Founders Series 10x10: Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Brain Corporation, San Diego CA
Earlier this summer in July, Dr. Eugene Izhikevich presented his vision for the future of robotics and autonomous machines at SoftBank’s global technology forum in Tokyo, sharing with the group his company's BrainOS platform. Just a month earlier, Brain Corporation secured $114Million in Series C investment from SoftBank (their Series A was led by Qualcomm Ventures), giving Dr. Izhikevich and his team of neuroscientists and roboticists the balance sheet to apply their BrainOS software to nearly every type of motorized equipment. The future for BrainOS is in making ordinary machines, wheelchairs, hospital gurneys, floor scrubbers, forklifts—Autonomous.
At Brain, we believe tomorrow’s robots will be intelligent autonomous machines that take care of us. Such robots will be as commonplace as computers and mobile phones are today. This funding will allow us to accelerate our mission, and we look forward to collaborating with the SoftBank Vision Fund as a long-term strategic partner.”
–Dr. Eugene Izhikevich
I first met Eugene three years when I was CEO of Pristine Environments; we were constantly looking for new technology that would transform the global facilities that we operated on behalf of Fortune 500 clients like Apple, GE, AT&T, Under Armour and others. When I met Eugene and the Brain Corp team of engineers, I was immediately intrigued by the level of optimism and creativity that they were bringing to the development of artificial intelligence for their BrainOS platform. Since then Brain Corp has produced their first commercial product in EMMA, a BrainOS autonomous floor scrubber robot for industrial and commercial cleaning operations. Pristine Environments proudly was it first customer.
More excited then ever for the future of autonomous robots, Eugene recently sat down with me after he returned from his last visit to Japan meeting with his new partners at SoftBank:
Tell me the genesis story of your company? What was your initial motivation to leave your academic research to pursue your vision?
I had (still have) a successful career in academia, doing computational neuroscience, publishing tens of peer-reviewed articles and textbooks that are widely used and cited up to this day. However, there was something missing. On one hand, I wanted to understand the brain, but on the other hand, I wanted to build one. Then, Qualcomm approached me and asked me to help them build a specialized chip that acts on the principles of the mammalian brain. This presented a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to achieve both of my goals, to understand and to build.
How did you get into the field of Robotics?
I got my master’s degree in applied math from Lomonosov Moscow State University in USSR, where I got introduced to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and neuroscience. Due to the economic crash in the late 1980’s, which was called “perestroika” in the west, I decided to move to the US to get my PhD and continue my studies in brain modeling. Within 2.5 years, I got a PhD from Michigan State University, and followed my US scientific advisor to Arizona to continue my research.
Everybody in Arizona dreams to move to San Diego - the best place on earth - so I got an opportunity to join The Neurosciences Institute run by Gerald Edelman - a Nobel Laureate who explained the functioning of the immune system and who had a goal to explain the functioning of the brain. My 9-year stay with Edelman was the most productive period of my career. Looking backwards, I would have joined him even if he had been in the worst place on earth, like LA or the east coast.
Leading a company requires the ability to effectively communicate your vision, strategy and future of the company--what phrase or quote/mantra do you echo regularly to your team to keep them focused?
The phrase or quote changes with the stage of the company, but there is one principle that did not change - I want to surround myself with the smartest and the most talented people. Fortunately, I succeeded in doing this.
Share with us some your most critical experiences starting out, raising capital and recruiting for your venture?
Learning on the job. It is like learning to drive while you are behind a steering wheel of school bus full of unbuckled kids on a freeway. I surrounded myself with very good advisors, so we did not crash.
What are some of the technology advances and changes you envision in the next 5,10 and 20 years in your space?
Robots everywhere, robots enabled by Brain Corp technology.
What are some of the ethical questions you think about as Artificial Intelligence, big data collection and robotics impact our privacy?
Google is struggling with a number of ethical questions on how to program a system that needs to make a decision on whom to injure, or possibly kill, in a case of an accident that could not be avoided due to physical constraints of a self-driving vehicle. We focus on environments where stopping and freezing is always the safest action a robot can do, so fortunately, we do not face these issues.
What are the characteristics you look for in talent that you recruit into your company?
Intelligence and passion. I am surrounding myself with the smartest people who share my passion for Artificial Intelligence and robotics, who want to see robots everywhere, in your home, in the office, doing landscaping, farming, and agriculture, cleaning, moving, sorting, basically taking care of us. I do not know what I did to deserve the team that I currently have.
What are your most rewarding moments as a founder?
I find it extremely rewarding to see people share my vision and working with me to implement it. Of course, from time to time, we all find it rewarding if somebody acknowledges that we are on the right path, not with words or a pat on the shoulder, but with a 9-digit investment.
What causes you the most stress and how do you manage these episodes?
Lost time. I am most frustrated with lost time. You lose time when you deal with people who are not smart or who do not share your vision or passion.
What big things are in store next for you and the company?
Scaling up our business.