Robots & Sustainability Automation with Matanya Horowitz

April 22, 2020

Today on Impact! with John Shegerian, John interviews Matanya Horowitz, an entrepreneur and founder of AMP Robotics, a robotics company focused on sustainability automation and smarter recycling through the use of technology and robotics. Listen along as John and Matanya discuss the current state of automation in sustainability and what the future holds for robotics in sustainability!

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of the impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian and today, I’m so honored to have with me a very good friend and an amazing entrepreneur, Matanya Horowitz welcome to the Impact Podcast.

Matanya Horowitz: Thank you John excited to be here.

John: Matanya. I know you quite well, you’re the founder and CEO and Chief Visionary Officer of AMP Robotics and for our listeners out there who haven’t heard of your great company yet. They could find you at www.amprobotics.com. Matanya, talk a little bit about your journey as an entrepreneur leading up to the founding in the visioning of AMP and how you even came up with this great wonderful company that you’ve created.

Matanya: Well, it actually started a long time ago for me. I’ve always been interested in robotics and then questions around intelligence. So I studied this for my PhD I went to Caltech and studied robotic path planning. And while I was there I was fortunate to be exposed to some new technology called Deep Learning for those who aren’t familiar with it. This is a set of mathematical tools and algorithms that allow computers to learn from experience. So you’re able to show them something, thousands or millions of examples and they begin to find some sort of pattern and when applied to computer vision, what we’ve seen is for the first time you can largely teach these computers how to see as well as a person can and this was quite far from where the technology used to be in 2010 or 2012 and I just thought this was amazing. So, I learned some of these algorithms and I began to see that these algorithms were answering some important questions that I’d always been interested in. Ever since I first watched Transformers cartoons or Voltron cartoons when I was a kid and I thought there was now this kind of path to making these kinds of robots. So after learning these algorithms, I began to look for places where that type of technology could be useful and very quick got excited about the recycling industry. Where what I saw was that, the recycling industry sort of as it was then and largely as it is now relies a lot on manual labor. So this recycling that people put in their recycling bin goes to a facility and people stand around conveyor belts along with machinery, but largely still using a lot of manual labor to sort things by hand.

What I saw was with this kind of computer vision tool you could develop a system that would automate that process and we could use robots that had already been used in the manufacturing process in these applications. And so, it’s this sort of really–for me fulfilling journey where I was always interested in robots and Isaac Asimov and Transformers led me to these algorithms and then saw that the algorithms had this real application where I could actually play a role. So started the company, this company AMP robotics in 2014 and just been hard at work since then.

John: Okay, so when you say started I love hearing the entrepreneurs’ journey. You started it yourself, in a garage, in a bedroom, in the office? Where was the start physically, and all that other kind of stuff. Where did that happen?

Matanya: Well, you know, yeah, it’s always– it’s you know, it’s like how far back do you want to go? All the way back, you know, you could say it’s all the way back at watching that Transformer cartoon and being like, “I’m going to work on that” but the moment I saw–well, so after seeing these algorithms, I was really just kind of sitting at my desk just looking at different applications. I was looking at manufacturing applications, agriculture, all the interesting things that were happening in drones so back around 2013-2014. And so I was just looking at a lot of them and at the time as I mentioned, studying for my PhD, so it’s taking a very academic approach to it. I was doing a lot of background research in these different areas. But a friend mentioned to me actually recycling– and just on a whim I visited this recycling facility in Los Angeles called Puente Hills. It’s actually right next to this mass of landfill. So for me, I’ve always been environmentally minded but never really sort of a recycling buff as you might say. But you know, you see this landfill and I mean, it’s a mountain, it’s just humongous and it really sort of drives I think [crosstalk]

John: All trash, it’s crazy.

Matanya: Yeah. But yeah, I was really fortunate I have this older brother Benjamin, who had a bit more business experience and he helped sort of coach me and guided me on the right questions to ask and kind of coach me to the point of actually starting the company and sort of actually forming the LLC and everything like that, but you know really just happened at a desk just doing a boring academic research.

John: Okay. So here’s the fun stuff. Where did you get your—like, who put the first dollar in? Was it you? Was it Benjamin? Was it Mom, Dad? Or did you have an outside angel?

Matanya: [Laughs]

John: How did that happen?

Matanya: So the first dollars were definitely me but it wasn’t very much it was you know, a couple hundred dollars. I think opened the bank account.

John: Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter! You’re the first dollar in. That’s great!

