Seattle robotics company steps in to help after UW student’s startup dream is stalled by COVID-19

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Rob Sinclair was excited to be taking time off from work and the corporate world to go back to school. With a desire to learn more about building a startup from scratch, he enrolled in the University of Washington’s year-long Master of Science in Entrepreneurship program.

“I just wanted to shift my daily routine to get in a different mind space,” said Sinclair, who spent 20 years at Microsoft, including as the tech giant’s first chief accessibility officer. “Going back to school is a very different thing from being in industry. It’s been great, especially because most of my classmates are in their 20s, so it’s been really fun to get to work with a bunch of them on their ventures and my own ventures.”

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Sinclair had a few ideas for a startup, but he settled on building a water contamination testing system. His idea, called Kokanee Systems, would combine hardware, software and a data platform and serve as a real-time water quality alert system that could assist those already doing sampling and testing and make better use of resources.

Sinclair is an accomplished wildlife and nature photographer, and his startup idea dovetails with his passion for conversation work and healthy ecosystems.

He and his teammates and other members of the MSE program were humming along, headed toward spring quarter at the UW and getting ready to build necessary prototypes to present at business plan competitions.

Then the coronavirus outbreak hit, and what followed was just one example of how Seattle’s tech startup community is often regarded as especially close knit and ready to assist one another.

Access to equipment cut off

One of Sinclair’s classmates was the first person diagnosed on UW’s Seattle campus with COVID-19. The entire 24-person master’s cohort was asked to self quarantine. Sinclair’s dream of going back to college shifted mid-stride to an online dream.

With the university locked down, Sinclair lost access to the campus machine shop and equipment, including 3D printers, that he would need to make parts for his water-testing prototype.

Deadlines were approaching for a number of competitions, including the UW’s Dempsey Startup Competition, which was shifting to an entirely virtual experience. Sinclair also hoped to present online for the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Competition, which takes place Thursday.

“We spent 80 hours designing this enclosure for our electronics,” Sinclair said of the waterproof Kokanee part intended to house the guts of his creation as it’s submerged in lakes, streams and rivers. “Then we had to go into quarantine, they shut the lab down and so everything just sort of fell apart and we concluded, ‘It’s not going to happen.’”

He looked into commercial bids to get the parts printed, but the cost of between $3,000 and $6,000 wasn’t going to work.

Ken Myer, a leadership lecturer who teaches in the Foster School of Business MBA and MSE programs, had an idea.

Myer often does interim leadership roles for tech companies and was interim CEO at Picnic in 2018. The Seattle startup — previously known as Otto Robotics and Vivid Robotics — works on restaurant kitchen automation and famously unveiled a pizza-making robot last fall.

Myer was aware of the equipment Picnic had and he figured the company’s current CEO, Clayton Wood, was the type of guy who would want to help.

Helping out ‘keeps the community close’

Sinclair was connected with Brian De Vitis, Picnic’s director of engineering.

Like many companies, Picnic had shifted to remote work for the majority of employees, but De Vitis has been “keeping the lights on” at a headquarters facility in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. With 3D printers sitting idle for the last couple weeks, he jumped at the chance to help Sinclair.

The two exchanged emails and Sinclair sent along files containing the 3D coordinates necessary to print the 10 parts he needed for his Kokanee device. De Vitis, who has been with Picnic since 2016 and is heavily involved in all processes at the startup, walked Sinclair through which machine and materials would be suitable for getting the job done.

“Brian has just been fantastic,” Sinclair said. “We’ve been going back and forth and modifying parts to figure out how to get them to print properly. He really helped me find a lower cost way of producing the prototypes.”

Alongside some normal Picnic work he was doing, De Vitis put in about four or five hours of work on Sinclair’s project, starting on Monday. Parts were ready by Wednesday.

“The nice thing about 3D printers is you can set them up to make the part and walk away,” De Vitis said. “So for the most part it was just press go and then come back when it was ready.”

The two met up — while practicing safe social practices related to coronavirus — so that Sinclair could get the parts to assemble his prototype in time for Thursday’s presentation.

Sinclair even added a “thank you” to De Vitis on the side of the parts enclosure. The embossed sentiment conveys what all of those involved in the experience are feeling.

Myer called Picnic’s lack of hesitation to jump in a reminder of how selfless people can be in difficult times and why the Seattle tech community is a great place to launch a startup.

De Vitis said he knows the struggles that go into getting a startup going and said he can relate to the challenges. Helping out “grows the community and keeps the community close.”

And Sinclair, a student with a startup dream, said the support is what makes the Seattle community unique.

“There are good people and good companies around who are willing to help,” he said. “There’s nothing in it for them. They’re just willing to help people bring new ideas into being.”

Source: Geek Wire

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