Behind the scenes of Otherlab & its soft robots, exoskeletons & intestine tanks

In the 1890s, a former gold miner and inventor set up shop in a building on 19th Street in San Francisco to manufacture a next-generation ultra efficient water wheel. Lester Pelton, whose device is called the Pelton water wheel, is now recognized as one of the fathers of hydroelectric power. A little more than 125 years later, engineer and material scientist Saul Griffith has just moved a chunk of his skunkworks operation Otherlab into the same spot in the Mission District of San Francisco, and it’s there he’ll help his team of inventors create new innovations in energy, manufacturing and robotics, that perhaps could some day have the kinds of effects that the Pelton wheel has had on society.

I first heard about Otherlab about four years ago when Griffith told me about his plan to create an independent lab, working with partner James McBride, after speaking at one of Gigaom’s events. Griffith, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner and co-founder of Squid Labs and Makani Power (now owned by Google), has a unique skill for fearlessly charging ahead with new innovations and (sometimes pretty out-there) ideas, whether that’s a pull cord energy generator, a new way to make low cost eye glasses, a high-altitude wind turbine or a cargo-carrying electric bicycle. While there’s been no lack of enthusiasm, at times over the years it’s been a bit unclear where Otherlab and it’s projects are really headed — and what it would take for them to succeed.

Saul Griffith presenting at Otherlab's show and tell day on January 30, 2015.

Saul Griffith presenting at Otherlab’s show and tell day on January 30, 2015.

But at Otherlab’s first show-and-tell event last Friday at their new Mission space — the other Mission building they use nearby is a former pipe organ factory — Griffith showed off some of the best projects that Otherlab has incubated under its roof over the years, including a natural gas fuel tank for vehicles, a DIY milling device, soft robots for factories and a low cost Ironman-style suit for soldiers. Importantly, Griffith also demonstrated a model for how Otherlab projects are developed, are funded by grants at an early stage, and if they show promise can be potentially spun out, enabling outside investors to then get involved.

Those details are the first time I’ve heard a more organized strategy from Otherlab, and it’s one that could both help them attract talent, and help their researchers eventually get their innovations into the commercial sector. It’s also an additional way that Otherlab can keep funding itself and operating beyond government grants — it keeps a small part of their equity and if its spin-outs break out in any way, the lab itself benefits.

Otherlab's soft robots

Otherlab’s soft robots

It’s still hard to define exactly what Otherlab is — it’s obviously not inside a corporate lab (though it works with corporate partners), and it’s not part of a national lab (but it wins government grants). It’s also not really an accelerator like Y Combinator because it’s mostly focused on engineering-based research and development and it doesn’t (at this time) have a firm program start and end date.

Griffith calls Otherlab an “independent research lab” or an “indy lab,” and he tells the audience — which is filled with investors, corporate partners and the media — that Otherlab could be a new model for how research in America is done. “We are arguing that we are at a unique moment to make R&D new again,” said Griffith.

The projects

The Other Machine Company

The Other Machine Company

If the end goal for Otherlab projects is to spin out, raise money, and some day down the road get bought by an even bigger company, then Other Machine Co., is the model for how that could work. The company, led by Danielle Applestone, makes a $2,200 milling machine called the Othermill, and it can make 2D and 3D objects out of wood, metal and plastic. At the event, Applestone described the users of the Othermill as “the Etsy entrepreneur” (it can be used to make circuit boards) and she was kind enough to show me how it works.

The Othermill, a startup spun out of Otherlab.

The Othermill, a startup spun out of Otherlab.

Using free software, she swiftly found me a logo off the Internet (I asked for a Grateful Dead one), she positioned the aluminum dogtag in place, and in a few minutes the Othermill had etched a cool keepsake. It appeared pretty simple to use — a lot easier than many of the 3D printers I’ve observed — and flexible to many materials, designs and sizes.

An etched dogtag created by the Othermill.

An etched dogtag created by the Othermill.

Like many of Otherlabs projects, the Other Machine Company started off with a government grant — this one was from DARPA who wanted to bring a new type of manufacturing to classrooms. In 2013, the team took the project to Kickstarter and raised over $300,000 to ship some of their first orders.

Now Other Machine Company has grown to the point where orders can’t be filled for weeks, and Applestone has asked Griffith for her own shipping and receiving section out of the Mission building. They’re also raising a round of funding, and even as we’re making the dogtag, investors and bankers are asking Applestone for more details of their financing.