Matanya: Yeah. The first dollar counts. Yeah.

John: Yeah. First dollar counts.

Matanya: Very quickly we had –some part of the reason I was able to start the company was I got a grant from an [inaudible] National Science Foundation something called the SBIR and so although the first couple hundred dollars for me, which really went to like buy market reports and buying a couple pieces of equipment to play our computer vision. We were fortunate to get a significant grant from the National Science Foundation and that let me actually bring some people on.

John: Okay so wait a second, so from 2014 to when? did you get that grant because I mean, to get on their radar and to get them to give you a grant that takes, that takes time and work and also and I know you’re a genius because I know you well enough and long enough. So [crosstalk] how long was that process? from ‘14 to the SBIR grant?

Matanya: Yeah, We got the SBIR grant right at the beginning of 2015. And so 2014 was doing the background research, applying for the grant, putting together all the details for that, coming up with some very crude proofs of concepts. I actually remember having the first–I started with construction and demolition material. As you know, the material that comes out of basically demolished buildings, so I had like a brick on my desk and I was taking all these photos of bricks and building at this data sets so the machine could learn bricks and I just remember being like, I spent weeks my life on this one brick really focused on it. But all that sort of went into this application for the for the grant.

John: Got it, and that grant was for how much? How much was that grand for?

Matanya: That one was a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and I remember thinking at the time. “Oh my gosh, we’ll never use up all this money.” That is more money than we will ever need. But yeah, it’s just a wonderful program the federal government has for its– specifically for small businesses that are doing sort of high-risk or creating a sort of high technology somewhat risky products but that are in the national interest. So recycling and robotics kind of fit that bill.

John: So it was like real incubator accelerator type money to help you get going and move your idea forward. That’s so exciting.

Matanya: Yeah, and they had a fantastic program for like sort of coaching you and making sure you understood sort of market need and like how to sort of some important questions around forming your business plan. So I’d like to think that– so at this point the company has over 50 employees. We’re doing great. We’re manufacturing here in the United States and I’d like to think that we’re sort of emblematic of what the government is trying to do there. Where you sort of give a little bit of seed funding, get an idea off the ground and then grow it into something big so hopefully the NSF is– which is the government agency who administered this. So hopefully they’re happy with our progress.

John: Well, there’s a shout out for the NSF and I’m sure they are and it also is really a real education for entrepreneurs or wanna be entrepreneurs that our listeners that you don’t need 50 million dollars or venture capitalist or a rich uncle to start an impactful, transformative company like yours is. You did it with your own cash. You got the NSF to back you. So let’s talk about the journey between the NSF Capital coming in. And today, first of all, I know you’re a California boy, but when did you end up in Colorado? And did you start this business in Colorado? Is that where it started? Because I know that’s where you are now.

Matanya: Yeah, so I largely–I was born in California, but I mostly grew up here in Colorado. Went back to California for my graduate degree. And you know, it was an interesting question where did I really start the business. The obvious choice was the San Francisco area where a lot of this kind of technology is being developed now. What I saw was basically every dollar would go further in Colorado and at least I knew Colorado we were also considering the area around Oregon but I don’t actually know if that was the most efficient way to go. Knowing what I know now sort of Bay Area ecosystem is just incredibly powerful for accelerating startups. So we may have moved quicker if we were there but working in Colorado our money sort of stretched pretty far in that was really important.

John: Well, that’s–and then you hired, with this NSF money you hired how many employees or how many people to help you move your vision forward?

Matanya: Yeah, we hired two. Their first day was, January 1st, 2015. We were pretty small for a while. We stayed at three for most of I think the following year eventually got a couple more guys. For a long time we were sort of a team of five to seven honestly, I think the stage we were at when I met you John but, just kind of Scrappy Kids, Barbarians at the Gate. Well Barbarians at the Gates probably, but yeah just trying to see if we could find something that would work.

John: And for and for our guests who just joined us and our listeners have my good friend and impact entrepreneur the founder and CEO of AMP robotics with us with Matanya Horowitz. He’s on–to learn more about Matanya’s great company AMP robotics. Go to www.amprobotics.com. When did our common and great friend and one of the greatest facilitators in America connect us, Ron Gonen. When was that? It was at in 2016 or ‘15?

Matanya: I think that might have been in mid-2016. I think that would be right.

John: That’s right.

Matanya: Yeah, Ron is just such a force of nature and I’m so grateful that– you know, he was such a powerful connection with your team at ERI so early on probably earlier than we deserved but we’re grateful for it.

