In a recent episode of the Dealmakers’ Podcast, Daniel Theobald, the visionary entrepreneur and founder of Vecna Robotics and Mekable, shared his remarkable journey from growing up in Silicon Valley to pioneering autonomous forklifts and revolutionizing the robotics industry.
His venture, Vecna Robotics has acquired funding from top-tier investors like Blackhorn Ventures, Tectonic Ventures, Drive Capital, and Highland Capital Partners.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Embracing your unique background and experiences as a source of innovation.
- Prioritizing education and exposure to diverse experiences to fuel your entrepreneurial journey.
- Not being afraid to strike out on your own and start your entrepreneurial adventure.
- Recognizing that customer success should always take precedence over ego – be willing to “cheat” for success.
- Considering funding carefully, waiting until your product has achieved traction and customers before seeking investment.
- Inspiring yourself with a positive and collaborative team to drive productivity and innovation.
- Passion is the driving force behind innovation – pursue what you’re truly passionate about.
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About Daniel Theobald:
Daniel has decades of experience leading research scientists and teams of engineers in developing cutting-edge robotics technology. He has 67 issued patents and over 30 patents pending.
In 2018, Daniel founded Vecna Robotics, now a global leader in autonomous solutions for the logistics industry. In 2014, he co-founded MassRobotics, a non-profit dedicated to the global advancement of the robotics industry.
He is dedicated to the idea that technology can be used to improve life for everyone on the planet.
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Connect with Daniel Theobald:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a very exciting founder. We’re gonna be talking about building and scaling. He’s done it multiple times and today I think that we’re gonna find in the um, the time with him. You know, very very inspiring. You know. Um, so without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today Daniel Theobad welcome to the show. So originally born in Santa Clara California give us a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up there.
Daniel Theobald: Hey thank you for having me alejandro.
Daniel Theobald: You know it’s fascinating. Um that at the time I totally took it for granted I did not realize how unique of an experience I was having growing up in what eventually became Silicon Valley um you know I got to attend an elementary school that had a computer lab and. You know I didn’t realize it at the time I realize it now that was one of the first elementary schools with the computer lab in the entire world. Um I got to ah, go represent the state of California Lawrence Livermore national lab doing ai back in the eighty s. I got to spend some time with Edward Teller who was um, you know a controversial figure figure who many consider the father of the hydrogen bomb um, and that was a very formative experience for me to just help me understand the importance of um. The work we do as engineers and the impact it can have on society went to mit after that and um, you know that was ah that was a very interesting experience.
Alejandro Cremades: I was the experience of mit you know because I heard also there that you were awarded with the Henry Ford the second you know were there and you were recognized as the top engineer. So why? why? what? What was that experience like yeah.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, well honestly, it didn’t start out that way. Um I like many people was a little bit. Um ah shocked when when I arrived on campus as matter of fact, kind of a funny story I got to campus early because I needed to get a job. Um I couldn’t afford tuition unless I got a job so I figured if I got there early. Um, you know that would give me a leg up and um I got there and then I got the first newspaper the tech um the school newspaper and huge half page headline. It said freshman welcome to hell. Um, and ah, you know it’s it’s a very intense. It’s an ah, an intense environment but um, really fascinating. Um, you know I tell people that you know mit is a great school but it’s really a great school because of the students because of the people you meet and you run into. Lectures they can be okay, um, you know, maybe you’ll learn some things from the from the professors. Um, that research is really interesting but you know the most valuable thing is just the the talent and caliber of people that you run into there is just great.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in your in in your case actually like right after that you know you got your masters too and and then you moved to Washington and you decided to start your first company. So how was I mean typically you know you would see people going into.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, and.
Alejandro Cremades: Working for other companies and doing the whole corporate thing but you went right right into it. You know about ninety nine in in the late 90 s so what made you you know say hey, let’s go I’m just going to do out it go ahead in my on my own.
Daniel Theobald: Um, if.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, it’s a great question and you know actually tell people that um I recommend people spend some time working for other companies first in general. Um, for a number of reasons. But my experience was I actually started I got a job at a company called w three health w three health no longer exists. Um, and um I was a small company a startup and it turned out that um I was kind of winning the work I was kind of doing the work and. 1 point I’m like you know why? Why am I working so hard and creating success for somebody else. Why not do it for myself since I’m sort of doing all these pieces anyway. So I um decided to strike out on my own and I started out as just an independent contractor. Um, because I I wanted to go down a path of bootstrapping the business I knew I needed to make some money first I I didn’t want to have to go straight to investors from day one for a number of reasons we’ll probably talk about later but um I knew I needed some money so I started consulting and. The great thing about consulting is the barrier to entry is very low right? You have a computer you’ve got a brain. You’ve got a good education. You can go help people get some get some work done so um, had a lot of success started growing a team.
