Oct 15 2020 A Conversation with Ogura Takashi, CEO and Founder of Smile Robotics
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Ogura Takashi, the CEO of Smile Robotics, a startup company that focuses on robot development. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Ogura told us about his company, his team, the technology Smile Robotics is working to develop, Smile Robotics’ work environment, and more!
Mr. Ogura received his Ph.D. in Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering from the University of Tokyo. After working in robotics at Toyota and Google, Ogura decided to start his own company and founded Smile Robotics in June 2019.
1. Company and Business Outline
What made you choose to start a business?
Ogura: First of all, a big part of it was that for over 10 years, I always had the desire to create my own business venture. The timing was also perfect because it was around when I was about to leave Google.
In addition, I gained professional experience at two of the largest companies in Japan and the U.S.—Toyota and Google—and wondered what robot development at a major company would look like. With this thought in mind, I thought, “I’d like to work in a venture company next.”
When a company’s main business is in the “automobile” or “search engine” space, there are many cases where “robots” are not the most important priority when looking at how to optimize the company. As such, I felt that I would like to work for a company that specializes in this field.
However, I wasn’t actually focused exclusively on starting a business. I was hoping to work at a company where the president is a robotics engineer, so I was looking for such a venture. But I was also hoping that the company was actively raising money in order to go global; at the time, however, there was no so-called “start-up” company with a robot engineer as president. I wanted to work in an environment where my own experience and knowledge of robot development could be reflected in management. As such, I decided to start my own company.
What are some of the key features and strengths of your company, including its technology?
Ogura: We are working on a mobile manipulator (a mobile robot with an arm and other manipulators). We are trying to do more complicated things, like combining difficult individual tasks, such as maneuvering, camera recognition, and operating with an arm. This is where my experience in robot development from my previous jobs comes in handy.
We make all the hardware by ourselves, and we have applied for a patent for the special shape of the hand.
We are also developing with a new language called Rust, which is not common in the robotics world.
In retrospect, I think we might be doing way too much.
To be honest, it’s not easy to make this part of the project simple. If it’s simple, it’s easy for other companies to copy, and if it’s too difficult, it’s just a fanciful dream. But since we are a “technology company,” we always want to take on the most difficult challenges.
Please tell me a little about your love for robots. (Origin, inspiration, etc.)
Ogura: Nothing in particular. I got hooked on electronics in high school and robotics in college after watching Gundam and other games when I was a child.
I like the idea of having “things that I created myself move.”
I also want to be involved in things related to robots outside of work. I used to write a blog about ROS in the early days in Japan, and I created a mailing list for exchanging information. I also wrote a book.
In that regard, it would be great to work with someone who “does things about robots outside of work.”
Where do you see yourself in 3 or 5 years?
Ogura: Right now, we’re developing robots for the specific purpose of serving and disposing of food in restaurants, but we’d like to apply the technologies and elements we’ve developed in this area to develop other applications. For example, we would like to use the same software/robot for cleaning up linens in hotels, etc., but in different places. As the hardware and software are improved in this way, the range of applications will expand, and I think it will become possible to mass-produce the system in this way.
What made you decide to recruit at this time?
Ogura: We have been working with a minimal number of people, but we decided to hire more competent people to speed up the development process. We were selected for a demonstration experiment by NEDO (the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization), and we were able to secure a budget for the experiment. We feel that the key to success is how well we can recruit the best talent, since we have competition from other companies.
What made you decide to consider hiring foreign employees?
Ogura: To start with, the number of robot engineers worldwide is limited. We are competing for a very small piece of the pie. We are also considering hiring Japanese people, but as we grow in scale, it is absolutely necessary for us to look at people from overseas. We have started to think about hiring foreign nationals as a way of “preparing for the future.”
2. Regarding the type of personnel sought after
What kind of person would you like to see join your company?
Ogura: The scale of the project is still small in terms of the phase, so I’d like to work with someone who can handle the overall project as a whole. If the person is only able to work with image recognition, it will be difficult for the current team. It’s not only about hardware, but also about software. If someone is willing to try the soldering iron for electric circuits— that’s the kind of person I’d like to work with.
Also, as the first foreign employee, I would like the candidate to be fluent in Japanese.
What kind of person wouldn’t be a good fit for the company?
Ogura: There isn’t much that I can think of. But I do think that an overly cheerful person might stand out a lot (laughs). A quieter person might be a better fit in terms of personality.
Also, since the team is mainly made up of Japanese people at the moment, I think someone who is willing to learn some Japanese would be good for the job. If you’re not willing to speak a non-English language, it might be tough.
3. Regarding the engineering team
Is there any division of roles among the members?
Ogura: Currently, we have one software person and two hardware people. I’m also working on the software side. In addition to the above, we have interns and technical advisors who have joined us.
How is the development process conducted? (Task settings, communication methods, etc.)
Ogura: I use a spreadsheet to manage mid- to long-term development plans, while Trello is used to manage short-term tasks. We have weekly meetings and assign tasks to each person.
We also use Slack for chat and GitHub for program management. Both comments and chats on GitHub are in Japanese, so a reasonable level of language skills is required here too.
Is there anything you do in terms of team learning and training your members?
Ogura: We don’t have anything official, but the most common scenario is based on practical experience. Since we develop robots, we often have discussions while looking at the actual machines on site, and sometimes we discuss the specifications on Slack.
As an engineer, what else do you think makes for a good environment?
Ogura: I think this is a place where you can experience the zero-to-one phase of a robotics-related startup. You can experience a wide range of tasks in the development process.
Also, there aren’t many engineers in the world who have experience in robot development at Google. I think it’s great that you can learn from those engineers.
Also, the fact that the robot engineer is also the manager of the company may be a significant advantage.
4. Work environment (1-on-1, flextime, no restrictions on dress code)
Is there anything you keep in mind in terms of creating a good working environment?
Ogura: We want people to be able to work in a way that meets the needs of each individual. For example, we want to make sure that people with physical weaknesses are able to work without being disadvantaged. We have flexible working hours, and we also offer sick leave in addition to paid time. We use the same system as Google.
We also have a teleworking system. However, due to the hardware of robot development, it is possible to work remotely only if it is feasible considering the task at hand.
In addition to the above, I have weekly 1-on-1 meetings with members to identify any complaints or needs. I try to gather opinions by having these discussions.
We’re still a small organization with a lot of flexibility, so if there are good systems in this area, I’d like to be proactive in adopting them.
Are there any other points you would like to highlight?
Ogura: Not all, but some are offered stock options. I also like the fact that we get to experience the zero-one phase, a process that allows a company to grow rapidly. I think it’s great to be close to both the customers and the management. If there is someone who wants to do this, I’d be more than happy to go to meetings with them.
We would like to thank Mr. Ogura for sharing the Smile Robotics story with us, and we wish the Smile Robotics team success in their future endeavors!
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