September 11, 2017
Owl Labs - The Story of Two Robotics Enthusiasts Who Are Making the Video Conferencing Experience Inclusive

In the world of hardware startups, you always hear the same statement: hardware is hard. It was even noted in HBO’s The Defiant Ones documentary when Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine were starting Beats. Iovine told a story about Steve Jobs warning them and stating that “You can get killed in hardware, it is not as easy as it looks.”

While this might be true in terms of the complexity of designing, manufacturing, and shipping a physical product, but what if you had experience building one of the most successful consumer hardware products ever?

Meet Max Makeev and Mark Schnittman, the co-founders of Owl Labs in Somerville. The duo is on a mission to fix video conferencing for remote employees with its product the Meeting Owl. The video conferencing industry has competition from tech giants to lots of startups trying to gain market share in this market. However, it is the background story of each founder which tells a tale of why this company might rise above the rest.

Max Makeev - From Humble Beginnings

Makeev, Owl Labs’ CEO, was born in the 1980’s in Moscow during the communist era. His dad was never content with the fact that he couldn’t own a business, so he left Russia in 1989 with $360 in his pocket and a goal of moving his family to the United States.

At first, the family traveled through Europe to save money for the long term move to the US. Makeev’s dad got a job at a grocery store and he’ll never forget the first night his dad came home. “He came home with a box of fruit,” said Makeev. “It was amazing. In Russia, fifteen kids would split one banana.”

The Makeev family eventually landed in the US and settled down in Brooklyn, where his father started a business fixing sewing machines for shoe repair shops. After experiencing some ups and downs in this business, his father went on to start another venture which was focused on designing custom blinds for windows. Makeev remembers his dad was always able to make a dollar go a long way.

Math came easy to Makeev and upon entering college at the University of Florida, he decided to pursue an electrical engineering degree because he felt the career path had a strong debt-to-income ratio, as it was the harder segment of the engineering disciplines.

It was in his third year of college that he stumbled into the robotics lab, where he could see how electronics, sensors, and systems all came together to do intelligent things. It ignited an interest and passion which would be the foundation for what his career would become.

After graduating, he was fortunate to land an internship with Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL), the R&D division of the company. It was during this internship where he grew a fondness for Massachusetts, as he was working in a lab full of Ph.D. and research students. “It was very energizing,” said Makeev.

Max Makeev
Max Makeev with Robots on a visit to China.

A colleague of his made an intro to iRobot for a mechanical engineering internship which was the stepping stone he needed. The role ended up converting into a full-time position as an Associate Electrical Engineer.

It was 2004 and iRobot was getting ready to start working on the design and build of its next generation Roomba. It was the third generation of their home robotic vacuum which would be known as the 500 series. Makeev worked on electrical system designs, component price negotiations, as well as travel to interface with the Chinese contract manufacturer to bring Roomba to the masses.

Makeev progressed rapidly in his career at iRobot in the electrical engineering function, where he had the opportunity to work on several different products. Although this engineering work was gratifying, he ultimately decided to move to the business side and take on a role as a product manager.

He led the launch of the Roomba 800 series, which was the most successful product of its time back then. The 800 series launched with an AeroForce cleaning system, rubber brushes, and a new navigation method.

Even though he once thought that he would retire at iRobot, especially since they gave him plenty of opportunities to grow, it was Schnittman who got his head spinning around the idea of starting a company together.

Mark Schnittman - Mechanical Engineer to Entrepreneur

Schnittman (Owl Labs’ CTO) was born on Long Island. His father was a physics teacher and his mom was a special ed teacher for math and reading, before becoming a stay at home mom. Growing up, he remembers a lot of science around him.

His dad’s public school job gave Schnittman his first exposure to computers. “My dad was able to bring home a Commodore PET computer,” says Schnittman. Once he entered school, his family purchased an Apple IIe. He learned how to code in BASIC and make adventure games.

He went on to study mechanical engineering at Brown University. He was impressed with the school’s well-rounded curriculum, which featured a very strong engineering program but also a balanced approach to education where students were allowed to take classes outside of math and science.

After graduating, Schnittman ended up working at a 20 person machine design company in Lowell, Massachusetts.

He worked with a team that would design and build automated machinery for manufacturing. For example, a medical device company would need custom machinery to manufacture asthma inhalers. Schnittman focused on the mechanical design and the software controls of the machinery.

Mark Schnittman, Owl Labs
Mark Schnittman next to an early Meeting Owl prototype.

Schnittman decided to go back to school for his master’s degree and ended up getting a full scholarship at Tufts. After looking at different options, robotics ended up being the field of study which interested him the most.

For his thesis at Tufts, Schnittman worked on a robot that would carry groceries up and down stairs for elderly people. The project was sponsored by iRobot in terms of providing funding and mentorship.

