From Robots to Vegetables

Austin Lawrence (MSR '15) shares how his MSR experience helped prepare him to launch RoBotany

By Austin Lawrence (MSR ‘15)

As I look back on applying to Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program, I have to confess that MSR was my "wildcard" application. All of my other graduate applications were in mechanical engineering, which coincided with my undergraduate studies.

I knew robotics was a field I would have loved a career in, but I was convinced I wasn't good enough. Applying for MSR felt like a gamble at best. Still, I was enamored by the program, even more so after forcing myself to engage with the staff. It felt like a very humbling university and a perfect fit for someone like me.

Overall, my MSR experience was very positive. Every class I chose to take provided value. Our cohort, around 15 people from all parts of the world and professional backgrounds, became very close and spent a large amount of time together in the lab working on various assignments. I particularly enjoyed the project-based curriculum, mostly because it provided the freedom to choose what problems I could solve with robots, be it silly, or serious. It was an excellent environment to think entrepreneurially, industrially, or academically, and it totally enabled me to go in any direction.

The program in and of itself is short and sweet. I felt the best service I could do for myself was to pursue the coursework most foreign to me, yet still seemingly interesting. After all, it's OK to not be the best at everything. Within your cohort, and with future colleagues, it will become obvious that some people really click in areas that you may understand at an academic level, but shouldn't insist on doing yourself. That's OK. It doesn't speak any less about your skill set as a roboticist.

Robotics, at a practical level, isn't about reinventing the wheel. Often, it's taking one system that someone else made, getting the inputs and outputs you desire, and integrating the into a broader concept. It's the premise of innovation, and it also is how great tech solutions are created.

After I finished graduate school, I found myself as a robotics intern for Disney Research, near Carnegie Mellon's campus in Pittsburgh, Penn. I was fortunate enough to acclimate with the university, and eventually I made contact with my future RoBotany co-founders, who made for a very balanced team eager to launch a robotic farming company.

RoBotany is transforming modern indoor agriculture with automated robotics and software analytics. Our smart, indoor farms deliver perfect, pure produce no matter the season or location. We currently have one public produce brand named Pure Sky Farms that is sold in Whole Foods and Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh.

RoBotany was born out of the belief that food production, at a city-wide scale, could be possible with the right application of robotic principles and controls. It became my new obsession. I worked nights and dozed off in our borrowed office on occasion, juggled personal and professional life, got married, got a cat, and withdrew my acceptance from a prestigious robotics PhD to make this crazy thing a full-time job.

We are where we are today, and I am better now because of it.

Generally speaking, I think I grew quite a bit during my time at Northwestern from the standpoint of time management and choosing better battles to fight. Some projects are very easy to creep on in scope, which may muddle the fundamental problem that needs to be solved. Staying up until 3 a.m. spinning wheels on fluff details isn't a sustainable way to carry on, and it may not be the best use of time. In true lean fashion, focusing on what is fundamentally the best value for your time is the greatest way to work through technical problems and products.

MSR gave me an open platform to explore fields important or fascinating to me. I had the freedom to experiment in these subjects through hacked together projects, such as a robot that stochastically danced to music, or a machine that studied honey bee collapse. Without MSR, I would not have found myself in these catalytic positions that eventually led to significant professional milestones over my short career.

The MSR program gave me a more complete perspective on what robotics is and will become, and it has taught me how to apply solutions to problems that I perceive on a daily basis. It has helped me see a path where my company can become the bleeding edge of technology in its own niche field, one day at a time.

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