From Fighting Robots to Helpful Robots with Marc DeVidtz – Ep12

We’re twelve podcasts in, and I have many more inspiring stories from creators like you.  In this podcast, we talk with Marc DeVidts, the CFO and co-founder of Double Robotics.  As a young man Marc had an interest in creating, along with taking household items apart to see how they worked (sound familiar to anyone?).  He then started building robots, which eventually took him to the BIG stage at BattleBots, but what he really wanted was to start his own robotics business, which he has now done.  Along the way, he encountered a few pitfalls and has learned many lessons, all of which he shares in this podcast.

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I had the opportunity to meet Marc years ago as part of BattleBots, and have gotten to know him well over these years.  He is a great guy with a passion for robotics, and a knack for troubleshooting problems.  This is how Double Robotics was conceived.  He saw a need to develop a better and less expensive Telepresence robot.

We also created a short video with Marc at his office in California, which you can watch here:

 

To learn more about Double Robotics, check out their site here:  www.doublerobotics.com.

In the podcast, Marc points out a few websites for those interested in robotics:

If you are designer and builder of electromechanical or mechatronics products, as Marc is, I encourage you to check out SOLIDWORKS PCB which enables a unique, seamless and intelligent ECAD-MCAD collaboration workflow to streamline and optimize your PCB design and mechanical assembly collaboration.

 

Machine-Generated Transcript:

Marc DeVidts  0:00

From a very early age, you could ask my mother, I was always taking apart stuff at the house, you know, taking apart the TV and the VCR and whatever was laying around and it would drive her crazy. And that sort of led into, you know, discovery process.

Cliff  0:10

I think a lot of engineers start off with driving their mom crazy. Pulling parts and that. Yeah, there’s a common theme there.

Marc DeVidts  0:15

Yeah, I mean, and you any any kid that’s passionate about something, I think should probably get to that just push that edge, you know, just get to that limit of driving the parents crazy.

Cliff  0:27

Hi, there. This is the SOLIDWORKS born to design podcast, a collection of inspiring stories about those who create, build, invent an engineer and new ideas, and the actual new products. And by the way, they all use SOLIDWORKS.

I’m your host Cliff meddling. And this episode is titled, From Fighting Robots to Helpful Robots. Today, I’m talking to Marc DeVidts who turned his passion for building robots into a career. Mark is the co founder and CTO of double robotics. But he originally started as a teenager who love designing and building fighting robots. Mark is a true startup story with plenty of lessons learned for those building their own business from scratch or any designer. So let’s jump right into his story.

Yeah, I want to go into double robotics and how that started where you are now, but it’s just one of the things you made a comment. We were talking earlier about schools and the huge opportunity that there is for robotics, teaching kids stem and stuff, if you want to elaborate on that a little bit.

Marc DeVidts  1:25

Yeah. So when I was in high school, I went to the college prep school, and they didn’t have a robotics team, or they didn’t have a shop class. It wasn’t a vocational school, it was a college prep school, we learn Greek and play football. Those are things that were that were popular at my school. And so there really wasn’t much support for a kid wanting to get into engineering. And so having those classes at school or even having just just that environment where you can talk to someone like a shop teacher, or even like a physics teacher who’s really into the hands on STEM type learning would be a good start.

And uh, but for me, it wasn’t, you know, it was something I knew I wanted to do as passion for me, I was going to do it, whether my school supported or not. And so I went out on my own, and I figured how to how to make some money myself and use that to build to go build robots and compete. But I think it’s really cool to see that more schools are embracing the, you know, maker culture and the engineering that goes into building robots, and not just battle bots. But there’s first and battle bots and backs and all these different ones that are popping up that are that are really cool competitions that are equally as good in terms of teaching kids engineering. So that’s really cool that you’re seeing more of that.

Cliff  2:31

Yeah, exactly. And you mentioned, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you mentioned how you were very shy when you were younger, which is hard. It’s hard to believe today. But you said that, you know, those type of communities as robotics communities actually helped kids and a lot of other ways. Like you mentioned all the other, you know, aspects of the battle bots and robots competitions.

Yeah, it wasn’t just about the stem, it was just about, you know, learning to all aspects of building a business right, probably prepared you for where you are now.

