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Company in the Spotlight: At Mobot Inc., creativity -- not a dress code -- rules

Sunday, February 27, 2000

By Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You won't catch the engineers who work at Mobot Inc. wearing suits. Most days, they don't even wear shoes. After all, these guys are charged with giving robots personalities. They're not about to stifle their own.

  Keeping it casual are, center, Robot personality engineer Thomas Willeke; left, company President Carolyn O'Brien; robot control engineer Vinton Coffman, robot autonomy engineer Clay Kunz and robot reliability engineer Iacovos Koumas. (Robert J. Pavuchak/Post-Gazette)

So robot personality engineer Thomas Willeke wears sandals, even in the winter. He leaves his weights at work, along with a towel if he wants to shower after biking to the Strip District office. He and Clay Kunz, Mobot's robot autonomy engineer, wear hair halfway down their backs. And, Willeke says, he wouldn't work for anyone who asked him to cut it.

They needn't worry about robot controls engineer Vinton Paul Coffman III out-dressing them -- he rides his motorcycle to work. And Iacovos Koumas, Mobot's robot reliability engineer, also favors jeans.

After all, who wants to worry about pant creases when you work in a converted garage and your most popular product likes to hang out in a tank with huge hissing cockroaches?

Only Carolyn O'Brien, Mobot's president and CEO, occasionally sports corporate garb. As the self-described "marketing lady" for the company, O'Brien spends much of her time pitching the $15,000 BugBot to museum managers, toy company executives and others in the corporate world.

Bugbot, which looks like a video game attached to a terrarium, is a robotic camera that lets children explore insects up close. They use a joystick to navigate inside the terrarium, and Bugbot's pictures appear on a TV screen. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Science Center of West Virginia all own BugBots.

But O'Brien sees BugBot as more than a roving roach camera. "We think Bugbot has a great future -- not only as a museum exhibit, but in the toy market."

Mobot Inc.

Business: Puts artificial intelligence into robots used for education and entertainment.

Headquarters: 2425 Liberty Ave.

History: Employees: 5

Web site:


That's good news for moms who might not be game for a tank of hissing roaches in the playroom. (Though, O'Brien notes, you can buy the Madagascar roaches online for $1 each.) Bugbot can explore aquariums, rock formations or even mom's jewelry collection.

"The concept of using cameras to check out miniature worlds is huge," says O'Brien, who recently returned from Toy Fair 2000, an exhibition of new products sponsored by the New York-based International Toy Center. Mobot is talking to a toy manufacturer about selling BugBot, but O'Brien won't reveal details until the deal is final.

Mobot was spun off from RedZone Robotics in 1998 and leases space in RedZone's warehouse-sized building. RedZone is a major shareholder of Mobot stock, as is the Carnegie Institute.

Yet, Mobot doesn't think of itself as a robotics company. It is, its staff says, a team creating intelligence for machines. Or, as Willeke calls it, a team of "brain engineers."

Willeke, Kunz and Koumas met while studying at Stanford's master's program in robotics. They moved to Pittsburgh to work with Mobot chief scientist Illah Nourbakhsh, whom they met at Stanford. Nourbakhsh is now a Carnegie Mellon University professor.

Kunz worked for Silicon Graphics before coming to Mobot, and he still misses California -- especially the snowboarding. But he and Willeke found little in the way of robot opportunities out West, and they didn't want to do anything else.

"I would love to be the company that makes robotics into a reality," Willeke said. "I'll work as hard as I can to make that happen."

Working hard means unconventional hours for O'Brien, a 34-year-old single mother of two, and her staff of Generation X scientists. When working on a project deadline, the Mobot staff can stay in the office until 1 a.m.

But then there are the play days, when the staff takes weekend snowboarding trips or spontaneous vacations.

Last November, on a rare, beautiful day, O'Brien declared a mental health day at lunchtime and took the staff to Moraine State Park in Butler County, where they went sailing on Lake Arthur. And they didn't have to worry about punching out a time card or making up the time -- O'Brien isn't that kind of boss.

"I don't want to hire people that I have to manage. I don't want them."

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