“Boston is a great city for being a robotics startup. The Boston community has been tremendous. I think the marriage of entrepreneurship with robotics has really helped move us forward,” said Mary Ellen Sparrow, Co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics.
Growing up in the New Bedford area, Mary Ellen spent most of her free time exploring the outdoors. When it came time to decide what she wanted to study, the UMass Amherst’s geology program seemed the obvious choice.
After graduating, she accepted a position as a stratigrapher in Colorado. She worked there for about five years before returning to the east coast to continue her education.
“When I was working in geology, I was mapping underground rock formations. We started digitizing and using software within the analysis. I always had a strong interest in computer science so after a few rewarding years in the field of geology, I decided to pursue my other educational interest, move back east and return to school.”
After completing her Masters in Computer Science degree, Mary Ellen worked at a small startup in New Hampshire writing software. She then moved down to Massachusetts to work as an object oriented technology consultant. A few years later, she accepted a position at PRI Automation and discovered a new passion: working with overhead monorails within material handling systems.
“I just fell in love with the whole technology of having a system that moved materials from one end of the semiconductor facility to another over miles of track. It is amazing to see the impact of our software running and coordinating many physical vehicles and robots and I enjoyed the automated hand off between the workers and robots as well as one robot to another.”
Mary Ellen spent eight years at PRI Automation before transitioning into working customs and borders at AS&E and then to Symbotic which allowed her to gain in-depth experience creating mixed pallets for the grocery industry.
The next career step was Veeco, followed by Harvest Automation, where she worked with their e-commerce system. When Harvest decided to divest the assets, Mary Ellen and her co-founder, Stephen Toebes, bought them and created NextShift Robotics.
“Stephen and I both worked at PRI Automation, Brooks Automation, and Symbotic, creating material handling systems. When Steve went to Harvest, he asked me to come help create the system architecture and software.” Instead of using AGVs on a guided rail, NextShift goes one step further, creating a robotic system that uses collaborative autonomous robots that assist the workers.”
NextShift Robotics was founded in early 2016 with the goal of creating a collaborative material handling system that could streamline warehouses’ ability to move product, increase throughput, and be installed around existing infrastructure and still have a stellar ROI. With the retail and ecommerce industry expected to produce double digit growth through 2020 and sales expected to top $4 trillion, NextShift is providing a way for warehouses to keep up.
Looking back at her career, Mary Ellen explained some of the things she’s taken away from her experiences.
“I like working in different robotics industries. I think it gives me a broad sense of how technologies are connected and could work together. The technology that I’m currently working on is my true love - mobile autonomous robots. With Industry 4.0 (so-called Smart Factories), we are on the brink of the next wave of flexible mobile automation. Investing in robotics is one way to gain and keep a competitive advantage.”
When she’s not working on her robots, you can find this female founder/CEO/robotics expert supporting the entrepreneurial community by speaking at Babson College or working to support other women and girls in STEM.
Rapid Fire Questions:
BS: How do you manage stress?
MS: I think there’s good stress and bad stress. There’s good stress when you have a deadline that you need to meet. You challenge yourself, your team and you get out there and get it done. Then there’s bad stress that you can’t control. In those times, I like to take a breath, go outside, enjoy nature and rethink the problem. Then I come back in and start over.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day normally?
MS: I drink one medium iced coffee a day. I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was 35. I don’t remember why I started.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
MS: Free time is at a premium right now as you can imagine but when I have some time, I love to be outside. I like to hike, take the dog for a walk, explore nature. I love the beach and I enjoy writing.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?
MS: I have many. In a city like Boston, how can you have just one? I like the Freedom Trail, Rowes Wharf, the art museums, the Aquarium, the Harbor Islands, and the green spaces.
BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
MS: Working with teams. Taking teams that are good and making them better or elevating a downtrodden team into a successful team. I’ve done this type of transformation throughout my career. I feel strongly about giving people responsibility and the right environment so they can thrive. The key is understanding what motivates each individual and then finding a way to marry their goals to the corporate goals.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
MS: Working in robotics? Absolutely. Starting my own company? Maybe not - but I am welcoming the opportunity to get out there and bring to market a solution that I strongly believe will change the industry.
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
MS: I would tell them that they’re going to learn from every job. They’re not going to stay in the original role, but transition and grow. They’re going to be surprised at how they evolve as their career moves forward. They can direct that movement by how they react to the different jobs that they have. If they don’t like something, they should change it. If they like something, they should dive in deeper. They should be responsible and very proactive with how their career moves because it’s their life.
Images and video courtesy of NextShift Robotics and Mass Innovation Nights.