Creating a Less Lonely Place with Karén Khachikyan

January 6, 2021

Karén Khachikyan was born in Yerevan, Armenia. He graduated from the National Polytechnical University in Armenia with the highest honors and received the Presidential Award as a Best Bachelor and Master Student of Armenia. During the university years, he started working at Synopsys as an Analog Design Engineer and was a designer of the first in the market DDR5 memory Synopsys IP. He is author of 11 scientific papers published in industry-leading conferences and journals. In 2017 he founded Expper Technologies and started building socially assistive robots for hospitalized children. Karén is now the Chief Executive Officer at Expper Technologies, a Health Tech company.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am John Shegerian. I am so honored to have with me today my friend, Karén Khachikyan. He is in Yerevan, Armenia. We are talking directly from Fresno, California to Yerevan. Welcome to the Impact podcast, Karén.

Karén Khachikyan: Thank you very much. I am very excited to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

John: I am very excited to have you because from the first night I met you in last October 2019, you totally inspired me and you totally made me so interested in what you are doing. I am so excited for you to share your wonderful invention, Robin the Robin Robot, with our listeners today. But before we get talking about all the great things you are working on today, I would love you first to share with our listeners around the world your background, your journey leading up to founding Expper Technologies.

Karén: Sure. My name is Karén. I was born here on Yerevan. Since childhood, I love technology. I am also very fond of art and music. I play guitar and piano. Since childhood, I was making something like projects, hardware or some science projects. I started studying in Polytechnical University in Yerevan. There I met my friend and the CTO of Expper Technologies, Hayk. Since our university years, we are making robots and hardware projects together. After the second year of studying in University, we both went to Army for serving because in Armenia it is mandatory. For two years, we went to serve in the Army. During the Army time we were thinking and dreaming what we are going to do when we come back. After two years, we again started studying together, continuing our education in that University. We joined the Synopsys Company programs. Synopsys is the app company, semiconductor company, which makes it being the best in the market. IP, chip, integrated circuit, and they have their educational program in our University. We both went there. After years, I did work in Synopsys as an engineer. That time we also started making some projects together. My passion is I am really excited about social robots from University while making some companion robot. That time I made a robot, and I called it Pan Robot. You were having a pan and robot. From mobile app, you would draw some pictures and it is starting to draw on the paper. I thought that it could be a good educational robot that kids and students can learn programming, robotics, and engineering by using that robot. I got a team, and we started working on that, but we failed because we used maybe some wrong approach to start a company. But that idea of making educational robot, we continued working on that. Actually the key of that educational robot was to have not kind of device or some tool, but to have some emotional component as well.

John: Okay. I want to hear about that, but first I want to ask you this. You are very young man. How old are you right now, Karén?

Karén: I am 26.

John: You are still very young. Couple of things for our listeners out there both in Armenia and in Diaspora, let us give them a bit of a background. Historically, Armenia wasn’t known as a Tech Center.

Karén: Right.

John: It is so fascinating to me and I was so honored to meet you thanks to our great friend, Natali, who introduced me to so many great young Tech people, and you are of course one of them. One of the great shining stars in Armenia right now. How did that evolve to two things? How did a young man like you want to become a champion of Tech? In the middle of the Tech industry, did you grow up reading about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and other young people and want to be them? Number one, number two, how did Armenia go from basically an industrial revolution type country now to one that has a very, very, very Tech vibrant community? Share with our listeners a bit of your own personal journey in Tech growing up and also Armenia’s evolution in Tech.

Karén: Sure. I went in a regular school in Yerevan so we didn’t have tech classes. It looks like just a regular school.

John: Right.

Karén: When I was in school and even earlier, I was dreaming about the dog. I think it was the key for making Robin, actually. The interesting thing that I didn’t have one because my parents were not allowing me to have a dog. When my parents would work and most of the time I was alone at home playing and making something. I think that was the reason that I brought me a companionship. I think this was the reason of making Robin when I look back. About the Tech ecosystem in Armenia and in Yerevan, I think Armenians have that quality to build great products because even during the Soviet Union Armenia was like kind of Silicon Valley of that region. All the engineering and even the first computers of Soviet Union were built in Armenia. I think that environment because growing in Armenia, you don’t have access to many things. It is a small country, with limited resources, and it actually teaches you that if you want something, you need to get it. I think this is an important thing from childhood. Personally, I didn’t have easy ways to making something or getting something. I think it is a mindset that you never give up and if you want something, you need to work on it and make it.