Daniel Theobald: And um, you know that’s ah eventually what what turned into ve Technologies a very successful company.
Alejandro Cremades: So Vena Technologies you know you ended up splitting that into 2 and on the healthcare side and then also on the robotic side vecna robotics so tell us about vecna robotics. You know what ended up being becoming vecna robotics.
Daniel Theobald: Um.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, well vecner robotics is the world leader in autonomous forklifts so self-driving forklifts that can operate in a warehouse or a a factory and you know move palettes from point a to point b. Most people don’t realize it but the economy basically runs on palettes. Um, you know you look around the room. Everything you see was probably spent part of its supply chain life on pallets and so it’s just a massive sort of you know behind the scenes need that the industry has. Um, forklifts are dangerous. A lot of people are injured and die every year in forklift accidents. Um, and you know it’s a perfect opportunity for automation so we leaned leaned in on that you know at Vecna Technologies we had developed a lot of robotic technology. We’re at the point where we felt like you know we can actually use this research. We’ve done to solve real problems and so um vena robotics really broke ground in a number of areas. We know we’re very um, forward thinking in how we approach the problem. You know one of the big contributions we made is that at the time most robotics were still very academic. Um you know and anyone can get a robot working in a laboratory environment and show that it can do something once or twice. It’s a completely different ball game to actually scale.
Daniel Theobald: To actually have robots that can operate reliably twenty four seven in the real world provide value and do it for a good ah roi right? That cost benefit thing and so um, one of the things to realize is robots are never going to be perfect right? They’re always going to have problems because it’s. Hard they’re operating in the real world and humans human workers have problems all the time you run into situations. You don’t know how to handle so one of the things that we did that actually I took a lot of slack for it at the beginning was we created this model where for robot gets to a point where it. Doesn’t know what to do it can’t solve a problem on its own it reaches out basically phones home to a human operator who can then basically help the robot. And um, people said oh that’s cheating if your robot was really smart enough. You wouldn’t you wouldn’t need it to be able to you know, get help from a human all this stuff. Um, which was absolutely wrong and everybody’s realized it now. Um, and so that’s what actually made robots. Possible to start scaling and and we see this adoption of robots going ever increasing rate you know they’re going to permeate every every part of the physical economy but you know not really not really going to happen if you.
Daniel Theobald: Can’t create the kind of reliability you need to actually provide return on investment for the customers. So you know I Guess that’s my one first strong piece of advice is cheat. You know if if it’s cheating to have the robot get help from a human um and provide better service for your customers.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah, yeah.
Daniel Theobald: Cheat Do what makes sense for the customer. Don’t don’t have so much ego and pride about you know, doing something right? that you don’t you don’t get get the problem solved and in a way that’s going to actually be economically viable.
Alejandro Cremades: So then what ended up being the business model of a vecna robotics. How were you guys making money there.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, so um, we’re actually 1 of the early um companies in what’s called robotics as a service Ras you’ve probably heard of software as a service um you know software is a service is ah is a darling of investors. They love software as a service. Um because of the you know the ability to scale. Um and in a sense we’re taking that model. It’s not exactly the same thing because there is hardware involved. Um, but if you think about it. There’s also hardware involved with saas right? You need servers to run it on and that type of thing. Um, but the idea is that people are now buying essentially robot work versus robots and so they’ll pay a subscription fee basically to use the autonomous forklifts in their warehouse. Um, you know in a. 3 or a 5 year deal and um and one of the really nice things about it is that there’s a media payback for them. Um, in this industry a lot of times people are very used to buying equipment. So. It’s what you would call a capital expenditure. Bunch of money up front. They buy a new forklift or they buy a new conveyor belt or they buy a new whatever and they spend all that money and then they depreciate it over time. Um, this new model is really powerful for these customers because they can now use their operating budget versus capital budget to.
Daniel Theobald: By the capability of the robotics to help them. Um, you know supercharge the productivity of their workers.
Alejandro Cremades: And for the company you guys have raised a close to 130000000 so how was how has it been the the journey of raisingcing money for a company like this. Okay.
