Ed Colgate – Farley Fellow Q&A
J. Edward Colgate, Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Senior Professor in Design
Colgate is an expert in robotics, cobots, human-machine interaction, and haptic interface. With Michael Peshkin, he founded Tangible Haptics, a company that brings haptic technology to touchscreens; Kinea Design, a leader in human/robotic collaboration technology that specializes in medical robotics; and Cobotics, Inc., a provider of intelligent assist devices to industry.
What was your inspiration for becoming an entrepreneur?
I was introduced to the idea at an early age. My dad was a chemistry professor; he is retired now. He more or less stopped doing research so he could pursue some of his ideas. He started a business with our next-door neighbor, who was an associate dean at an engineering school, and they developed a sprayer for garden chemicals. That influence wore off on me. Growing up in Florida, we always wanted something cold to drink in the summertime, so we'd drink a lot of pop — Coke and RC and stuff. You'd put ice in it, and it would water it down. I came up with an idea: plastic coated ice cubes. My dad helped me make them.
When I was an undergrad at MIT, I took a class in entrepreneurship. I have to admit, despite my interest in it, I was incredibly naïve. I didn't really get it. At the time, there weren’t things like the Farley Center to help guide students. So I went on with my education, became a graduate student, and focused on the fundamentals of research. But I never lost that desire to create useful things.
And when did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Shortly after I got tenure, I conceived these cobot things. I started working with Michael Peshkin on developing them, and suddenly — coincidentally — it turned out that some people thought they might actually be useful, and they would actually pay for them! And then it just welled up in me: “This is useful. I have to get it out there in the world.”
View Ed Colgate's faculty profileOf course, when that happens, you don’t know where to start. You start getting contacted by people in the real world who might want to do something with your idea, but there's always — I wouldn't call it a disconnect, but there's a distance. There's a distance between what most of the corporations have an interest in or have the wherewithal to accomplish and where your technology is as it sits in the laboratory. There's a gap that needs to be filled.
With our first company, we spent a fair amount of time talking to robotics companies, and it just did not seem like anything good would come from licensing our technology to any of them. I really felt an obligation that if this is going to happen, I've got to make it happen myself.
Was there anything about the process that took you by surprise?
It takes a tremendous amount of work just to figure out where this market is. It's not a matter of, “I've got this technology right here, and I've got to go and find out which of the markets of the world overlap it” — because, in fact, none of them do. Your technology is never quite the right thing. You have to morph it into the right thing. This is one of the things I've learned: your technology is a starting point. Don't kid yourself.
I kidded myself with the first company. We developed these things called cobots, and they were very specific and beautiful things. But when we got out there in the world and saw what problems people had, we realized that we could better address those problems with something a little different. And that was difficult for me — emotionally difficult. As one of my partners once told me, "We're designing a Cadillac, and I'm hearing a really big need for a Yugo."
In the end we succeeded because we gave ourselves the freedom, ultimately, to follow the market need as we began to understand it. Of course, to do that, you have to get out there. You have to talk to your users and really listen.
How did that realization affect your later projects?
It ultimately changed my approach to research. As I selected problems to work on in my research life, after this experience, I was much better informed about how they matched up to commercial needs. Instead of starting directly from a curiosity, you look at the world and see a problem that really needs to be solved. Usually you're going to find something that has a lot of theoretical value. Before I started commercializing my research, I didn't realize that. I didn't appreciate that.
What are your thoughts on building a successful team?
Running a startup business is incredibly demanding and time-consuming, and many of the activities are not the ones where you, the faculty member, can deliver the greatest value. Learning how to lead has been one of the things I value from my entrepreneurial experiences. And leading doesn't always mean being the CEO.
You spend a lot of time with investors, and I think letting the CEO run the business side works beautifully. It alleviates a lot of the standard fears and concerns of investors, who might see you as some kind of cowboy — someone who is great at this thing in the lab and now thinks he's going to run a company. Investors see that and think, “No, we don't really trust you to do that.”
Instead, you and your business partners can each come in and play your role. I can give the pitch and provide the vision, and I'm pretty good at that, and my CEO is delighted to have me do it. And he can explain the business plan and financial projections and other hocus pocus, which I'm not good at. You really want to find people in that role that you trust, that you respect, that you will gain from working with, that you'll learn from, and that you'll also be able to teach. That's one of the joys of it, working with a different cross section of people. There's a lot more to be gained from that than just trying to be that person.