John: Is the future of Armenia more hot end? Do you believe that it is going to become in the years ahead and in your lifetime, you are very young, more and more tech-oriented and there is going to be more and more great inventors and technologists like you and your partner over at Expper Technologies that are going to create a new and better products for the whole world to enjoy? Is this sort of the future of Armenia you do believe?

Karén: Yes, I believe that technology is the future of Armenia and Armenia doing tech stuffs. We have great companies. We have great minds here. Armenian’s product are booming the global markets, right? For example, we have base noise cancellation software made in Armenia. Although a lot of companies that create products and I think that companies like that are showing that it is possible and younger generation have that already like how they can do it. For example, how product made in Armenia becoming like that in the world? I think this is very important because for Armenia depends on every single Armenian because actually we, right now, is making the future, right? That is why it is very important that all of us think how we can contribute for the future of Armenia and make it better.

John: Got it. For our listeners who just joined us, we are so honored to have with us today direct from Yerevan, Armenia, the co-founder and the owner of Expper Technologies, Karén Khachikyan. To find his website and to see his great invention, Robin the Robot, go to www.expper.tech. Now, cut and talk a bit about specifically the evolution of Robin. How you and your partners came together and then created it, and why it was important to create Robin the Robot?

Karén: Sure. My friend and I started working on educational robot, and its name was Charlie. The idea was to create an emotional connection between the students and Charlie. That time I was thinking that by having that connection they will be more motivated to make the robot better. In the porters, they will learn new things. For example, they want to make Charlie to see at the cameras. So it is programming to actually make Charlie see. This idea worked. We actually sold Charlie Robot in Armenia in educational centers. We saw that children behaving to Charlie, I felt like actually pure. They are running and calling by name. I love you Charlie, you are so nice. We understood that we need to apply this idea to the bigger thing, and that was Robin.

John: Got it. When was your first prototype of Robin created? How many evolutions have you gone through before you actually started testing Robin in hospital settings and other important settings?

Karén: It was really a great tough time for us because we were working in Synopsys full-time and also combining with University. At night we were working on making a robot. We didn’t have resources. We didn’t have money. We were putting ninety percent of our salaries to buy tools, to buy materials for making Robin. We build a skeleton of Robin. It didn’t have any kind of design or just one skeleton from some materials. It had some mechanic. We had our friend. She is a great painter. We asked her to design the look of Robin. It is very interesting that we are speaking with her and telling how actually Robin is, how we feel Robin. She was a great artist because she could feel the Robin that we were imagining in our mind. She draw the first sketch of Robin. I remember we had a presentation in two months and we decided to present Robin in two months, but already a robot with design, which was quite crazy time where we are not molding plastic and trying to make the body. We didn’t know how to do it, but somehow we figure out how we can do it like handmade, like body for robots. We made the final product that has the final design. It was not so nice now, but still it was something. We decided that we need to sell it because it was just like a hardware in the lab. But if we sell it, it means that it brings some value. That time we were thinking to start fundraising because we wanted to leave our job and fully focus on making Robin. It was a strategic decision to sell to the customer service industry because sale cycles are pretty short, like banks and some companies. We sold it very fast. We sold around three robots to two different kinds of companies like banks. On that fraction, we raised initial funding for making Robin and started building actual robot to deliver the product for the customers. After that, we raised the issue right. I came to US and started looking to what our idea was, like children. Actually, we had another idea to use Robin in elderly facilities like nursing houses. I was testing. I went to the different nursing homes, to the hospital. At that time we saw how children react to Robin. They are coming and hugging Robin, telling that the Robin you are my fan. But that time Robin was covered, just the body. I think we understood that starting from childcare industry; it is really something from children’s world with big eyes, with friendly design. We decided to work with pediatric hospitals and medical settings.

John: Tell me why. Why did you decide that and what did you use to decide children might get the most out of Robin in this very important data testing stage of Robin?

Karén: It was actually a personal reason. I told you earlier that I was alone and that my parents were at work. I was thinking about this companionship and actually analyzing that. I see that it actually influenced me and what I am doing now. The reason that children are very vulnerable to the effects of hospitalization in general, right? They are being exposed to a variety of negative factors such as painful procedures, loneliness, and isolation. Having a friend like Robin that they can rely on is very important because they are far from their homes. They are in a scary environment. They don’t have friends. Even if they are with great doctors, they are still adults, right They don’t have that peer-to-peer connection and friends there. Robin is actually a reliable body who is always there to help children to reduce stress and anxiety during their stay.

