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FEATURED FEMMES INTERVIEW WITH TESSA LAU FROM DUSTY ROBOTICS

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Interviewed on June 23, 2021

Interviewed by Yingying Zhu

 

Dr. Tessa Lau is an experienced entrepreneur with expertise in AI, machine learning, and robotics. She is currently Founder/CEO at Dusty Robotics, whose mission is to create robot-powered tools for the modern construction workforce. Prior to Dusty, she was CTO/co-founder at Savioke, where she orchestrated the deployment of 75+ delivery robots into hotels and high-rises. Previously, Dr. Lau was a Research Scientist at Willow Garage, where she developed simple interfaces for personal robots. She also spent 11 years at IBM Research working in business process automation and knowledge capture. More generally, Dr. Lau is interested in developing technology that gives people super-powers, and building businesses that bring that technology into people’s lives. Dr. Lau holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Washington.


Congratulations on Dusty Robotics’ successful Series A closing last week! Can you please let the audience know briefly what does Dusty Robotics do? We develop robot-powered tools for the modern construction industry. Our first flagship product is the FieldPrinter, which takes BIM models and 3D CAD designs and prints them onto the floors in the field. We are turning a traditional process that has been done for millennia with chalk, string and tape into an automated, quick and accurate process with the help of robots.


“Owners and developers want to control the risk of finishing a project on time and on budget. Dusty eliminates manual work in layout and significantly reduces the opportunities for human errors. We can provide certainty to the industry where there hasn’t been much.”

What are Dusty Robotics’ value propositions to your customers? There are different stakeholders in the construction industry that we serve and our value proposition varies for each kind of customer. Owners and developers want to control the risk of finishing a project on time and on budget. Dusty eliminates manual work in layout and significantly reduces the opportunities for human errors. We can provide certainty to the industry where there hasn’t been much. General contractors are responsible for managing a big crew and maintaining the schedule, quality and cost for the entire project. We did a case study on a 13-story multifamily project. We finished in one day for the work which would have taken two persons five days per floor. We help GCs save time as well as coordination between project managers, architects and different trades. There will be fewer situations where trades work off of different versions of models or the walls were built in the wrong place and now the HVAC pipes can’t fit. For framing, plumbing and mechanical subcontractors who perform the layout work, Dusty cuts down on time so that their well-paid highly-skilled workers are freed from repetitive manual work.


What’s next for Dusty now you have this excellent flagship product and the Series A round of investment? I am focused on two main things: scaling up business and hiring. We have 10 robots that are printing layouts and several teams running the robots in the western US today. But we have a huge waiting list of customers who want our product across the US and the world. So we’ll be building more robots and growing our team. We are also growing our business with existing and new customers. In order to do that, we are hiring many engineering and business positions.


What is exactly the service model of Dusty Robotics? We provide two service levels – full service where a team certified by us operates the robots on site; and DIY level where we train our customers how to operate the robots and get them Dusty certified so that they can work independently. We are leaning more on the latter to scale up quickly but we also are looking for operating partners in different geographic areas so our customers can get the full service if they choose.


Why are Dusty’s technologies unprecedented? Some of our clients have tried to build the product that we have but failed after tremendous R&D efforts. The key technical challenges that we have solved are precise positioning and printing on site. Precise positioning. The cleaning robots that many homes have are typically accurate to within two inches. Our customers need us to be accurate to within a 1/16 of an inch because, for example, prefab modular panels have to go exactly where they are planned to go or the whole assembly would fail. We have solved it by leveraging existing construction technologies such as total stations[1] that are already widely used by construction surveyors. These total stations give us precise position information for our robots as they navigate the job site. We had to solve many engineering challenges to maintain precision despite movement, dust, and vibration. Printing skills. Printing technology is meant to be used in a very closed and controlled environment like in an office. We had to creatively design a printing technology that works in dirty, windy and shaky construction sites.


Who is your first paying customer? Our first customer was Level 5 Construction, a drywall subcontractor in the Bay Area. They found out about us through our website and trade press. In January 2020, we had only been building our robot prototype for a bit over a year. Level 5 saw the potential and wanted us to try it out on a wellness center that they were building out for one of the biggest tech companies. We printed the layout so well that they said you should actually invoice us so I went back to figure out how to invoice:) They are still one of our biggest businesses today.


Is there any condition precedent for the sites that you can work on? No. In our full-service model, we provide all the equipment and the operator that our customers would need. All we need is a clean floor, free of construction debris, and control points, which they would provide to any total station-based system anyways.


What types of construction projects are you working on? Our technology works in almost any type of projects. We saw a lot of early success in multifamily projects as there is a significant amount of interior framing in residential projects. We have worked on data centers, hospitals, offices, life science labs and even a stadium recently too.


What geographic areas have you expanded to? We started in Bay Area because our manufacturing operation hub is in Mountain View, CA. More recently, we have expanded to LA and Seattle. We have coverage over the West Coast at this point and are looking into expanding to other major markets as soon as possible, for which we would leverage operating partnership, as I had mentioned.


