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Interview with Andrea Thomaz (co-founder of Diligent Robotics): socially clever automation options for hospitals

By Sonia Roberts, with extra modifying by Dharini Dutia

Diligent Robotics, based by Andrea Thomaz and Vivian Chu, develops socially clever automation options for hospitals. Moxi, their flagship robotic, delivers objects like drugs and wound dressings between departments to avoid wasting the medical workers’s time. Diligent has simply closed their Sequence B funding spherical with $30 million

We sat down with Dr. Thomaz to speak about Moxi, how you can handle folks’s expectations about robots, and recommendation for younger folks and ladies in robotics. This interview has been frivolously edited for readability. 

A woman puts her arm around the shoulder of a friendly-looking robot with one arm. The robot is a little shorter than a human.

Andrea Thomaz with Diligent’s flagship robotic Moxi.

What sorts of issues are you making an attempt to resolve with Moxi?

We’re constructing Moxi to assist hospitals with the large workforce scarcity that they’re seeing now greater than ever. We really began the corporate with the identical intention a number of years in the past earlier than there was a worldwide pandemic, and it actually has simply gotten to be an excellent greater drawback for hospitals. I really feel actually strongly that robots have a spot to play in teamwork environments, and hospitals are an ideal instance of that. There’s nobody particular person’s job in a hospital that you’d really wish to give over to automation or robots, however there are tiny little bits of lots of people’s jobs which are completely capable of be automated and that we may give over to supply robots particularly like Moxi. [The main problem we’re trying to solve with Moxi is] level to level supply, the place we’re fetching and gathering issues and taking them from one space of the hospital to a different. 

Hospitals have plenty of stuff that’s shifting round each day. Each particular person within the hospital goes to have sure drugs that must be delivered to them, sure lab samples that must be taken and delivered to the central lab, sure provides that want to come back as much as them, meals and diet each day. You’ve gotten plenty of stuff that’s coming and going between affected person items and all these completely different assist departments. 

Each one in every of these assist departments has a course of in place for getting the stuff moved round, however it doesn’t matter what, there’s stuff that occurs each single day that requires ad-hoc [deliveries] to occur between all of those departments and completely different nursing items. So typically that’s going to be a nurse that simply must get one thing for his or her affected person they usually need that to occur as quickly as attainable. They’re making an attempt to discharge their affected person, they want a specific wound dressing package, they’re going to run down and get it as a result of they wish to assist their affected person get out. Or if there’s one thing that must be hand carried as a result of the common rounding of medicines has already occurred, plenty of occasions you’ll have a pharmacy technician cease what they’re doing and go and run some infusion meds for a most cancers affected person, for instance. It form of falls between these departments. There’s completely different folks that will be concerned however plenty of occasions it does fall on the nursing items themselves. A nurse defined to us one time that nurses are the final line of protection in affected person care.

A smiling clinical staff member holds a large stack of samples. Next to her, a humanoid robot almost as tall as she is holds its storage container open. The storage container has plenty of room for this large stack of samples.

Moxi performing a supply for a medical workers member.

What’s altering with this most up-to-date spherical of funding?

Over the past 6-12 months, the demand has actually skyrocketed such that we’re barely maintaining with the demand for folks desirous to implement robots of their hospitals. That’s the rationale why we’re elevating this spherical of funding, increasing the staff, and increasing our potential to capitalize on that demand. A few years in the past, if we have been working with a hospital it was as a result of they’d some particular funds put aside for innovation or they’d a CTO or a CIO that had a background in robotics, however it definitely wasn’t the very first thing that each hospital CIO was serious about. Now that has utterly modified. We’re getting chilly outreach on our web site from CIOs of hospitals saying “I must develop a robotic technique for our hospital and I wish to find out about your resolution.” By way of the pandemic, I feel everybody has seen that the workforce scarcity in hospitals is just getting worse within the close to time period. All people needs to plan for the long run and do the whole lot they’ll to take small duties off of the plates of their medical groups. It’s been actually thrilling to be a part of that market change and see that shift to the place all people is actually actually open to automation. Earlier than we needed to say “No no no, this isn’t the long run, I promise it’s not scifi, I promise these actually work.” Now [the climate has] actually shifted to folks understanding “That is really one thing that may affect my groups.”

[Two of our investors are hospitals, and] that’s been one in every of our most fun components of this spherical. It’s all the time nice to have a profitable funding spherical, however to have strategic companions like Cedars-Sinai and Shannon Healthcare coming in and saying “Yeah, we really wish to construct this alongside you” — it’s fairly thrilling to have prospects like that. 