Marc DeVidts  2:55

Yeah, I think one of the things that I was I wasn’t necessarily shy, I just hadn’t found that thing that I wanted to talk about. Right. And so like that none of my friends were building robots. They were, you know, they’re good friends. And they’re still good friends to this day. But they weren’t the ones that I could talk to about motors and gears and electronics.

And so when I finally found that community is when I realized that’s the thing that I want to do, and now I have a whole group of people that I can talk to about, and not only that, but that group of people can turn into something much bigger, in, you know, as you as you get older, and as you go through life, you have that those connections with that whole group of people, that whole community of engineers, and so you know, that that sort of leads into all the projects that I’ve had along the way, and all the people that I’ve met have been part of that.

Cliff  3:39

Yeah, this leads us into Double Robotics. This is where you started the company and tell us that story.

Marc DeVidts  3:44

Yeah. So um, so my co founder, David was actually working for Battlebots. At the time, he was a software developer, developing their tournament management software, I was I was jealous, because I wanted to work for Battlebots, I thought that was the coolest job ever. So I kind of always envied him, he was a couple years older than me. And so I was like, I want to do this. And I started writing my own software to try to, you know, do it and that kind of thing.

It wasn’t until a few years later that we ended up being in the same city together, just by happenstance, we ended up in the same city in Miami together. And we were both doing our own thing at the time, I was working in software, and he was doing, he was doing apps, and then I got the hardware gig. And once once I started picking up the hardware side of things, is when we realized that we sort of have this cohesion, working together that is missing from a lot of big companies, you know, it’s a lot of big companies are really good at software, or really good at hardware, but not good at both together and not good at bringing that experience together for the customer and making a really good product out of that.

So uh, that was a sort of catalyst for why we wanted to start double. And that’s sort of driven our company culture throughout the whole time that we’ve been in business, you know, how do we create that user experience to be seamless, rather than, you know, a lot of robots that you see these days are either industrial robots, and they’re in a factory, or they’re just like, really kind of borderline, there’s not much user interaction with that. But with the product that requires more user and interaction, you’ve got to get that whole experience to be really seamless and good. And so that’s one of the things that’s kind of driven us to build this product.

Cliff  5:08

That’s great. Because in and that’s a good question I wanted to ask you is, you know, everybody has a great idea as they want to jump right in two feet, first into starting a business, but they need to make sure it’s a something that people really need, right?

Marc DeVidts  5:20

Yeah, we’re not the first company to make this product. And really, you’re never going to be the first one to make something. It’s very rare that you find a brand new idea these days. So you know, a lot of times people ask us, like, how do I come up with an idea and it’s, it’s really just get out into the real world and do something find find something that you’re passionate about.

And for us, it was a couple different things, you know, it was a manufacturing a product overseas. And for David, it was doing contract work with customers that are remote, and we found a need for better communication tool. And so we just took some of the things that existed before you know, Skype and FaceTime existed already. And robots existed already. And even even telepresence robots like oh existed already, we just have to figure out how to make it one step better. And once that more affordable than the previous iterations. And we were able to do that with the skill set that we had.

Cliff  6:09

Right? Tell us about the first robot you guys build, you weren’t actually thinking about a company? That was a great story. Yeah,

Marc DeVidts  6:14

yeah, we were we were developing another product, because we thought that we were going to get into the toy industry, and it was going to be our big thing. And so we were working on a different product at the time. And this is when we started eating better communication tools. So we said we found some of these other telepresence robots that that did what we thought would be a cool way, you know, this would solve all of our problems if we just had one of those.

But hey, that was $17,000. We can’t afford that as a little, you know, two person company with no funding. So how are we going to, you know, why don’t we just build one of these things on our own? And because we know how to do it, we’re already writing iPad apps and making robots and all kind of stuff. So why don’t we just build their own, and we’ll use the iPad as the sort of brains of the robot. And so we built a little prototype, and we brought it out to the Apple conference out here and just drove around outside and just try to get some attention.

And it got attention. You know, we got phone calls from some big fortune 500 companies at that point, and they’re saying, Hey, we want that. And we just, we were kind of caught off guard. But we said, okay, sure. You know, I mean, we’ll we’ll figure out how to make this and, and sell it to them, and eventually turn that into a real product. And that’s the sort of path that we took.

