Prior to his entrepreneurial career, Dr. Roberts worked in business development at GelTex Pharmaceuticals, and in new product and business development at Dow Chemical (formerly Union Carbide Corp.). He received his B.S. and Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Duke University and completed his postdoctoral National Science Foundation fellowship at Harvard University.
Dr. Roberts also holds an M.B.A. from the MIT Sloan School of Management and serves as an advisor for MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, Harvard’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the schools of Science and Engineering at Duke University. He also sits on CTA’s Executive Board.
He recently talked with i3 about the importance of resilient technologies in a turbulent world, including the importance of clean water. He sits on the board of Zero Mass Water, founded by Cody Friesen, which recently exhibited at CES 2019. The system relies on SOURCE Hydropanels that extract as much as five liters of moisture out of the air per day, producing clean drinking water.
When I think about big problems that are global and humanitarian, clean drinking water is the biggest. For the last five years, I have been looking for a platform that would be part of a solution for clean drinking water. Nothing really popped out at me until Cody Friesen — who is now the founder and CEO of Zero Mass and is also a professor at Arizona State — called me and said, “I’ve got something that I have been working on in my lab that I am rolling out into a commercial enterprise. Would you help me with it?”
And the entrepreneur in me, not necessarily the investor, said, “that’s interesting.” I went to see Cody in July in Phoenix and it was 107 degrees. I pulled up to the Arizona State campus at the Department of Engineering in my rental car, and it was so hot, I didn’t want to get out. Cody showed me his prototype unit for SOURCE in the desert with extremely low humidity and high temperatures. You couldn’t imagine there was drinking water that could be pulled from the air without grid-based power. Slowly but surely this unit was gathering water out of the desert air. Cody had basically come up with a material set that in the desert air would compete for water, finding those moisture molecules and effectively condensing and collecting them into a reservoir. That was the launch of Zero Mass Water. Cody took a sabbatical from Arizona State while he worked as the CEO of the company. I have been on his board from the earliest days helping him navigate how to grow this company. SOURCE is now sold in over 18 different countries.
Zero Mass Water set up their booth outside the convention center by design. All they need is sunlight and air and the SOURCE Hydropanel works. When most people saw what Zero Mass Water was doing at CES, they got excited and were intrigued. The complexity of our business has gone up, but the progress has also been tremendous.
There is more water in the air than all the fresh water on the planet. If you look at the ambient water that exists in the atmosphere, there is a tremendous amount, and so you are not at risk of running out. That is why it is so remarkable what Cody did. So where would this struggle? It would be in areas that have very low temperatures for prolonged periods of time. How would you solve that if you were looking at some of the more Nordic super-cold areas? How do I get enough heat, so things don’t freeze? These are important environmental factors that Cody and his team have had to consider while advancing the development of the technology.
I imagine at some point just like solar farms — water farms could be created to provide a higher volume of drinking water to communities. I believe we will also see the company’s direct-to-consumer model expanding. Today consumers can take advantage of this technology by purchasing SOURCE Hydropanels directly from Zero Mass Water. This is similar to how people purchase solar panels for their home for grid-independent energy. I imagine that over time, the footprint of the SOURCE Hydropanel will continue to get smaller. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point the company designs versions that are light enough to go in a backpack for people in the armed services, or people doing work for the Peace Corps, or people going into remote areas where they can’t access water easily. Just imagine a version of this that is portable enough to put in your backpack.
Simply put it’s being able to withstand the changes from mother nature or from man-made disruptions. If you have a system that can withstand those two things, that is as close to impervious as one can imagine. That is a resilient product or resilient technology. Think about it this way: If something or somebody can come along and snip a wire or break a piece of infrastructure and shut your whole operation down, that is not resilient. If someone can pour something toxic into your water source, that is not resilient. It could be delivered by a terrorist or it could be a bad storm that knocks a power line down and therefore, certain things just don’t work. That is not resilient. To the extent that you are relying on a wireless communications system, if it is easily disrupted, I would not call that resilient.
If you look at keeping the world healthy, warm, safe, fed, secure and powered — those are always going to be big markets. It’s not just about designing things for consumers that work when everything is going well. It also is designing things for consumers that work when things are not going well. Whether we are looking at South Africa wondering about their access to water, what happened in Puerto Rico when the hurricane demolished their infrastructure, or the wildfires in California — things are happening all around the world. What you want ideally, if you can, is to have the things that matter to consumers be more robust and prepared for the world’s catastrophes.
When we created Soft Robotics, we thought that for robots to be more pervasive, they should not be rigid, hard and boxy, they should be soft, malleable and adaptable like humans. But the hard metal stuff is easier to industrialize. What Soft Robotics figured out was the attribute of a human that mattered most to large industries — the ability to pick things up as dexterously as the human hand. We created this gripper that can do many of the functions that a human hand can do. A human hand is like a pulley system with soft and hard materials — we have bones, tendons, muscle and the soft tissue of our fingertips. Rather than trying to replicate the human hand by designing a complex system of rigid linkages, we looked to nature. We were inspired by the octopus and its ability to adapt to objects and pick them up, all while remaining durable to a host of environmental factors. The Soft Robotics’ gripper is made entirely of factory-resilient, soft materials that do not require sensors or other electrotechnical devices for operation. The computational power of the system is built into the gripper itself, and through the power of material science, is able to mimic the grasping capabilities of the human hand.
We looked at jobs that humans don’t want to do because they are dangerous — like handling raw proteins in refrigerated factory settings or packing heavy bags of powdered laundry detergent. That was the basis for Soft Robotics; we can take these robotic hands and put them on the end of any robotic arm to pick and pack products for industries like Food & Beverage, Advanced Manufacturing or E-commerce & Retail. That’s over a $10 billion business. The hands are even more important because they must pick up a light bulb without breaking it or pick a piece of fruit without bruising it. That is why we focused on the hands as a first step.
If you look at the progress in gaming and the sophistication of the technology, that is where I see innovation happening. Whenever anyone asks me about interesting ventures I always mention resilient technologies. If you and I were having this conversation 10 years from now, I would give you the same healthy, safe, warm, fed, secure and powered answer. But I would also say some newer stuff like what you are seeing in gaming and the electronic interface with humans and what you are seeing in smart cities – there is a lot of opportunity.
I am impressed with the social awareness and responsibility that is coming from our younger generation. It is amazing to me how teenagers (and I have three of them) are genuinely interested in making the world a better place. I spend lots of time with people who are in middle school, high school and college who are intrigued with the things that I work on. And for me, that is motivational. Despite the stuff you see on television with many things that are obviously not right in the world, my conversations with these well-intentioned kids of all genders, religions, geographies, economic areas — literally kids from all sizes and flavors — are amazing. That tells me to keep doing what I am doing so that the world is a better place for them. The other thing that motivates me is the ability to work with them on new projects. And by the way, they come up with great ideas.
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