In May 2010, eleven 450-pound humanoid robots posed before their proud “parents” and supporters in an office in Menlo Park, California.
Then, the lights went down and music rumbled on. With blue spotlights flashing, the robots began a coordinated dance to the ’80s hit “Mr Roboto,” swivelling their heads, waving flags clutched in their “hands,” and moving with flaunts and flourishes that had the crowd hooting with glee.
This raucous display was the “graduation ceremony” thrown for the ‘bots by Willow Garage, the company that had created them. Each one had cost roughly $400,000. And they were all about to be given away to enter the real world for free.
Although the now-defunct research-lab-startup hybrid might not ring any bells to you now, it was one of the most influential forces in modern robotics. The freewheeling robot collective jumpstarted the current race to apply robotics components like computer vision, manipulation, and autonomy into applications for everything from drones and autonomous cars to warehouse operations at places like Google, Amazon and car companies like BMW. Google alone acquired three of the robot companies spawned by Willow.
Founded by an eccentric billionaire who preached a “robot revolution,” Willow Garage made enormous strides in robotics hardware and software, most notably through the research bots, called PR2s, and the creation of an open source robot operating system that’s still being used by academics, engineers, and hobbyists around the world today.
At its apex, the Garage was a whimsical menagerie of really bright people with diverse specialties building really “smart” robots, until it ultimately succumbed to some of the same forces that have challenged many promising Silicon Valley startups.
Here’s the fascinating story of how Willow Garage came to be, fell apart, and continues to live on today.
Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan is a big-picture thinker. He’s the kind of person who will veer from a conversation about telepresence into ruminating on what the world will be like once money becomes completely worthless because robots will be doing all our work for us.
He was one of the first people to invest in mysterious augmented reality Magic Leap back in 2012. Earlier this month, Magic Leap raised more than $700 million at a whopping $4.5 billion valuation.
In fact, he’s the exactly kind of person who you would expect to get along with “moonshot” king and Alphabet CEO Larry Page.
Hassan met Page and Sergey Brin while working on an Integrated Digital Libraries project at Stanford. He ended up programming much of the original search engine that eventually became Google.
Meanwhile, he also founded his own company: an email list service called eGroups.com that Yahoo bought for about $432 million in 2000. He invested some of his payout back into Google, earning him enough shares to eventually become very, very wealthy.
Hassan had the kind of money that allowed him to buy office space in Menlo Park before he even knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. Its address — 68 Willow Road — ultimately inspired his new company’s name.
No more reinventing the wheel
Hassan convinced Steve Cousins, who had hired Hassan as an undergraduate intern at Washington University years earlier, to become Willow’s first CEO.
“My job was to fill the building with interesting people doing interesting things around autonomous technology,” he tells Business Insider.
Hassan planned to dedicate enough funding to the startup to keep about 60 people working there per year, so they began hiring all the top roboticists and researchers they could corral.
Initially, the collective focused on personal assistants, driverless boats, and autonomous cars, but eventually focused on building programmable bots.
“We had this vision that came together through the people who were there,” Cousins says. “Everybody brought something to the table.”
Even back in 2006, at a time when Roombas were the only kind of robot most people had seen in real life, Hassan could vividly picture the world where general-purpose autonomous robots would fill our homes and help us with everyday tasks that we’d rather avoid. He wanted robots out in the world, but he knew that there was still a lot of ground work that needed to get done first.
“I wanted the robot revolution to get here sooner,” he tells Business Insider.
Hassan had long been a big believer in open source, so the team started focusing on a common operating system that roboticists everywhere could use to stop wasting time “reinventing the wheel” on every research project.
“Sharing was what was important,” Hassan tells Business Insider. “We wanted to build something that could run on any other kind of robot anywhere else in the world.”
Robot marathons and gourmet food
In tandem with the Robotics Operating System (ROS), Willow was building robots to run it on.
To create the PR2s, the team made enormous strides in robot manipulation, human-robot interaction, perception, planning, and more.
The company had Silicon Valley’s move-fast attitude, but a motto of “impact first and return on capital second.”
It took about four years of hustling for Willow to be ready to release PR2 to the 11 hand-selected research institutions that had demonstrated worthy ambitions for the bots (which each had a no-cost, two-year lease, though every org eventually found a way to keep their PR2 indefinitely).