Cliff  7:19

That’s great. Do you have a fascinating background, you’ve got into robotics, when you’re young. And I want to talk about that story of you from originally getting involved in robotics, you’re young, you didn’t know where you want to go. And now you’re the chief technical officer and co founder of robotics company here in the Bay Area of California. So let’s let’s start with when you’re young, how did you first get introduced to robotics and know you had an interest in in stem?

Marc DeVidts  7:45

From a very early age, you could ask my mother, she was always taking apart stuff at the house, you know, taking apart the TV and the VCR and whatever was laying around and it would drive her crazy. And that sort of led into, you know, discovery process for me when I got into high school to try to figure out, you know, what I wanted to do and and as I was getting toward, you know, looking at colleges trying to figure out what that what that major would be, and it happened to see this, this TV show on Comedy Central at the time, and it was called Battlebots. And that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. It was actually a TV show that was promoting engineering and promoting building cool things. And also, you know, competing against other people that had built similar creations. And I said, I gotta do that. That’s, that’s the thing that I’m going to do. And I’m going to figure out how to make that part of you know, where I go in life.

Cliff  8:31

I think a lot of engineers start off with driving their mom crazy. Pulling parts and that. Yeah, there’s a common theme there.

Marc DeVidts  8:37

Yeah, I mean, and any, any kid that’s passionate about something, I think, should probably get to that just push that edge, you know, just get to that limit of driving the parents crazy.

Cliff  8:45

But your mom was open to that. And she was, she was right in with you.

Marc DeVidts  8:48

Yeah, she’s awesome. Yeah, she’s totally supported everything, she had no idea what I was doing. And she’s like, just don’t kill yourself, just don’t hurt yourself. And, you know, but I was like climbing inside the CRT TV and taking things apart, and just, you know, ridiculous things like that. But as I got older, I started understanding things a lot better, and kind of build their confidence, you know, I was taking apart the computer and upgrading it or, you know, repairing the tape player, or whatever it was at the time.

Cliff  9:09

That’s great. And so from that your college experience, I thought was fascinating we were talking about earlier.

Marc DeVidts  9:14

So in high school, I saw this battle bots TV show, and I thought was the coolest thing ever. And as I as I started competing, and Battlebots, that sort of started taking up more and more of my time, and I got to know the community and got to know that community of builders there, you know, really fantastic group of people that are really smart engineers, and they have a lot to teach.

And so when I sort of got to college, I went into computer science degree, not really knowing what exactly I wanted to do. I like computers at the time, and I saw computers being an integral part of the robots. But so I started doing computer science. And it was around that time that I sort of started to realize that I already know the thing that I want to do. And these, you know, I’m not learning the things that I need to learn here at school. So it sort of wasn’t inspiring me at the time to be in this computer science program.

And so with a lot of other things going on, at the time, you know, I was I was living in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina hit and that shut down my school. So that kind of pushed me into a new direction where I had to figure out where to go. And so all those things led to me moving out and getting a job doing software programming. And that that sort of jump started my career in you know, not only you know, building robots, but just you know, all kinds of things engineering

Cliff  10:24

Right and in with that you decided it wasn’t just like building robots isn’t just the software side of business, you enjoy the hardware side of the piece as well. So

Marc DeVidts  10:33

When I dropped out of college, essentially, I said, I have to have to get a job doing something respectable, or else my family’s gonna disown me. So I got the software job. And I was writing software for the cruise industry in Miami. And it was still cool. And it was it was fun. But it wasn’t ultimately what I wanted to do. And as, as I kept doing these battle bots, competitions and meeting more and more people, I finally got a connection with someone who was doing medical devices. Also in Miami, they said, Well, you know, we’re looking for a software guy to sort of bridge the gap between the hardware, the software at this medical device company, and would you like to come come do that for us? And I said, Yeah, absolutely. That would that sounds great.

And that was really where the doors opened. And I gotta give a plug. It’s the company’s called Syntheon, and they’re small company, they do medical devices in Miami, they’re really awesome group of people. And that was so inspiring to me to work with such a great group of people that are always kind of pushing you pushing your limits in terms of what you you know, what you can design and what you can build. Yeah, it was it was really inspiring, I got my brain going just 100 miles an hour about what I could build, they really gave you the freedom to learn new things there. So I was learning all kinds of things like 3d printing, and you know, running a CNC mill.

Cliff  11:36

That’s great that they gave you the opportunity, they just unleashed you to try new things. That’s excellent. Yeah,

Marc DeVidts  11:40

Yeah, it was a really cool place. Those guys are also sort of part of the Battlebots community, because a lot of them are involved with that, but also just a really great group of people.

