renowned robotics engineer Marco Mascorro of
Mountain View, California, USA. When the two
men met in early 2014, Mr. Mascorro, co-founder
and CEO of Fellow Robots, was working on robotics
projects with retail applications.
An unlikely partnership soon formed between one
of the 100 largest retailers in the United States and
a new startup. Mr. Nel had met with several more
established robotics firms, but in Fellow Robots he
“saw this amazing team that was able to create unbe-
lievable machines,” he says. “And I thought, ‘This is
it. These are the people that are going to be able to
work with us through all the muddy and hard parts
to really make this happen quickly.’”
Still, Mr. Nel had to convince Lowe’s execu-
tives that it made sense to partner with a nascent
startup on an ambitious robotics project. He did so
by emphasizing his program’s mission of fostering
innovation—a charter that implies a high appetite
for risk. “I focused on the future, the vision, rather
than all of the hurdles we had to overcome to get
there,” he says. “Every time someone would bring
up a potential hurdle, I’d say, ‘That’s true, but it’s
worth the exercise and worth the risk if it can pos-
sibly get us to where we think we can go.’”
The partnership worked for Fellow Robots because
it involved a high-profile project with a big-name
partner; it worked for Lowe’s because the organiza-
tion found a partner with the expertise to help it cre-
ate new technology. “That marriage of an incredibly
talented and driven tech company, along with a really
large company, is a great match,” Mr. Nel says.
Mr. Nel wanted to get the robot into stores quickly,
which meant committing to a short project timeline.
Again, working with a startup proved advantageous.
Mr. Mascorro’s team was willing and able to make
the Lowe’s project an immediate priority.
Then came the development phase. The team
leaders wanted the Lowe’s robot to serve some of
the functions of a customer-service representative:
to scan hardware, to process voice commands and
requests, and to lead customers through the store
to the locations of the products they sought. The
primary challenge for Mr. Mascorro’s team was to
combine an array of technological components into
one coherent, useful, consumer-friendly robot.
“We’re talking about speech recognition, autono-
mous navigation, computer vision [three-dimen-
sional scanning] and a database,” he says. “We’re
talking about putting all those things together in
a way that has never been done before, and that’s
been the hardest part.”
Consider voice recognition, for example. There’s no
Siri equivalent for robots, Mr. Mascorro says, let alone
a version that would result in a mobile robot wheeling
itself around a store in response to a voice command.
So the Fellow Robots team had to build
one. It developed components such as
speech recognition, scanning and locomo-
tion, each in isolation, then worked to fuse
those elements into one seamless robot.
In anticipation of unexpected road-
blocks, Mr. Nel and Mr. Mascorro chose
to treat their project roadmap as more of a
loose itinerary than a fixed schedule.
“It wasn’t, ‘This is exactly what I need
you to do, and you need to execute on
this and make this happen.’ That’s a ven-dor-buyer kind of relationship, and in
my experience that’s not how this kind
of stuff gets done in the right way,” Mr.
Nel says. Instead, Mr. Mascorro’s team
regularly suggested project tweaks, such
as adjusting the way the robot would
scan store layouts.
The two team leaders stayed in close
“I focused on the
contact. “Open communication has
made a big difference,” Mr. Mascorro
says. “It’s kept the whole project moving
faster, and we’ve been able to solve a lot
of problems by brainstorming together.
And because we spend a lot of time talk-
ing about the problems, when we came
to points where we had to say, ‘We just can’t do
that,’ they understood.”
As a result, the project advanced at breakneck
speed. In November 2014, less than a year after
the project’s launch, Lowe’s began testing its retail
robot at a Lowe’s-owned Orchard Supply Hardware
store in San Jose, California, USA.
future, the vision,
rather than all of
the hurdles we
had to overcome
to get there.”