Matanya: Believe me, we’re grateful for it too and that’s why Ron always gets all the kudos from me and he’s one of my great friends and been one of the greatest supporters of the whole movement of circular economy and the sustainability revolution. He’s–without asking for anything in return Ron selflessly introduces wonderful people and puts them together and I’m just really so honored and lucky that he introduced us. You were– like, you said a young group of barbarians at the gate when I met you. Walk me through a little bit your aha moment, when did you know your vision of transforming the recycling industry with your great products was going to work? When did you get the beta’s out and when did you know, “aha, this is really going to be what I wanted it to be if not bigger.”

Matanya: I think there are– I’ll say kind of two moments. So the first one was, so we installed this first robot with the support of a group called the Carton Council in a facility in Denver and we got a lot of support from that facility. The facility’s name is Alpine. There was a gentleman there Brent Hildebrand who was just an incredible advocate for us. So–but they let us install this first robot in their facility and it didn’t work at all. It worked great in the lab and then once we put it in, it was just oh my gosh, like disaster after disaster.

So we were struggling, working in this place. It gets real cold in there. We’re doing it in the winter. So we’re like, trying to program on these things with gloves on trying to get the robots to actually work. So we’re working in the facility with all these other sorters. The robots at the end of the line, they’re always actually encouraging us because they could see all the work we were putting in and then one day we actually got the robot working and it started picking and it was doing out right against all odds and we’re so excited and the sorters who are hanging out with us. They were all excited for us too and they’re like clapping. They’re like, “Yay! Way to go!”

John: Everyone’s cheering.

Matanya: Yeah, but just seeing it work, it was like, okay, there’s a lot there’s a long journey ahead of us. There’s a lot of work to do. It broke down like 15 minutes later. But you know, [Laughs] you could see it like, this is gonna work, we just need to get it right.

I think I think the second moment was actually at a conference. There’s a show called the Paper & Plastic show and I was on a panel talking about robots. I think this was in 2017 and the questions I started getting from the audience weren’t–sort of like, “Is this even realistic?” They started to the really specific application questions and I could just see that the audience had really sort of been chewing on this long enough and now had conviction.

What was exciting to me is they were excited about the potential for the vision system even without the robot and its ability to sort of monitor what’s happening in these material streams. So there, you could start to see the broader excitement and the broader scope of what we could do along with the industry acceptance. That was also a big moment at least for me personally where kind of migrating from the guy on The Fringe to saying like, “Hey, I think you could do this.” to like, “Okay, this is happening and people are excited about it.”

John: That is awesome. So you started moving the ball forward. When did you sell? Sell–no more beta. Sell your first unit and how many you’ve sold to date or whatever you could share with our listeners. Like, how big has it gotten from your first unit sold and check in the door to today?

Matanya: So actually we were very fortunate. The first one we sold was at the end of 2015. I got– installed at the beginning of 2016. And that was this project with the Carton Council. It was a sale in the sense that they paid money, but they were the friendliest possible customer and really worked with us on payment schedules as this thing didn’t really work.

John: They were collaborative purchase. Great.

Matanya: Yeah, very, very collaborative. And I’d say in 2016. We started getting—no, early 2017. We started getting some sales that were just sort of, sales that were directly with the customer or more emblematic of I think sort of a typical sale. And yeah, I think that’s how long it took. It sort of took a full year of just brain damage in the facility. At this point, we sold definitely over 50. I think we’ve sold over 60 of these systems all around the world. We have them in Canada, United States, Japan. We have a facility in Florida, Single-stream Recyclers where the facility actually has 14 robots. To our knowledge that’s the most robots in one place or at least in recycling. And yeah, we’re expanding all over and it’s been very rewarding to see the industry demand and how all of this is kind of getting picked up.

John: Well, for our listeners out there, truth in advertising and broadcasting. ERI, the company that I co-founded has purchased units from Matanya and we’re his greatest advocate. They work amazingly and they’ve definitely helped our business become more efficient and help transform our whole ecosystem in our Indiana and Fresno facility so I could speak from personal experience that your technology is world class and you know our team of Engineers went out and did a comparison against all the other competitors y you have out there and they always came back and said not only is your team the best to work with but your technology is the best technology. So. I mean that’s kudos to you on every level not only inventing and creating the best technology but also making the nicest team to work with that’s most collaborative and supportive and that goes a long way too. Matanya. The people skills that your team has and what you’ve created in terms of the culture and the DNA of your great company AMP robotics.