Daniel Theobald: You know it’s an interesting question I’d say and I have mixed feelings about it. You know I I tell people and I told people for years before that that um, raising um. You know, raising money taking money from a Vc is kind of like pressing the self-destruct button on your spaceship. Ah, you have 1 hour after you’ve after you’ve pressed that button to find the alien kill the alien and disable the self-destruct or your company’s kind of getting blown to pieces. And that’s a little bit tongue in cheek. But um, you know the the interesting thing is that um the statistics are pretty clear and Vc funded companies that most of them don’t survive and it’s not necessarily because it wasn’t a good company. A lot of times. It’s because the timing wasn’t right? or. You know more funds weren’t available or um, you know anything like that. So that’s part of the reason why I avoided raising money for so long with vecna technologies because I wanted to be at a point where.
Daniel Theobald: Before I raised money I had a level of confidence that I’d be able to provide the kind of returns to the investors that I would want so when it came time to raise money. Um, we actually did very well because we were able to go and say hey look we’ve built this technology. It’s um, you know it’s achieved a level of product market fit that we think is appropriate. Um, we’ve already got these customers. They’re excited to buy the product. Um, you know it was.
Daniel Theobald: Very different than sort of pitching an idea and starting from scratch. Um, but ultimately we were able to you know, bring in some some real money and grow the team and you know the the rest is kind of history.
Alejandro Cremades: So then in this case for example with vac now robotics now you’re the chairman so tell us about that moment where you step up as the chair and and you decide to bring you know, professional Ceo to um to to operate the business. Okay.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, you know it’s something where I realized ah I’ve got a lot of other things going on. You know we talked about a little bit but you know I founded co-founded an organization called mass robotics for example, that’s having a massive impact on the industry as a whole. Um, I’m very interested in agro robottics and being a Ceo is a you know it’s like 2 full-time jobs um, and it just it’s sort of all consuming. Um and you know that was something that I could continue doing but I felt like I had. Ah, not just the opportunity but the responsibility to kind of step back and and step up to a higher level not just in vecna but in the industry as a whole and contribute in lots of other ways. Um.
Daniel Theobald: And so um, you know, worked with the board we brought in a Ceo um, and been able to spend much more of my time. Um, you know, providing high-level direction to the company but focused on really helping the industry as a whole move forward and. My new company mecable actually is is in some some sense a response to some of the holes I saw in the industry some of the needs I saw in the industry automation is hard. Um. There. There are a lot of challenges particularly new technology like robotics and what I found was many many large customers you know fortune 50 customers know they need to automate the reality is they have to mechanize or or die. They become irrelevant if they don’t mechanize but most of them just don’t know how to do that? Um, they don’t have the in-house expertise they haven’t been down that path and so you know really the whole idea at meckable is help them along that journey. You know it’s kind of like climbing Mountette. Climbing Mount Everest and most people don’t climb Mount Everest without an experienced guide. You know without a sherpa to help help them along the way who have been there before and done done these things again and again know the terrain know the tools know how to do it safely.
Daniel Theobald: You know it’s like a big risk mitigator and that’s kind of what meckable does for companies that need to automate is um, we’re not going to make those mistakes that people who haven’t done it before would and it’s not that they’re not Smart. It’s just they haven’t done it before and it’s complicated Stuff. There’s a lot going On. There’s a lot of. Holes that you can step in.. There’s a lot of um, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors out there right? There’s a lot of companies saying that they can do things or that their technology is at a place where it’s just not yet and so it.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah, absolutely now now in your case you were alluding to it earlier. You’ve been also involved with the non-for profit side of things. You know one is mass robotics The other one is twisted fields.
Daniel Theobald: Then.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about mass robotics and then also twisted fields. Why are they so dear to your heart and why are they going to make such a difference.
Daniel Theobald: Well, you know one of the things that was really unique about vecna technologies originally was that I paid my employees to spend 10% of every work doing community service and you know this was something like Harvard. Business professors Clayton Christianensen um you know the the famed disruptive technology guru um, a friend of mine. You said you know you can’t you can’t do that. You’re gonna you know, give away all your profits some by paying your employees to spend 10 % of the work we doing doing community service and that’s. Makes sense on a spreadsheet That’s what it looks like but actually when it plays out. Um there’s actually a really really so powerful. Return there just in terms of the esprita core and all that so through that experience of giving back and providing this community service benefit to my employees. I realized that? um, ah, um, the industry really needed some help sort of breaking out of its infancy and that there was a gap that needed to be filled in terms of helping companies helping these new robotics companies.