John: Got it. For our listeners again, if you want to see Robin and all Karén and his partners’ great work, please go to www.expper.tech. Talk a bit about the big success story you had at UCLA Medical. What happened with Robin at UCLA here in West Los Angeles?

Karén: We started pilots here in Armenia when we finalize the product for the healthcare. We did a pilot in Wigmore Clinic North Mirage Medical Center here. It is a cardiac hospital. We got some inspiring feedbacks from children, from medical staff. During the pilots, Robin increase the joyfulness level of kids by 33%, even reduce the time of medical procedures up to 40%.

John: Wow.

Karén: Their patient satisfaction that month that they use Robin increased by 14.4%. It was just an initial version, like pilot, and we are lucky enough to meet with Dr. Sean [inaudible], who is a doctor at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. When I went to the US and met him and tell him about Robin, about our product, our company, and he was excited about Robin. We started thinking how we can start a pilot with UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. Separately, we started selling to the pediatric dental clinics because going to the dentist is very stressful, right? Like I hate to go to the dentist. Especially for children, it is a big stress. This is another vertical that we are answering right now and actually signed a contract with ABC Kids Dental Group in LA. We deployed robot and signed for two more, and we are deploying in all their dental clinics offices.

John: Wow.

Karén: We did worked with also UCLA team, the research team created to start a pilot of Robin from doctors, from the child specialists, from the researchers. It was a very tough period because all the COVID situation was just starting. When I was in US, it wasn’t that fast. I felt then being looked down at that time and I couldn’t even come back to LA. Somehow after a few days, I was able to come to LA and we already finalized the UCLA pilot. Our goal was to send Robin soon as possible because it was actually great time to use Robin because of COVID. The visitations were also limited. The medical staff actually avoid to interact with patients because of the risk of spreading the virus. So it was a great time to start using Robin, but we didn’t have ready Robin sending to the UCLA. I decided to come back to Yerevan to support our team because it was a tough month. We haven’t slept that month. For 24 hours we are building Robin, and actually China was closed because of COVID and we weren’t able to buy parts from China. We started making by ourselves. It was a really crazy time, but we made it. We send it to UCLA and the first reactions you can see, the kids are having fun about Robin and the ABC is happy on how children react to Robin. We have some feedbacks from dental clinic from the UCLA that kids coming to Robin and telling that, “Robin, you are the most beautiful friend I ever had. I wish other people are robots like you.” So we see that connection and we see how actually Robin have children because they see in Robin a peer. This change completely the experience for children. Robin is not just for play, for solving that isolation problem. Robin also is a tool because Robin explains medical procedures and complicated medical procedures in a fun and simple way. Children understanding it and starting to stress less because the main reasons of the stress is because children don’t know what to expect. They are in the hospital and they don’t know what are going to happen. Robin also helps them to easily integrate, like to easy understand that environment and feel more comfortable there.

John: Wow, so it is proven to work. Share with our listeners, Karén, now that Robin’s working and children are finding more positivity, more optimism, and recovering faster, what is the future for Robin in all the different settings that you mentioned? Dental, medical, and others. For you and your partners, how do you want to take it and make Robin the Robot a common name around the world?

Karén: Robin’s future is not limited only for childcare because there are huge problems like elderly loneliness, right? Because of the Baby Boom, like in 20 to 40 years elderly population will double and there is no people to care of that elderly. The other industry is education, preschool education, children who have special needs. There are huge opportunities and huge impact that Robin will make. We will do everything to make it happen because we see how Robin is actually helping children. What is Robin’s impact? Actually this is a huge responsibility for us because we it is our responsibility to make it farther, to make that impact more. The future is unlimited and we will work over it and do everything to make it happen.

John: Wow, you know what? Karén, I knew from the moment I met you the positive impact that you were making in Armenia as an inspiration to other young people who want to become Tech Superstars. I and our listeners now know the positive impact that Robin is making with young people and will also be making in other sectors like you say with Baby Boomers and elderly on this issue of isolation that we are all now living through and we all know is very difficult because of this COVID-19. I am so honored that you came on today. For our listeners who want to learn more about Karén and his great work and his partners, and also about Robin the Robot, please go to www.expper.tech. Robin is just an amazing robot. I really urge you all to look at the videos and to look at the beautiful design. I also want to say that Robin is made out of recycled plastic. I am really proud of you, Karén, for doing that. You are making a huge impact not only in Armenia, but around the world. You are making the world a better place. Thank you again, Karén, for coming on the Impact podcast.

Karén: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure. Thanks for inviting.