Matanya: Well, thank you John. I think that it kind of goes both ways. So to my knowledge, ERI was the first one to look at deploying robots for these sorting applications. And I think before we took on the project, it wasn’t sort of clear that it would work. Of course, we were testing things and like that, but your team was really sort of happy to get in the weeds with us and say, “Okay like, what do we need to do to really make this work? What is the best place to use this? How do we need to customize our application for this?” And so it was a very nice collaboration and I believe that was the first sort of way sorting application in the world. And that’s what it took is sort of these two teams that were tightly aligned on making it all work. So, I wish I could say that we just came in and dropped it in and sprinkled some magic on it, but no, it really was a collaboration.

John: But that’s okay because that’s how all the best things happen in this world anyway, collaboration and people skills. Especially in this world that leans heavily on technology. The fact that people skills can help us work through any hiccups, rough spots or anything else you hit along the way which are always inevitable with a.) new technology and b.) new industries like we are and what you are it really made for great success story and we’re honored to be part of that success story, but we’re also cheering you on otherwise, of course.

I want to ask you about being an entrepreneur and some things that you’ve learned. First of all, now that you are really in the recycling industry and also the artificial intelligence and robotics industry, what are some of the macro trends that our listeners can grab onto that you see already occurring but going to be here for years to stay, a trend that’s going to be here for the next three to ten years. What are some of those trends that you see moving forward?

Matanya: There’s one trend that actually really excites me for a couple different reasons, but that’s really this consumer focus on the responsible diversion of material and this is most acute I think in plastics, but you see the same attention–and you’re more of an expert on this than me but like in electronic waste. But also these other material streams whether they’re metals or whatnot and I think that’s actually a very positive development. I think a lot of people are sort of cynical about you know, “Can I make a difference in recycling?” “Is this stuff even recycled that I’m putting in the bin?” and the reality is, yes. That most of these materials you’re putting in the bin usually– unless you’re putting something that’s sort of not processed or it’s a contaminant, the stuff is getting recycled but there’s a huge push by brands and consumer packaged goods companies. Basically to meet the demand of all of these consumers who are demanding that packaging is sort of created in a responsible way and dealt with in a responsible way. That’s leading to these brands creating all of these high goals for post-consumer material to be used in their packaging and for the recycling industry that’s massive. Having demand for recycled material allows the recycling industry to stay healthy and grow. It’s both a very good story in terms of a positive trend for recycling and of course equipment makers like ourselves. But I think an important validation of the energy that consumers put into making these decisions and participating in recycling programs, I think most people are focused on the doom and gloom of the China situation and that certainly has a big impact. But at the same time, the attention that the sea turtle with a straw up its nose and all of this pla– the garbage island and the Pacific. All these things are translating to meaningful changes in the industry and that’s good for us, but it’s also good for me as a consumer myself.

John: With regards to your application of robotics and artificial intelligence, apply to the recycling industry, with regards to that met those macro trends and the circular economy behavior really taking on a huge life now in the United States and around the world, the application of artificial intelligence robotics. How do you see that? Is that a macro Trend that you see is here to stay and is only going to grow in the next seven to ten years?

Matanya: Something that’s really exciting for us is that, so we–I’d argue we pioneered the use of artificial intelligence for the use of Robotics and there’s sort of a key problem we’re trying to solve for the recycling industry, which is this issue with sorting. So sorting requires a lot of manual labor, a lot of expensive equipment and if we can lower the cost of doing that then more material will be sorted and so recycled, but that’s not the end of the story. One of the other issues at the industry’s really grappled with is, around the purity of the materials that they sort out. So, if I’m selling you number one plastics how many pieces of paper are in there? How many aluminum cans are in there? Things like that.

There hasn’t really been a means to understand how pure these material streams are, but artificial intelligence because we can identify this material now. We can basically count all that stuff and say, “Hey this number one plastic bail is 98% pure, the paper is 99% pure.” and really bring clarity to the industry and transparency and for your listeners who focused on the situation with China, a large part of that was excess contamination and all of these material streams. So now, artificial intelligence starts to become a solution to that provide this transparency that the industry’s been looking for in terms of material quality.