Daniel Theobald: Ah, grow survive and grow and so I actually used my community service time along with some of my colleagues at vecna technologies um, and we brought in others from the community to co-found um mass robotics and Masterboxs has just been a phenomenal success. Helping to um, really encourage the mass adoption hence the name of robotics worldwide. Um, there are 3 main missions there one is to provide resources to new entrepreneurs who are trying to start up companies in the ai.
Daniel Theobald: Um, connected devices robotic space. Um, and so there’s co-working spaces. There’s experts. There’s access to machine shops and technologies. Ah, the second is to really encourage stem education so getting. Um, we’re putting programs in place for. Ah, middle schoolers high schoolers to have access to um, ah, really exciting projects in robotics that inspires them and some of the results of that have just been absolutely amazing and then the third is to help solve. Um, ah. Other problems that are holding the industry back Hence why we’ve started um, creating industry standards like the mass Robotics Interoperability Standard which is basically about how robots from different companies can share the same space and and coexist and and work together. Um, so it’s really about just trying to solve um problems that the industry was facing that no individual. You know, existing For-profit organization could could really do and the government wasn’t doing it. Um. And so it really felt an important need. Yeah so twisted Fields is just kind of ah um I Guess a passion project in a sense. Um I.
Alejandro Cremades: And why agriculture you know with twisted fields. So.
Daniel Theobald: During my robotics early robotics research in Vecna Technologies I did a lot of Ag Research worked on some Usda grants and projects and I was out in California visiting some of my collaborators at you see Davis and um and decided to look at properties. Um. Because I wanted to um, you know have a research facility for agriculture that um allowed me to test this technology in in a real world environment and I found this just absolutely phenomenal. Beautiful property called rancho san gregorio um little hidden away place on the coast. Um, very close to um Sand Hill Road palo alto area. Um, but basically if you take sandhiel road and you drive to the beach. My ranch is is right? there.
Daniel Theobald: But the whole reason I got it was to enable ag to start to take advantage of a lot of the robotics technology that we’d created in the warehousing and and manufacturing industries because Ag is in desperate need of of help. You know there’s. Big, big big problems in our food systems. Um labor is a huge one. Um, you know most people don’t want to acknowledge that almost all of our food is grown by people who technically should not be here. Um, you know sometimes people call them illegal sometimes people call them undocumented but um ah you know wherever you stand and in in the um in the political issues. The end of the day everybody has to acknowledge. There’s a problem here. And 1 of the solutions to that problem is making farmers more productive making workers more productive um solving some of these labor issues and so what we’ve done is we’ve built and built an open source robotics platform that anybody worldwide can download the plans for can build. Both the software and the hardware is open source and the idea is to kind of make it a you know sort of Iphone if you will of agriculture where someone can come along and build their own app on this robot to solve a problem that you know they are having um, that’s unique to them.
Daniel Theobald: 1 of the challenges in agriculture is every farm is different. Um and you know there’s some commonality but um, you know our thought was to really empower the farmers and other companies to solve local problems with technology without having to start from scratch.
Alejandro Cremades: So then so then in this case, you know I guess going back to meckable if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of meable is fully realized you know your current company that you are pushing. You know on the for-profit side on things you know and. You wake up in a world where the vision is fully realized what does that world look like.
Daniel Theobald: Um, yeah so um, meckable I would say is really about um, risk reduction in adoption of automation. So. Right now in the world. Most automation projects are unsuccessful. Um, it’s you know, sort of 1 of those things that is a real problem. People will say oh we need robots. Let’s go buy some robots they do a Google Google search. They find a company that sells robots they look at a few and you know and it all looks great and they you know, bring in this technology and more than half of the time again depending whose numbers. You believe you know it’s up to 80% of the time the projects fail. Um. Pending how you define fail sometimes it’s you know more 50% but everybody I think ah tends to agree that 50% of the time. Um these automation projects end up failing. Um, so in in the future world. This won’t be the case. Um, we are going to help our customers understand how to automate how to make those buying decisions in a way that um produces the kind of ah roi the kind of return on investment that they’re looking for.
Daniel Theobald: Um, because nobody’s career is enhanced by a failed project and um, you know that sets everybody back. Um and technology automation mechanization. These are inevitable things Now if you don’t mechanize, you’re going to become irrelevant. Um, and so you know there’s probably nothing more important than figuring out how to modernize your your business operations. Um, but again people can’t do it without help because um, you know it’s It’s all New. They haven’t they haven’t developed those skills yet.
