will potentially have the greatest impact on public health in the future?
The ability to have Level 2 autonomy with 80% of the time the robot moving around in predictable, low risk environments and using the help strategically in 20% of the risky situations is the core of what we build at Invento. These could be used in a range of situations including disinfection, surveillance patrol, takeout from restaurant etc. While people always think of robot or human, this approach puts a robot+human like you in front of your PC.
Are you interested in using your robots in biosafety level 4 research facilities for vaccine development?
We don’t yet have the capability.
In a former interview you stated, “As an entrepreneur in the mid-20s, we are more prone to the “shiny object syndrome” where a lot of different things look attractive. Age and wisdom bring more focus and stability.”Has the COVID-19 crisis caused you to rethink the long term direction of Invento Robotics or any of your other ventures?
One thing I have learned is that most people including investors cannot predict the future of technology. Almost every futuristic prediction has been wrong in its entry time or their impact. That means we have to stick to our vision for the long term ignoring the noise. At the same time we have to look for sudden route changes along the way.
I will give this example. Imagine you are driving to the Niagara Falls. Along the way, you should not change your destination, but can take small detours and re-plan the route based on traffic conditions and accidents.
You have said that some of your robots will become affordable for the average consumer in 5 or so years. What do you see-2030 looking like in terms of the roles of robots in everyday life?
In 2030, I see robots as common as computers and smartphones now. You might have a dozen of them in your home doing everything from clean, engaging children, taking care of the elderly, and cooking.