10 Dec HOW I BECAME A FOUNDER OF A STARTUP MAKING REVOLUTIONARY NEW GEARBOXES
My name is Jack Schorsch. I am the inventor of the Archimedes Drive and the founder of a startup company. As we speak, we’re falling off the cliff edge with nothing but a box of parts and a blueprint. As I hurtle on a downwards trajectory, I’m frantically prioritising. What comes first: wings or engine? In my head I have a vision of the perfect machine but the imperative right now is to avoid the crash and burn. Seats would be nice but no time for that noooooooow…
Falling off a cliff edge with a box of parts
I’ve heard this analogy before, but it really stuck for me this year at an event in Turin. I was attending a conference for people like me – startup founders – when the entrepreneur, Reid Hoffman, set out this frightening, yet all too familiar analogy.
My own startup,IMSystems, is not actually in the business of flying machine manufacture. Nope. We’re on a mission to revolutionize the humble gear box. Even so, the feeling of hurtling off a cliff edge sure is familiar to me and my team. I imagine it’s the same for most people out there in startup land.
Startups are surrounded by a halo of positivity. The promise of what might be. However the reality is often brutal. Statistics are contested, but Entrepreneur magazine estimates that between 60 and 90 per cent of startups fail. The inherently risky nature of this line of business is exposed by the jargon we use. “Bleeding edge”, “pain points” and “burn rates” are dropped into
So crashing and burning is not just a possibility, it’s a probability. And yet, to me, this is something of an irrelevance. Not because I am arrogant. Not because I am naive. But because I truly believe that our technology – a humble gearbox (without teeth) – is going to revolutionize the world. Sounds improbable? To me: no. But I must admit, I sometimes ask myself how I got here.
North Dakota farm to robotic arm
My roots are quite literally agricultural. I grew up on the family farm, bought by my great grandparents, in the American Midwest. In stark contrast to the extremely international life I enjoy today (I’m an American based in the Netherlands), my childhood was blissfully simple. I attended the local school with the same 20 children from kindergarten to graduating high school. At home, I spent my spare time tinkering. From re-wiring the house to deconstructing and then resuscitating defunct farm equipment, my parents believed that there was nothing we couldn’t fix ourselves. Their self-reliance rubbed off on me, as did their curiosity. My parents always encouraged me to dream big. They gave me wings.
My father had studied biology before returning to work on the family farm and my mum was an art teacher. Educated themselves, they in turn, encouraged me to follow my interests. As a teenager, that meant bionics. The idea of designing super-strength humans seemed cool to me. And having spent many summers lifting heavy hale bales, I understood the potential benefits.
So, at the age of 18, my itchy feet led me south to Tulane University, where I had been granted a scholarship to study biomedical engineering. What ensued were four fantastic years immersed in the culture of New Orleans. I met my wife-to-be, basked in the warmer weather and ate better food. Oh, and I also got a pretty good grounding in biomechanics.
I built on this foundation with a stint working at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, a Masters at the University of Southern California and then a position at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where I worked on advanced prosthetics and implants.
It was there, while developing a dexterous prosthetic hand that I stumbled across the problem that would come to define my future and – I hope – the future of mechatronic world.
The problem that I am referring to here is the speed reducer problem. It was a phrase that was coined by an IMSystems advisor, Bruce Schena. As a former Google Robotics engineer and an Engineering Fellow on the surgical daVinci robot, gears were a headache that he understood all too well.
Gears. That centuries-old technology which has spawned so many innovations: Leonardo Da Vinci’s renaissance robots, Dutch windmills, the Lunar Rover… My mind was blown. I didn’t expect gears to be the problem. But what I started to understand was that fundamental leaps forward in speed reducer technology stopped some fifty years ago.
With a speed reducer you have an electric motor turning electrical energy into mechanical energy. For most applications, you need to transfer high speed rotation into low speed torque. You need it to be slow and strong. But what you have instead are gears that are too weak, too bulky or too expensive – an impediment to our ambition for robots which will assist human enterprise.
The prosthetic hand was a case in point. We couldn’t make it strong enough. We were using exotic steels normally employed at the front of nuclear missiles. And we were breaking them.
The dream of a prosthetic hand – as strong and as nimble as a human hand – was quite literally out of reach. I watched fantastic engineers bang their heads against a brick wall, striving to get the performance they wanted but not being able to make significant improvements.
Typical planetary gear systems (with the outer “planets” rotating around a central “sun” gear) which offer a reasonably high reduction ratio are far too bulky to be incorporated into prosthetics. In contrast, compound Wolfram promised a big reduction ratio in one step thanks to the way in which the cog teeth were placed at an angle. At least that is the theory. Together with my colleagues at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, we spent a lot of time and money designing and building Wolfram drives. And then breaking them. In the end we had to accept defeat: a beautiful mathematical solution that works in theory but not in practice.
Frustration as the mother of invention
I moved on. But the frustration of gears stayed with me.
My wife and I relocated to the Netherlands and the Delft University of Technology where I started a PhD. I went back to working on exoskeletons and the human interface: the question of how people will control collaborative robotic systems.
A year into my research, I was tasked with building a robot – a collaborative project with the University of Twente. I was working on a mechanical linkage for sizing and had come up with, what I thought to be a neat solution, when I came up against it again: the speed reducer problem. The robot had great mechanical linkages. But it also had gearboxes that failed to live up to the task.
My collaborator was running behind me and I had some time. Time to think. For almost six months I pondered and puzzled over the speed reducer problem. Winter came. Mulled wine and Christmas cheer barely distracted me from my frustration. But then, much to my relief (and I imagine that of those around me), the idea came to me. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s it!”
I sketched my idea out, worked out the math and went online to order 3D printed parts. Those prototype parts were waiting for me on my desk when I got back to Delft after the Christmas break. Excitedly, I put them together and the damn thing worked! That was 2014 and the beginning of the story of the Archimedes Drive.
Jack be nimble!
Four years have passed since that Eureka moment. The quiet and sometimes lonely frustration of trying to solve the speed reducer problem has morphed into something else. The challenge of getting Archimedes Drive into production – at speed!
In the same way that the lexicon of startups reveals to the risky nature of the business, it also alludes to the frenetic pace at which we must now work: accelerate, activate, scale up!
But scale up while falling off a cliff edge? Surely the first priority is making the Archimedes Drive fly? This is the great challenge of startup life; it isn’t hard enough to just build an airplane while in the process of crashing. That first little glider you make? That’s only going to get you over the first little hill – but there are mountains of challenges out there, and the goal is to make it over Everest not just the little hill in your backyard. That means doing things right now that seem counter intuitive. Talking about distribution in China, when you’re 4 guys in a bare box office? Absolutely. Strategy, Operations, & Tactics.
It’s the sort of quandary that I face everyday as I juggle perfecting the technology, proving its performance in high precision robotic applications and fundraising so we can commence manufacture.
Luckily I no longer face these challenges alone. There are my three co-founders, Matthew Corvers, Rory Deen, and Thibaud Verschoor, who I was lucky enough at the startup incubator, Yes! Delft. And there is a growing team of talented engineers and entrepreneurial types who have joined us in our new home within Delft’s RoboValley.
Each of us is hugely ambitious. We are convinced that we can defy gravity, 99 per cent certain that we can beat the odds and achieve our mission: to change gears.