Alejandro Cremades: So Now you’ve been you know for for quite a while you know, pushing your own Ventures. You know whether on the for profit side or on the non-for profit Side. So I Guess if I was to give you the opportunity of going back in Time. You know going back in time to that moment where you were still at mit you know, perhaps you know like you know law So like 20 years you know ago and I give you the opportunity of having a chat with your younger self without younger than you and you have the opportunity of giving.
Daniel Theobald: Um, money him.
Alejandro Cremades: That younger Daniel one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Daniel Theobald: Well, you know I would say probably the number one piece of advice is follow your gut. There were numerous times when I let perhaps less inspired people talk me out of things. Because it wasn’t the right way to do something and um, in retrospect had I gone for it in a number of cases. Um, you know it would have been really amazing. Um, so that’s a big one. Ah, follow your gut. You got to do something that you’re passionate about I spent honestly I spent way too long working on Healthcare technology and Healthcare care is great. Um, it’s important. Um, and you know I was able to to um, make some passion for it. But ultimately it wasn’t what I was passionate about. It was a way to make some money and so you got to do what you’re passionate about because if you’re not passionate about it If You’re not truly excited about the thing not just that the thing is going to make you money if you’re not truly excited about the thing then your brain isn’t fully engaged in it. You want your subconscious brain working on this problem when you’re asleep when you’re in the shower when you know you’re on vacation. Um, and this is how you then have the brilliant ideas that break new ground that change the world. It all comes from Interest. It all comes from passion so you got to do things that you’re passionate about.
Daniel Theobald: Um, the 1 other thing that I struggled with a lot early on that I found is very common as I talked to other founders or near people starting businesses is um, you really you really need to be careful who you choose to be on your team and um, perhaps more importantly. Is when somebody’s not working out. You let them go fast. You’ve helped them to be productive. You help them to be successful at another business. There are way too many times when I spent a lot of emotional energy. Um, a lot of my team’s time sort of dealing with. Um, dealing with the nonproductive or or negative member of the team that really dragged the business down. Um, so you know I eventually developed this no assholes rule I don’t know if I can say that on your podcast but you know the no assholes rule became very very important to me if if 1 of. Ah, one of my employees 1 of the one of my coworkers was making life unpleasant for their coworkers I didn’t care how smart they thought they were how critical they were to the project they had to go because um. The type of things we were able to accomplish because we had such such great um esprit de core. You know our our team they were just there for each other and worked hard and and when somebody came in who was like negative and complaining and trying to create problems. It just.
Daniel Theobald: Ruins productivity. So I’d say that it’s like a 10 x right? if you have if you can get rid of that negativity if there’s people who are pulling the rest of the team down. Um you get rid of them. You can get a 10 x improvement and I should probably put that in the positive of course saying. When you have a team that’s truly working together and trusts each other the things that you can get done just eclipse. Um, you know what they are if you’re if you’re struggling with those type of problems. So yeah, you.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it. I love it. You know, ah, the know they you know you’ve said it. You know it’s all about people you know do and and how you invest in people you know you were talking about that. Do you know the difference that you make in others and then you know certain the you know like very very profound. You know everything that you’ve shared. In that regard today with all of us Daniel so I guess for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Daniel Theobald: Yeah, ah you can reach out to me on Linkedin. Um, or you know happy to have people even send me an email the o t h e o at mechabo.commekable.com that works well as well. You know and I would encourage people to reach out. Um and ask for help I’m happy to help people and I ask people for help all the time I feel like a lot of times in business. We have sort of this competitive mentality. Um, and ah, you know in this new industry of robotics at least. The growth opportunity. It’s it’s billions of times what it is right now. Um, it’s going to affect everything and there’s more than enough for all of us and we’re going to be. We’re going to each individually be much more successful if we reach out if we help each other if we collaborate. There’s an important concept I call pre-competitive collaboration. It makes all the difference in the world. So reach out, ask people for help I can’t tell you how many times I talked to young entrepreneurs who um, haven’t bothered to like call somebody who knows so much. About their particular area because they feel like they’re a competitor or something um talk to people. We’ve got this amazing thing called the internet you can like email people you can text people like it’s so easy to do so I think entrepreneurs should really take advantage of that.
Alejandro Cremades: I love that well Daniel thank you so much for being on the deal maker show. It has been an honor to have you with us today.
Daniel Theobald: My pleasure. Thank you appreciate it.
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