There’s also other things that are going on with AI being used for other types of sorting equipment and it’s just, it’s quite exciting. So, all of these trends fit nicely with the capabilities that we’re building and honestly as I sort of tried to guide the direction of the company, that’s what I wanted to do—what I want to do is make it so that the way AMP robotics would succeed is if we could make the recycling industry succeed. So our incentives are sort of aligned with what I’d like to think is the right thing to do. The fact that we’ve been able to do that, personally, is exciting for me, but AI to solve all these challenges industry has is the biggest part of that.

John: Matanya, you’ve had a fascinating journey just in these six short years. You went from your own couple hundred dollars being put in on opening bank account to the NSF giving you your first funding. I don’t want to also leave this episode without sharing your great win of late last year you got Sequoia to invest in your brand. The people who, were I think the first money behind Google. Talk a little bit about that journey going from a real bootstrap entrepreneur to getting one of the most worldwide known venture capitalist groups to back your vision and your great company.

Matanya: That–so yes, as you mentioned we closed our series, a funding around that Sequoia LED in I believe it was about in November of last year. So November 2019. That was an incredible moment for us. What was really nice, I mean what was incredible for us was that Sequoia really does its homework. The partners weren’t necessarily familiar with the recycling industry, but they dove really deep, they were calling our customers making sure that they really understood. The thing that kind of came through and they let me know that it came through is our customers were such big advocates for us. So, thank you to your team John and to our other customers. We honestly couldn’t have gotten it done without the support our customers. But what’s exciting about it too is, as you mentioned Sequoia is a very successful Venture Capital firm. What they look to do is build category defining businesses, so Google, Apple, other companies like this. So they really take a big picture of you. What I found was, when I went out to raise funding, a lot of investors really weren’t interested in investing in a recycling business for I think reasonable reasons, right? They would read the newspaper and say, “Hey, recycling is dead. I just read it in the New York Times.” and you know you have big players you have a lot of small players like this sort of mismatch in sales opportunities that makes sort of getting interaction pretty hard. But what Sequoia saw and what our other investors also saw as well was that, if this technology could be successful it could solve really meaningful problems in the recycling business and more broadly in the waste business. And that business is large. You think about all the landfills and hauling and everything like that. So if you’re able to solve meaningful businesses, that industry looks different than it looks today and that is exciting to them. If you could build something that really solves recycling and makes that sort of the main way you deal with material. That’s an incredible thing. That’ll be a great business to be made. You’re doing the right thing. And that’s what Sequoia saw, our other investors saw and that’s what I see. And so it’s just wonderful to find backers who are so tightly aligned with what you want to do. John, you’ve raised more money than I have, but I think you’d probably agree like being aligned with your investors just makes life so good and I can just see now given this sort of blessing I have if you’re not aligned with your investors how hard that would be. So it worked out very nicely.

John: That’s awesome. And before we have to sign off Matanya, any pearls of wisdom or lessons learned you want to share with our entrepreneurs or budding entrepreneurs who are listening today?

Matanya: I’d say, the thing that’s been most important to me. It may not sound positive, but I think it is but for the entrepreneurs out there. There really is a grind. There’s a lot you have to do that you’re not looking forward to and your sort of the boss so if you don’t have somebody– some mechanism in place, you got to just grit your teeth and do that. And so building up sort of the mentality to sort of lean into the grind of building a company is just essential, but they should know they’re not alone. It’s hard for everybody discouraging all the time and or not all the time but there’s plenty of discouraging moments but you just got to run into the wind and just make it happen anyway. So for those out there who are struggling, you’re not alone, but that’s an essential skill in making this happen.

John: It’s really true, making it happen. Any shameless plugs you want to give before we sign off?

Matanya: Sure. I’ll give one to the company. So, as I shared at AMP, we’re growing quickly. We’re selling robots all over the country. We have some very happy customers and a lot of repeat customers ERI is one of them. So, for anybody who’s in the recycling business, who is interested in automating? We’d love to talk to you and you can reach out to us at AMP robotics and also not only those who are interested in sorting but also in waste characterization. But yeah, thanks for the plug John and I really appreciate you inviting me to be on your podcast. This is really exciting and you’ve had a fantastic lineup in your life of podcast. So thank you. It’s an honor.

John: It’s an honor for us to have you on. Matanya Horowitz you’re transforming the recycling industry and making a huge impact to the planet. We’re honored to have you with us. You’re great friend. You’re a great entrepreneur and you’re a great blessing to the entire Earth. Thank you again for joining us today.

Matanya: Thank you John, you are too.

John: All right.

Matanya: Right. Take care.