Cliff  11:47

Yeah, we were talking earlier, I wanted you to elaborate on this. Again, you talked about Battlebots, being a great development ground, because you were competing against like people who worked at NASA was talking about that community and how it was helpful, helpful. Your development.

Marc DeVidts  12:00

Yeah, and one of the, that’s one of the things I learned early on doing battle bots was that as a single robot builder, you know, kid, basically, I was 17, when I started, I could go essentially, with just you know, buying a plane ticket, I could go fly to this event where there’s hundreds of other engineers, real engineers building the same devices, and I’m competing against them now.

And so I have to really step up my game in terms of my engineering skill to go against these NASA engineers. And the first moment that you get that taste of like, you just win one match. Or even if you get like, really good hit, and on one of these other really well built robots, you realize, okay, this is it. Now I have a chance of, you know, not only not only can I be as good as them, but I can I can win in this competition.

Cliff  12:45

That’s great. So it pushes you to be better by see in the picture.

Marc DeVidts  12:48

Yeah. And I always like to say like, the cool thing about battle bots, is it on the surface on the TV show, it seems really destructive and kind of fun. And you know, a little bit gimmicky, maybe a little bit on the surface, you know, the lights and the sound, and the announcers and things like that, but what what’s under the surface is really what matters, especially when you’re trying to inspire kids to get into engineering. It’s the it’s the attraction of all the cool drama that you see on TV, but it’s really the, the engineering underneath that that kind of builds that foundation.

So you’re learning things like you’re learning about different materials, you’re learning about tolerances, you’re learning about failure modes, and you’re learning about how to iterate quickly on new things. Even at the event, you’re in the pit area, scrambling and throwing new things together to try to solve that problem for the next match. I say it’s like you’re fighting against other people’s brains, because they’re coming up with those solutions at the same time. You are you’re not just fighting against the set of rules that’s making you do a task.

Cliff  13:39

Yeah, yeah. I think you mentioned earlier that somebody said, it’s a real, it seems so violent, they didn’t want their kids to get into it. But you had a good explanation for that.

Marc DeVidts  13:46

Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard that from a few parents, and like, Oh, I don’t know if I want my kids to watch that. And and the first thing I say is just do it, because your kids are going to love it. And it’s going to be the thing they talk about forever, you know, it’s gonna be the thing that they they drive you crazy over, we were talking about pushing that limit, they’re going to get so into it, that they’re going to want to build their own, they’re going to have their own designs, they’re going to start sketching things out on napkins while they’re at dinner.

The cool part about that is it’s really building skills behind the scenes. It’s not just destruction on the surface, it’s building those engineering skills and learning how to design and there’s a lot more to battle bots than just designing and building a robot to there’s How do you fundraise? How do you because these things are not cheap, right? You have to figure out how you’re going to build Are you going to buy all the components, and sometimes it’s thousands of dollars, you know, you could build smaller robots, and they’re in the hundreds of dollars, but you still have to build yourself to buy all the components.

So you have to figure out how you’re going to get that money. So you got to go sell lemonade on the street corner, you got to do a garage sale, or you gotta go talk to some sponsors, and figure out what am I going to say, to convince these people to give me money, because you know, it’s pretty tough out there is a lot of people trying to do the same thing. So there’s a lot of skills and then there’s, you know, project management, and then there’s event planning, you know, you gotta figure out logistics of getting to the event and unpacking your robot on time and getting through the safety. And, you know, just managing your whole team is a full person’s job on a lot of teams. So there’s a lot more to it than just engineering.

Cliff  14:59

Right. And you’ve talked about the camaraderie of the battle bots, the you know, even though everybody’s fighting, they want to win. But there’s such camaraderie there. Yeah,

Marc DeVidts  15:07

Yeah, it’s the most amazing community to be in, because you think that the person you’re going to be fighting up next would never in a million years give you the part that you need to get your robot working, because it just broke, but they’re the first people that are going to do that, because they want to fight you they want to see that go through and they want to they don’t want the fight to be lost in the pit before the match. You know, they don’t want it to never happen because you didn’t have the things you needed. They want to give you the things you need. And so that that fight can play itself out in the arena as it was intended.