What sorts of technical issues did you run into once you have been both constructing Moxi or deploying it in a hospital surroundings? How did you resolve these issues? 

One which was virtually stunning in how typically it got here up, and actually impacted our potential [to run Moxi in the hospital environment] as a result of we’ve got a software-based robotic resolution that’s connecting at an everyday foundation to cloud providers, [was that] we had no clue how horrible hospital WiFi was going to be. We really spent fairly some time constructing in backup techniques to have the ability to use WiFi, backup to LTE if we’ve got to, however be good about that so we’re not spending a complete bunch of cash on LTE knowledge. That was an issue that appeared very particular to hospitals particularly.

One other one was safety and compliance. We simply didn’t know what a number of the completely different necessities have been for hospitals till we really obtained into the environments and began interacting with prospects and understanding what they wished to make use of Moxi for. Once we have been first doing analysis trials in 2018 or 2019, we had a model of the robotic that was a little bit bit completely different than the one we’ve got right now. It had plenty of open containers so you might simply put no matter you wished to on the robotic and ship it over to a different location. We rapidly discovered that that restricted what the robotic was allowed to hold, as a result of a lot of what [the customers] wished was to know who pulled one thing out of the robotic. So now we’ve got an RF badge reader on the robotic that’s linked to locking storage containers which are solely going to open when you’re the type of particular person that’s allowed to open the robotic. That was an attention-grabbing technical problem that we didn’t find out about till after we obtained on the market. 

A close-up of the body of a robot with two small storage containers open in the front and one large storage container open in the back.

Moxi’s locking storage containers.

How did you’re employed with nurses and the opposite healthcare professionals you have been working with to determine what can be essentially the most useful robotic for them? 

My background, and my co-founder Vivian Chu’s background, is in human-robot interplay so we knew that we didn’t know sufficient about nursing or the hospital surroundings. We spent the primary 9 months of the corporate in 2018 constructing out our analysis prototype. It regarded loads like what Moxi appears to be like like right now. Underneath the hood it was utterly completely different than what we’ve got right now when it comes to the reliability and robustness of the {hardware} and software program, however it was sufficient to get that platform out and have it deployed with nursing items. We embedded ourselves with 4 completely different nursing items throughout Texas over a year-long interval. We might spend about 6-8 weeks with a nursing division, and we have been simply there — engineers, product folks, and all people within the firm was biking out and in per week or two at a time. 

We might ask these nurses: “What would you really need a robotic like this to do?” A part of this that was actually essential was they didn’t have good concepts about what they’d need the robotic to do till they noticed the robotic. It was a really participatory design, the place they needed to see and get a way for the robotic earlier than they’d have good concepts of what they’d need the robotic to do. Then we might take these concepts [to the company] and are available again and say “Sure we are able to try this,” or “No we are able to’t try this.” We got here out of that complete course of with a extremely nice thought. We prefer to say that’s the place we discovered our product market match — that’s the place we actually understood that what was going to be most dear for the robotic to do was connecting the nursing items to those different departments. We may also help a nurse with provide administration and getting issues from place to position inside their division, or we may also help them with issues which are coming from actually distant. [The second one] was really impacting their time means far more.

As a result of the capabilities of robotic techniques are normally misinterpreted, it may be actually arduous to handle the connection with stakeholders and prospects and set applicable expectations. How did you handle that relationship?

We do plenty of demonstrations, however nonetheless with virtually each single implementation you get questions on some robotic in Hollywood, [and you have to say] “No, that’s the flicks” and clarify precisely what Moxi does. 

From a design perspective, we additionally restrict the English phrases that come out of Moxi’s mouth simply because we don’t wish to talk a extremely excessive stage of intelligence. There are many canned phrases and interactions on the iPad as a substitute of by way of voice, and plenty of occasions the robotic will simply make meeps and beeps and flash lights and issues like that. 

Earlier than beginning the corporate, I had a lab, and one of many huge analysis subjects that we had for quite a lot of years was embodied dialogue — how robots might have an actual dialog with folks. I had an excellent appreciation for the way arduous that drawback is, and likewise for simply how a lot folks need it. Individuals come as much as a robotic, they usually need it to have the ability to speak to them. How one can [set expectations] with the design and conduct of the robotic has been a spotlight of mine since earlier than we began the corporate. We purposefully don’t make the robotic look very human-like as a result of we don’t need there to be android human-level expectations, however [the robot does have a face and eyes so it can] talk “I’m taking a look at that factor” and “I’m about to control that factor,” which we expect is essential. It’s actually about hanging that steadiness. 