A new type of solar tracker

Several of Otherlab’s projects use air compression and actuators to move devices and fabric that traditionally have needed ridged structures and electronics. Sunfolding is a startup, which is still part of Otherlab, that uses compressed air and a coke-bottle style plastic design to create a low cost tracker for a solar panel or a solar mirror.

Sunfolding's CEO and founder Leila Madrone. Sunfolding is an Otherlab company.

Sunfolding’s CEO and founder Leila Madrone. Sunfolding is an Otherlab company.

While we wrote about their idea in 2012, at Otherlab’s event last week, Sunfolding CEO and founder Leila Madrone said the startup is focused on making a tracker specifically for solar panels that can reduce the cost of the tracker by 50 percent below what is currently out there on the market. Madrone said Sunfolding is using a grant from the California Energy Commission to build a 300 kw pilot solar field using its trackers in Davis, California, this year. It also has a grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E early stage, high risk, energy program.

Other Labs' solar mirrors

A natural gas fuel tank shaped like an intestine

Another Otherlab project that’s focused on energy is the natural gas vehicle fuel tank project. The team at Otherlab, using another ARPA-E grant (2012), has been working on this for awhile now, too, but at the Otherlab event this project had moved along enough for it to get it’s own name: Volute. Volute created a design for a fuel tank for a vehicle that holds natural gas that is long and skinny (shaped like an intestine) so it can hold more volume and enable car designers to create more flexible car designs.

Volute, an Otherlab company, makes a natural gas vehicle engine shaped like an intestine.

Volute, an Otherlab company, makes a natural gas vehicle engine shaped like an intestine.

The team is currently testing braided carbon fiber engine links, and next up they get to light them on fire and shoot them with bullets. The biggest hurdle for getting a new natural gas storage tank design to market is passing safety standards, so that’s what Volute is currently heads down focused on now.

In addition to Sunfolding and Volute, Otherlab still houses old-school energy software innovators Wattzon, which was once Griffith’s personal energy tracking project, but has now become a commercial energy data company that white labels energy efficiency software for organizations and cities.

Soft robots & soft exoskeletons

Like how Sunfolding is using air compression and plastic to make low cost solar trackers, two of Otherlab’s companies are using air compression and actuators to build new types of low cost soft exoskeletons and low cost soft robots.

Pneubotics is a startup within Otherlab that is making a new class of robots that use pressurized skins (using air or water) and no metal. The movie Big Hero 6, which features an inflatable robot that saves the world, was based on work coming out of Pneubotics, said the company’s CEO Kevin Albert at Otherlab’s show-and-tell day.

Otherlab Pneubotics and Orthotics

Soft, flexible, safe, light weight, and low cost robots used in industrial environments could be a game changer for factories or industrial sites where humans and robots need to engage together. Imagine a soft robot hand that can hold up something for a worker to build on, and then swiftly turn it over for the worker to complete the other side. Or a robotic lifter that a human can interact with closely and can help them lift five times what they normally can, but without using a metal vehicle lift.

Those types of devices could even be worn on the body. Otherlab Orthotics was originally created with a grant from DARPA using the soft systems and actuators work to create essentially the Ironman suit, or what has been called the ultimate soldier suit. But beyond helping an army on the battle field, Otherlab Orthotics could find more mainstream applications in fields like helping workers lift boxes on factory floors or aiding the elderly and disabled to stand, walk and complete tasks.

The future of Otherlab

At the end of the day, how successful Otherlab will be depends on the strength of the projects it incubates and the companies it spins out, as well as how well it can recruit the best and brightest Ph.D’s, engineers, researchers and scientists around the world. A big part of the recruiting process is being able to work in the messy, inspiring and stimulating environment that is Otherlab, and collaborating with the messy, inspiring and stimulating mentor that is Saul Griffith. But I can also picture that that type of environment has significant turn over, too, as it can be grueling and disorganized.

But props should be given to Griffith — and his partners — for getting Otherlab to the point where it is today: a little bit more grown up and a little more economically attractive to the investing community. At the show-and-tell event on Friday, the who’s who of Silicon Valley’s investment community walked around the room checking out the demos and playing with the orthotics and robots.

Many Silicon Valley investors are now looking for the “next thing” beyond software and computing, and Otherlab presents an entirely new way to cultivate hardcore engineering innovations. While the Valley hasn’t traditionally invested all that well outside of computing (like the hardships in cleantech), perhaps Otherlab has arrived at the right time and in the right place to be able to leverage the Valley to produce a new form of R&D.

Updated at 7:00 est on February 2 to correct that the natural gas vehicle project is focused on a fuel storage tank not on the engine.

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