In that time, the ROS software had caught on beyond the team’s wildest dreams, sky-rocketing the company’s name into the mainstream.
To capitalise on and increase that recognition, Willow built up a robust intern program that ultimately shuttled more than 130 students or visiting researchers through its headquarters.
Spending time at WG soon became like a badge of honour in the robotics community. Several former employees used the phrase “Willow Mafia” to describe the resulting kinship, and one laughed recalling how at a massive robotics conference in 2010, the sheer number of Willow Garage t-shirts, sweaters, and backpacks popping up had blown him away.
“You knew you were contributing to something that was going to be big,” Kaijen Hsiao, another Willow alum says. “But it was also just a really great place to be. It was like a playground funded by a billionaire.”
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Willow had fresh, communal meals prepared on site every day. Unlike with most other companies, you could also find robots folding laundry, playing pool, or fetching a beer in Willow’s office.
The team had programmed PR2 to be able to plug itself in when running out of batteries, so they once tested its capabilities by making it run a 2 “pi” kilometer marathon (6.28 kilometers) around the office, recharging itself autonomously whenever it needed.
Closing the garage
In 2011, once ROS had officially infected the robotics community and the initial PR2s had been distributed, Willow started to focus on other projects and spin-offs.
The company started exploring market opportunities for autonomous bots and educating the team about entrepreneurship.
In what several employees referred to as Willow’s Second Act, it started selling its PR2s and spun off eight companies, including three foundations. Google acquired three of the for-profits as part of its ambitious robotics buying spree (because Willow employees had stock in each spin-off, this proved good news for everyone).
One of the ideas in particular fascinated Hassan. The team had hacked together an iPad-on-wheels to allow a remote employee to zoom around the office, which it refined into a robot called “Beam.” The possibilities of telepresence (think videoconferencing with robots) inspired Hassan and he spun-off a team called Suitable Technologies in 2011, taking a bunch of WG employees with him.
That meant that from that point on, Hassan was funding two companies. Willow Garage was burning about $20 million a year. He had realised that getting autonomous personal robots into people’s homes was still a long way off (although ROS could support countless functions, the cost of creating the hardware to handle something even as seemingly simply as picking up an article of clothing was magnitudes too expensive). He finally decided to pull out his investment in 2013 late and focus all his resources on the more near-term telepresence market with Suitable.
Hassan describes Willow’s end unemotionally:
“I saw people starting to get restless, so I just decided to shut things down and go, ‘You’re free!'” Hassan says. “And what happened next was, everyone started companies.”
That did eventually happen, but not before Cousins and the rest of the team made one last attempt to save Willow.
“I’d put my heart and soul into the organisation — I’d hate to lose it,” Cousins says. “I wanted to see if we could keep it alive.”
From February 2013 until August, all the remaining team joined together to work on one product. Cousins managed to find someone willing to fund the new idea. However, the deal would have required Hassan to sell a big chunk of his ownership, which he didn’t want to do.
On the bright summer day when it became clear Willow was over, all the employees solemnly shut down their computers before tromping out to a local park for a giant softball game (though unfortunately the remaining PR2s weren’t invited).
Willow livin’ on
Almost everyone who stayed at Willow until the shutdown ended up either starting their own robotics company or joining one founded by fellow coworkers. Cousins, for example, now runs a company called Savioke which makes robots that can deliver items to hotel guests.
“Willow went down but now we’re all like the Pheonix,” says Mizra Shah who worked at WG in its last year and a half, and is the cofounder and CTO of a robotics company called Simbe. “We’re out there building new things, stronger than before.”
All told, Hassan says he poured more than $80 million into Willow Garage. But he considers the cost well worth the reward of robotics progress. And, as always, his sights are set on the future.
“In the next few years you’re going to see an explosion of robotics,” he says. “It’s all happening right now. The rest of this decade is gonna be pretty crazy. By 2021, people are going to have robots all over their lives doing all these different tasks.”
Last year, more than $150 million venture capital funding went to businesses that use Willow’s ROS.
“A large portion of current roboticists in the world have one degree of separation with WG,” says Maya Cakmak, another former employee. “I think in the future, when we look back, WG will be what Bell Labs or Xerox Parc was for personal computers, for robotics.”