Marita Cheng was the 2012 Young Australian of the Year and is a technology entrepreneur and advocate for women in technology. Ahead of speaking at the Melbourne Mobile-ising Women in Business event on 29 August, she answered some questions for Biz Better Together on how she got started in robotics and why passion matters in business.
How can your robots be used in business?
My teleport robot enables people to telecommute, for instance if a business wants to save on expenses by encouraging employees to work from home. Remote workers can use these robots to move around the office area, to be able to meet face-to-face with people, to collaborate in ways they wouldn’t be able to with a traditional video presentation. It gives the remote worker a physical presence in the office as needed.
One of my clients is Optus, for example, and they use the robot for their IT team to collaborate.
How accessible is the technology?
The technology is accessible for smaller businesses and enterprises as well, not just the big multinational or national corporates; one of our other clients is the Foundation for Young Australians.
It can also be used by organisations with multiple locations. For instance Questacon has two offices that are ten minutes apart by car, so it saves the time taken for people to get in their car, drive to the other office, park etc. Instead they can use the robot in the other office to move around in that environment and collaborate with whoever they need to. They save ten minutes of employee time and ten minutes worth of greenhouse gases.
Our robots enable people to have a greater level of independence and mobility in their lives, so they can be located anywhere and also be productive wherever the robots are. Our robots are not so much about factory or industrial applications and more about working amongst people.
The first time someone sees a robot it can be a bit novel, but people quickly get used to the robot and it just becomes part of the environment, just another way to communicate and collaborate.
How did you get started in business?
I started my first business, which was a medication reminder service for patients taking prescription medicine, while I was in my first year at university. In my second year at uni I started Robogals to get girls into engineering, by going to schools with robots and teaching girls how to build and program them. I championed that and led it for four and a half years, growing it into a global organisation and now we’ve taught over 67,000 girls around the world and aim to reach 200,000 girls by 2020 and it’s thriving. After I stepped down as the CEO of that I started a robotics company to get robots out in the world helping people, and also started an artificial intelligence company a couple of years ago in order to process images with a local device, without using a cloud server, to recognise and categorise objects in the world.
This application is used in warehouses to check on inventory, and in supermarkets, checking products on shelves. It’s been looked into for kitchen appliances and toys – there are lots of potential uses. It improves efficiency and accuracy for stock management and ordering.
I got into AI and robotics because I thought it was so obvious that this was the future, and this kind of technology was going to exist in our world. I think girls are interested in these technologies but they are a bit intimidated. To get involved you really need to be supported at ground level where when you don’t know anything you have someone to hold your hand and teach you and work on the projects with you to build your knowledge and your confidence.
I remember when I first started I was a bit intimidated but I was curious and that was stronger. I had friends who’d point out how passionate I was about it and they were supportive, too, reminding me that I didn’t have to know everything to start with and I didn’t have to get everything right the first time, I had to just give it a go and ask lots of questions.
I think that’s a big problem with young girls. They want to know and they want to be right. They think they should know more. But when you’re starting something new, even if you’ve done math and science in high school, it doesn’t mean you know how to build robots and you’re going to need a lot of handholding in the beginning.
Have you had a mentor?
I had so many mentors. My housemate built a lot of electronics. We built the first couple of robots together, where I’d be watching him and learning. Then I got another mentor, Dianne, who taught me how to make drawings properly and manufacture things properly and how to think about a big project, how to tackle one thing at a time. I still get mentored by people from Google robotics, and I ask lots of questions. They have more knowledge and more experience than me and it means I can learn more quickly, learn from their mistakes rather than repeating them.
I actually learned a lot of the robot-building stuff after I left Robogals, like learning about producing robots for mass production. I mentor now and pass it forward. I mentor the people in my team, and we take on interns from universities around Australia. I teach them how to build and manufacture from the ground up.
You’ve started more than one business – what’s your advice to others?
I’ve founded four businesses and three of those are still running. I think it’s important if you’re starting a business to think about what you’re interested in and do something around that. Choose something that you know how to do, not too outside your comfort zone. Think of elements that you already know how to do and start out with the simplest version of it, and then build complication on top of that.
People are sometimes too intimidated to start. They are afraid of not knowing enough, not being perfect. Particularly in Australia, there is a lot of stigma around failure and if you want to get a start in engineering or in business you have to overcome that. In the US, for instance there’s much more acceptance of it and failure is seen more positively.
It’s almost inevitable that you are going to meet failure while innovating. If you’re working on something very new there has to be that process of learning what doesn’t work. If you’re going to succeed in anything you have to start, and to do that you have to get past fear of failure.
The Australian Chamber is Australia’s largest and most representative business association, comprising of state and territory chambers of commerce and National Industry Associations. Biz Better Together is an Australian Chamber initiative, established with assistance from the Department of Employment under the Productivity Education Training Fund, to engage with business on productivity enhancing tips and tricks.