“The goal was to help people stay in their homes longer,” said Schnittman. “Instead of having to move into an assisted living facility.”

The cart-like robot could carry twenty pounds in the store and then, it turned into an autonomous vehicle that could go up and down up to 100 steps. It ended up being an interesting product, but it was never going to be something mass produced for consumers due to the costs to build the product.

After graduation, he landed his dream job at iRobot, where he finally felt like he had landed in the right place. He was able to leverage his mechanical design experience, but he also had to learn all about electrical design, systems engineering, and firmware (the software that controls the hardware).

Over his career at iRobot, he worked on both the Roomba and Scooba products. He described the culture at iRobot as one that would allow you to grow and have the freedom to take on new projects.

“We needed a sensor design for an intelligent debris bin for the Roomba to detect when it was full,” said Schnittman. “I just started working on it with a colleague and it was that type of environment. If you stepped up, they would just let you run with it.”

While at iRobot, he started working on a new idea for a smaller version of the Roomba, which would clean edges and corners in a house. He made a prototype of the product and obtained internal funding to work on it. However, the recession hit toward the end of 2008 and his project lost its funding.

He then joined the Advanced Development Group at iRobot as a Lead Roboticist, where he had the opportunity to work on projects that were looking further ahead. He was able to experiment with lots of different technologies like advanced camera sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and developing vision-based algorithms.

After an eight-year career at iRobot, he got the startup itch when he got a text message from a former co-worker to join a company called Romotive that was building a robot called Romo. The company had recently completed Techstars in Seattle and they were lured by Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh, to set up operations in Las Vegas.

Romo was an iPhone-powered educational robot. Children would dock an iPhone in a small tank-like device where they could control the robot through different challenges and learning exercises.

He remained in the Boston area as a remote worker for the company for two years. It made him realize that working remote in today’s world was possible, but when you are trying to participate in group video meetings, that was a different story.

If you are trying to participate in a daily scrum stand up meeting or a company all hands meeting, there are several issues with today’s modern video conferencing systems. For the remote employees, it is not really an inclusive experience. It’s hard to hear on both side and it’s difficult to truly feel like you are part of the conversation, as you can’t see everything that is going on. It’s  awkward to interrupt the conversation and the flow of the meeting.

Someone had the idea of putting the screen on a swivel stool and move it around to face the person talking. It was awesome, as the overall experience of the meeting was much better. Everything felt more direct and engaged with the person on video. You could hear better, you could see the other person’s gestures, and add to the conversation as you would if you are in the same room.

That was when Schnittman had his “aha” moment. He met up with Makeev at a bar in Somerville to discuss his idea about a new product to solve the remote conferencing experience.

The Birth of a Company

This discussion led them down the path of leaving their jobs to start their own company called Owl Labs. They would use their engineering talents and industry experience to build a 360°all-in-one video conferencing device that helps teams have more productive and inclusive meetings between their in-office and remote teammates. The goal is to make the video conferencing experience inclusive for all.

The company originally raised a $1.3M seed round of capital in 2015 led by Playground Ventures, which is a firm founded by Andy Rubin, one of the creators of Android. Back in May of this year, the company came out of stealth mode and announced its $6M Series A round of funding led by Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners.

The Owl Labs team is just under twenty people and it includes early HubSpot employees like Karen Rubin, VP of Growth and Rebecca Corliss, VP of Marketing.

Owl Labs team
The current team at Owl Labs!

I had the chance to see the Meeting Owl in action. It is a very impressive product in terms of the functionality and engineering. The hardware itself is a sleek design which looks like a large Bluetooth speaker with two eyes that light up to indicate a meeting is in progress. The eyes help give the product a bit of personality to match up with the owl persona.

The setup is simple, there are just two cables: one for power and the other connects to your computer’s USB port. It is already setup to work with all the major web-based video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype.

Meeting Owl has eight omnidirectional echo-canceling microphones, but the magic is obviously tied to the 360° lenses. The Owl’s robotic brain determines the best view of the room to show and it automatically identifies who is speaking. The meeting is viewed by a panoramic strip at the top, along with individual views at the bottom which switch around based on who is speaking. Essentially, it tracks where the people are in the room and it gives you a close up of the active speakers or presenters.

This allows remote participants to see a lot more of the dynamics of the meeting and feel like they are actually in the same room. It gives them a better read of the meeting and knows when to interject.

Below is a video from the team at Dispatch unboxing Meeting Owl and trying it out for the first time:

Getting from idea to prototype, to a functioning product (which is available for purchase) is not an easy feat, especially in just two years. Yes, the hardware is hard, but when you have the depth of industry experiences like Makeev and Schnittman, the impossible becomes possible.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

Images courtesy of Owl Labs