Cliff  15:37

And I have to miss it. I love this part in your office from huge the robot, tell us about that piece when somebody wins.

Marc DeVidts  15:43

Yeah, it’s a really, really cool tradition that the builders have, like I said, tight knit community, everybody loves each other. But the one of the cool traditions is when you rip another part off of somebody’s robot, then they you know, they tend to, you know, want to give you a souvenir of what you ripped off as sort of a like a gesture of, you know, good faith, we, you know, there’s no bad blood here. So they’ll take apart and they’ll sign it. So we have a part here from from our fight with huge this past season 20,

Cliff  16:09

which was a huge fight.

Marc DeVidts  16:10

Huge robot. huge fight, it was a really great fight. I mean, I made amazing TV and those props to those guys, because they came up with an amazing brand new design that really hadn’t been seen before. And it was pretty effective for being a little bit different. And that’s not not so often seen in this day and age. And so props to them for that. And but you know, we ended up ripping off a piece and they were kind enough to sign it. And I have it sitting here on my desk. So it’s kind of cool to have that little tradition.

Cliff  16:35

Absolutely. So so really just one last question. I think this is a great background on you and how it got started. I think if you were talking to the 17 year old Mark back in the day, what what advice would you give them? You know, if you wanted to start and you want to know you want a career, you knew you wanted to do something robotics and a career like that? What advice would you give him?

Marc DeVidts  16:57

Well, I mean, people these days are really like compared to where we were even you know, I’m not that old. But I’m, I’m old enough to know that it was really hard to make a website at one point. And now you have social media and you know, Instagram and it’s very easy to go pop on, you know, YouTube and watch some videos of people building the thing that you want to build so or something similar. And you can figure out how to put those pieces together.

I would say, I mean, one of the things that I recommend to people that that want to get into building robots is go to an event, find an event that’s local to you. There’s a bunch of websites out there robotcombatevents.com,  buildersDB.com is actually my website, but well, small plug there, and but you can go find local events that people are building and competing, these miniature battle bots, and there’s probably one in your area, and you can go there and you can talk to the people. Like I said, the community is so amazing that they will you just walk up to any builder and start a conversation. And they’ll they’ll tell you all about it, they’ll just go on and on and on.

And so that’s that’s really one of the great ways of getting involved. And just seeing it in person kind of sparks that imagination. But then, you know, as you get older, and you get into the real world, and you’re and you’re trying to figure out how to get a job doing the thing that you want to do, or, you know, let’s say you want to, I would probably recommend going to get a job first, rather than starting your own company. Because there’s a lot that you learn the first time you get a job. But the best thing to do to go get a job to do the things that you want is have have a project that you’ve already worked on, or multiple projects that you’ve already worked on, and just show it right having on on Instagram, have it on YouTube, have it on Facebook, whatever it is.

I used to say put it on a CD and bring it to your job interview. But you have to do that anymore and just show the project that you built because just having built something you’re miles ahead of everyone else

Cliff  18:28

Who’s just thinking about it. Yeah.

Marc DeVidts  18:29

Everybody else is just thinking about it and you actually did it you actually got there and you even if it’s like made a popsicle sticks and bubble gum, it’s still better than everybody else. So just document all along the way and bring it to your job interview and show your passion I’m so passionate I figured out how to make this thing out of popsicle sticks because that’s all I had and your employer will love it right and i mean i say your employer because you will be hired.

Cliff  18:54

Thanks for listening today and remember that if you are an entrepreneur or looking to start your own business and would like to use SOLIDWORKS for designing electrical mechanical products as Mark did, please check out our full suite of products including SOLIDWORKS PCB, which you can find at SOLIDWORKS.com/PCB.

If you are an entrepreneur, we offer special pricing with our SOLIDWORKS entrepreneurship program, which you can find at SOLIDWORKS.com/entrepreneur. Also if you want to learn more about marks business go to doublerobotics.com and learn about all the applications a telepresence robot can be used for. Will be back again soon with more great born to design podcast stories at solid works com slash podcast or wherever podcasts are readily available. Until then keep innovating.

I really hope that what you heard today has inspired you. If you enjoyed it, head on over to iTunes search for the Born to Design Podcast and please leave a five star review so that this podcast will be recommended to more people helping us expand the born to design community. Thank you

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling is a Senior Marketing Manager at SolidWorks and the host for the Born to Design Podcast.