In the context of INBOTS Working group on market analyses & support to SMEs Francesco Ferro, CEO of PAL Robotics, answers to our questions to know how he made this interactive robotics company successful
Who you are? Please describe briefly yourself.
I’m the CEO and owner of PAL robotics. I’m a telecommunication engineer coming from Polytechnic of Torino Italy and I’m in PAL robotics from scratch and I’m the co-founder of the company.
Which was your role in the company at the beginning and what is your role now?
Which was your role in the company at the beginning and what is your role now?I started in PAL robotics doing computer vision. Our first commitment was to make a robot that was able to play chess. We accomplished this activity in only 14 months, making the first humanoid bipedal robots in Europe. Since that, I started doing Image Processing, then navigation, embedded system, software manager and then I jumped to the management layer and to the CEO (to substitute my colleague that left the company in 2010).Which was your role in the company at the beginning and what is your role now?
What was your vision of your company at the beginning and how this vision changed during the years?
At the beginning, like employee of PAL robotics, I was wondering to make my best in order to make robots working as best as possible. I was the expert in robotic vision, but I always helped all my colleagues for all the software in the company. At the beginning, our idea was to make research, so we were a kind of research lab dedicated to research and development. Then during the years, we opened our commercial market and so we started producing more and more platforms for our researchers all around the world. Therefore, the vision from the beginning to up to now is completely different: now we have a very clear market strategy based on product development as well as project development.
Would you define three milestones in the growing of the company?
The first one was when we made the change between only pure R&D company to a real commercial company: we started opening our mind to be closer to the market. This is a very big milestone and, for sure, all the companies around the world have to improve this milestone. But I think that we reached a quite good compromise. Then, the second one is about the team: one of the biggest things that we did in our company is to work with all our colleagues at the same level. I don’t want to make comparison with democracy or whatever but, what we tried to do in order to make our environment as best as we can, is to have shared decisions. We tried to listen everybody in the company to take the best decision because everybody has a very clear role and responsibility in the company. Then for sure, the third milestone probably is something that will happen in the near future to confirm and consolidate our leadership as global humanoid robotics provider.
Which kind of barriers did you find? Please define the most critical ones
I will tell you a short funny story: at the beginning, we were two Italian engineers with crazy ideas funded from UE to make the first bipedal humanoid robot in Barcelona and, I can guarantee, we were not able to speak neither a word of Spanish. So, the first big barrier for us, was to find the right place to work: indeed, we spent the first three months to find the place and to design robot in the bar of Barcelona. Can you imagine? This is a very funny story: in America usually, entrepreneurs started their business in the garage, in Barcelona we made it in a bar. For sure, it was more “social”. This funny story is to highlight the main barrier that we found: the cultural barrier. Indeed, we found this barrier also designing robots because it’s not the same, aesthetically speaking, a robot that should work in UE or in Spain or in US. Another big barrier for sure is the heterogeneous safety regulations among different countries: we have not the same rules. In addition, speaking about industry, different target applications have different rules: for example, service robotic applications are completely different from home/medical applications. Finally, here in Europe, we didn’t find yet the right organization that can help us to make the right tests to have the proper certification for collaborative robots.
What was/is the role of the academia in the creation and growing of the company?
At the beginning, we didn’t start like a spin-off of university. So, we started with a private agreement with the company, but during the years, we noticed that academia is very important for basic research and we really need research that tries to find innovative solutions. For this reason, PAL robotics is involved in competitions to push the limit of robotics, finding ideas, finding new solutions to deal with easy daily tasks like standing during manipulation or walking on rough terrain.
Which is the most critical element for the growing of a company in our sector?
I think there’s a common denominator in all the companies, which is the most important value ever, that is the team. Finding the right person with proper technical and soft skills. Indeed, we completely believe that everybody can work alone but if we work together and we create a strong team, also a few people could change the world. And for me, team is the best element ever.
Which is the biggest opportunity for a company in our sector?
In service robotics, the biggest opportunity is to survive. No, I’m joking, the actual biggest opportunity is that we are at the beginning of the service robotics era and this market is huge but unfortunately being at the dawn of this new era, the market it is not still mature. So, what we have to do in the meantime, is to do research and make more development to simplify as much as possible our robots, introducing easier human-robot interface and reducing the cost.
I think that in the service robotics market we will have space for everybody, therefore we have not to be scared. Another thing that I said in all my presentations is that service robotics is not something that only one company, even PAL robotics, can do alone. In the last years, we have seen a lot of example of big institutions or big companies that were just falling down or shut down the doors because funding is missing or people leaving or whatever because they tried to do everything on their own. Synergy is the key point. In conclusion, have a clear idea and clear final objective is fundamental. And for us, the goal is to have a bipedal humanoid robot that could help all the persons in everyday tasks.