She watched her contractor get down on his hands and knees with hand-held tools to work on her home. She saw small mistakes, like the shower heads installed in the wrong bathroom, and a brush that could have been much larger.
There had to be a better way for Lau to work at the Willow Garage. She started a new company.
The firm said that it had raised $45 million from Scale Venture Partners to ramp up manufacturing and expand its business. The new funding puts the valuation of the company at $250 million.
Lau is one of the most prominent women in robotics. After spending a decade at IBM Research, she became a research scientist at the robotics lab founded by Scott Hassan. Many of the researchers went on to found companies after the Willow Garage shut down.
The Mafia is called the Willow Garage Mafia. I learned everything I could about how to get a robot into the world.
Lau cofounded a company that developed robots for hotels. She was the chief technology officer. She decided to start her own company because she was frustrated with the pace of the company's growth.
“We call ourselves the Willow Garage Mafia.”
She and Philipp Herget started a company called Dusty in Mountain View, California. Herget is the technology officer. The name of the company came from an idea to build vacuum robots that could help contractors deal with all the dust on job sites. Lau and Herget saw the markings on the ground that represented the layout of the projects while pushing brooms at construction sites for market research. The practice of vacuuming went by the wayside.
The firm's first robot is a printer on wheels. It moves around the construction site and prints out plans that are similar to Ikea instructions. It saves time and money if you use chalk or marker to map out your plans. DRP Construction, Turner Construction and Performance Contracting are some of the contractors that use the robots, according to Lau. The company has revenue in the $5 million range.
She says that her robot can replace skilled labor, and that the work that it helps with is done by some of the highest paid people on the job site. She says that the robots can work without error, which will save contractors time and money on large projects. With the help of the machine, the workers who used to plan by hand can now plan by machine.
The company's fast-growing customer base and the size of the contracts it has with them was a draw, as was the fact that Alex Niehenke, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, led the latest investment.
The goal is to get the robots on every construction site in the next three to five years thanks to the new funding. Is that doable? Elon Musk says a lot of things that may or may not be true. I know there is demand for it, and so far we have been limited by not being able to build as fast as they want us to.