How was investors’ appetite for construction tech as you learned from the fund raising process? We had a very successful raise. We are very fortunate to find Canaan Partners, who has extensive experience in PropTech, robotics and the built environment, to lead our round. It was gratifying to see the interest across the investor community for construction robotics and broader construction tech. Recently OpenSpace closed a large C round and Canvas raised a sizable B round. We are following the footsteps of some of the pioneers in the space and showing investors different options for construction tech.


What would you like more people in the construction industry to know about technology? The industry has already been moving towards digitalization through BIM model and construction management tools. For some customers who don’t have in-house BIM teams, we would hold their hands and bring them into the modern age. But if everyone is on board with a completely digital model, the value that Dusty can create is going to skyrocket. We can project all the information in the model to the job sites right where it is needed and amplify the investment our customers made in BIM. We can enable the people in the field to work much more efficiently by equipping them with detailed and updated digital data.


“In 10 to 20 years, people are still critical on construction sites with their judgment and coordination skills, but those people are going to be augmented by robot-powered tools, to do their jobs better, faster, safer, with less strain on their bodies ... and allowing us to collect data, identify errors and manage the construction process far more efficiently.”

How do you imagine the construction site to be in 10 to 20 years with more technologies being adopted? I think of construction as a manufacturing operation. Manufacturing saw a heavy shift towards robotic automation in the past couple of decades. We have the opportunity to turn a one-off construction process with many manual laborers each working on their own tasks, into a digitized automatic manufacturing plant so that the owner is confident that the product is being built to spec, on time and on budget. In 10 to 20 years, people will still be critical on construction sites with their judgment and coordination skills, but those people are going to be augmented by robot-powered tools, to do their jobs better, faster, safer, with less strain on their bodies. Imagine when robots report to the cloud, a digital twin can be built up in real time as the building is being constructed, which allows us to analyze data, identify errors and manage the construction process far more efficiently.


How do you view the social impact of what you are doing? I am here to make the world a better place through creating technology that augments people. I like the idea that, while many robotics technologies are focused on automating jobs typically done by minimal wage workers, such as cleaning, delivery and logistics, Dusty is augmenting skilled construction labors so they can be focused on more valuable and rewarding tasks. I am really excited about the impact of the built environment. Eventually we can make space more affordable and more people can live and work the way they want.


How did you choose Dusty as your startup idea among other robotic technologies? I was starting my new company and looking for the best idea while I was remodeling my house. I had contractors coming to my doorstep with power tools doing work manually and making mistakes. So I started touring around construction sites and speaking to the construction crew to understand the business and see if there were something I could help automate. One day I saw these chalk marks on the floor and the process that the workers marked out the lines by snapping string. I started asking questions and at the end I was confident to offer ‘I can build a robot that does that for you.’ The layout crew’s eyes lit up - ‘Yes, I want that!’ The feedback was immediate and strong and I realized this may be a startup idea that people would pay for.


Dusty works on construction robotics and you had worked on delivery robots for hotels. What other areas do you see robotics technology can be valuable but nobody has tackled it well? There are a huge number of opportunities out there for robotics. But it requires a lot of learning of the industry where you want to disrupt before the opportunities become obvious. I started Dusty knowing nothing about construction and I didn’t even know the layout process existed. It wasn’t until I spent six months embedding myself in the construction industry that I discovered the value and challenge of the issue that I want to solve. I would say for robotics companies that are looking for good use cases, every industry has a lot of problems that are amenable to robotics as long as you spend time studying the field.


What the most important thing that you learned being a startup founder? I am an engineer by heart and by training. But I am really grateful to have the opportunity to develop my sales skills throughout this founder journey. It was foreign to me but I enjoyed learning how to do well. It is essentially problem solving with people – identifying their pain points and intentions behind what they were saying, addressing their concerns and giving them confidence that you can handle their needs. I am discovering that I am actually good at it and it has a measurable impact on our company. That was what allowed us to raise this fantastic round, to build a great team, and to run a business that our customers love.


Any advice for women who want to make achievements in their career? Without a doubt, every female professional that I have worked with, who have achieved my level or a similar level is amazing. We have to be better than our peers because of the inherited biases in the system. I highly respect these women and cherish the network. My advice for women who want to advance their careers is to dig deeper into your own strengths and weaknesses. The key to success is focusing on the things you are good at and finding or creating a role where you can do those things while de-emphasizing those things you are not so good at. For example, I am good at empathizing with people and problem solving for people, which makes me good at sales. I am not as good at details so I leave that to other people. I created Dusty to leverage those strengths.


What do you do outside of work? I sew. I make my own clothes, including this top that I am wearing. It gets me away from the computer and gives me something to do with my hands.


[1] What is a total station? https://www.alleninstruments.com/what-is-a-total-station/#:~:text=A%20total%20station%20is%20an,itself%20and%20a%20specific%20point.&text=Electronic%20distance%20meter%20(EDM)


Edited and condensed for clarity.

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