What would you say is one lesson that you simply’ve discovered out of your work at Diligent up to now and the way are you trying to apply this lesson shifting ahead?

The distinction between analysis and follow. On the one hand, the motivation and motive for beginning an organization is that you simply wish to see the sorts of issues that you simply’ve performed within the analysis lab actually make it out into the world and begin to affect actual folks and their work. That’s been one of the crucial fascinating, impactful, and galvanizing issues about beginning Diligent: Having the ability to go and see nurses when Moxi is doing work for them. They’re so grateful! When you simply cling again and watch Moxi come and do a supply, virtually all the time individuals are tremendous excited to see the robotic. They get their supply they usually’re like, “Oh, thanks Moxi!” That seems like we’re actually making a distinction in a means that you simply simply don’t get with simply analysis contributions that don’t make all of it the best way out into the world. 

That being stated although, there’s a lengthy tail of issues that it’s a must to resolve from an engineering perspective past [developing a feature]. My VP of engineering Starr Corbin has this smart way of placing it: The analysis staff will get a sure factor on the product to be function full, the place we’ve demonstrated that this function works and it’s a great resolution, however then there’s this complete section that has to occur after that to get the function to be manufacturing prepared. I’d say my largest lesson might be the whole lot that it takes, and the whole staff of individuals it takes, to get one thing from being function full to manufacturing prepared. I’ve a deep appreciation for that. How briskly we are able to transfer issues out into the world is actually dictated by a few of that. 

Two women stand next to a friendly-looking humanoid robot with one arm.

Andrea Thomaz (left) and Vivian Chu with Moxi.

What recommendation would you give younger girls in robotics? 

If I put my professor hat on, I all the time had recommendation that I favored to provide girls in robotics, in academia, and simply type of pursuing issues typically. Imposter syndrome is actual, and all people feels it. All you are able to do to fight it isn’t underestimate your self. Converse up and know that you simply deserve a seat on the desk. It’s all about arduous work, but additionally ensuring that your voice is heard. A number of the mentorship that I gave to plenty of my girls grad college students after I was a professor was round talking engagements, talking types, and communication. It may be actually uncomfortable once you’re the one something within the room to face up and really feel such as you should be the one talking, and so the extra that you simply follow doing that, the extra comfy it may well really feel, the extra assured you’ll really feel in your self and your voice. I feel discovering that assured voice is a extremely essential talent that it’s a must to develop early on in your profession. 

What’s one piece of recommendation you’ve acquired that you simply all the time flip to when issues are powerful? 

There are two mentors that I’ve had who’re girls in AI and robotics. [In my] first yr as a college member [the first mentor] got here and gave a analysis seminar speak. I for some motive obtained to take her out to lunch on my own, so we had this wonderful one-on-one. We talked a little bit bit about her speak, most likely half of the lunch we talked about technical issues, after which she simply type of turned the dialog [around] and stated “Andrea, don’t overlook to have a household.” Like, don’t overlook to give attention to that a part of your life — it’s crucial factor. She obtained on a soapbox and stated “It’s a must to have a piece life steadiness it’s so essential. Don’t overlook to give attention to constructing a household for your self, no matter that appears like.” That basically caught with me, particularly as [when you’re] early in your profession you’re anxious about nothing however success. It was actually highly effective to have someone robust and influential like that telling you “No, no, that is essential and you want to give attention to this.” 

The opposite person who’s all the time been an inspiration and mentor for me that I’ll spotlight [was the professor teaching a class I TA’d for at MIT]. I had discovered a bug in one in every of her homework issues, and she or he was like, “Oh, fascinating.” She was so excited that I had discovered a query that she didn’t know the reply to. She [just said], “Oh my gosh I don’t know, let’s go discover out!” I bear in mind her being this nice professor at MIT, and she or he was excited to search out one thing that she didn’t know and go and find out about it collectively versus being embarrassed that she didn’t know one thing. I discovered loads from that interplay: That it’s enjoyable to not know one thing as a result of then you definately get to go and discover the reply, and irrespective of who you’re, you’re by no means anticipated to know the whole lot.

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Sonia Roberts
postdoc at Northeastern learning gentle sensors

Girls In Robotics
is a worldwide group for girls working in robotics, or who aspire to work in robotics

Girls In Robotics
is a worldwide group for girls working in robotics, or who aspire to work in robotics



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