I firmly believe in the future development of robots for commercial use. In a common American convenience store, an employee’s annual average salary is 38,900 USD and they work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. This type of convenience store is open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and if you include insurance and vacation expenses, the labor cost reaches 70,000-80,000 USD per year. The cost for renting a robot for a year, on the other hand, is only 1/4 to 1/5 of an employee’s salary. Currently, a robot working around the clock can already replace the cashier and customer representatives, the function of, only the function of refilling the inventory on the shelf is not ready yet. In America, we have about 21 million kinds of assistant jobs. Linyong (Leo) Pang, a three-time startup entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, said, “In 5-10 years, the robot market will grow as the automobile market had, and will eventually enter every company and household.”
Today, let us set aside the dull business rules and walk into the life of a two decade dream-building, hectic cross continent traveling, three times stressful startup experiences, bumpy rides and rising from the ashes’ glory life of a serial entrepreneur.
At the end of March, 2015, three-time entrepreneur Leo Pang suddenly had an idea of writing a humorous article, called MYNT Smart Chastity Underwear, received German Red Dot Design Award and posted it among friend’s chat group on April Fool’s day.
At the time, he just wanted to amuse the crowd, but what he has not foreseen was how people believed it and came to ask him when this product will be released. After all, the German Red Dot Award is the most prestigious and competitive award in Industrial Design. As an entrepreneur for decades, he never thought that his joke could attract so much attention. In fact, prior to then, the first product of MYNT Smart Tracker, an anti-loss device, had already accumulated 390,000 RMB on a Chinese crowdfunding platform called Demo Hour, exceeding the target amount by more than 30 times, and had become one of the eight most popular funding projects on the platform. This was just nine months after the start of his third entrepreneurial venture.
A year later, on an April morning in 2016, Leo Pang received a voice message from his Chinese partner when he woke from his sleep. “Hurry! Check your email. Looks like our MYNT Smart Tracker has really received the Red Dot Award!”
Climbing out of his bed to open the email, there in clear sight was the subject “You have won Red Dot Design Award”, the design industry equivalent to an Oscar Award.
This is one of the most coincidental and exciting moment in his many years of entrepreneurship, and it is also the greatest praise as a startup. Behind this seemingly simple story is the result of more than twenty years of volatility and struggle, an entrepreneur’s life from valley to peak.
Stanford and His First Defeat In Life
When Leo Pang first arrived at Stanford to study for his doctorate degree in 1994, he didn’t have the slightest feeling that his name would be one day associated with the word “startup,” which sounds so cool and stylish.
At the time, Kevin Kelly just published his new book Out of Control; Jerry Yang and Ferrero got addicted to with the internet due to their doctoral thesis; Jack Ma registered his first translation company in Hangzhou industrial and commercial bureau; Zhang Xiao Long received his master’s degree from China University of Science and Technology; Chen Tian Qiao just graduated with his economics bachelor’s degree at Fudan University;
Graduating a year earlier with Masters from The University of Science and Technology of China and with full scholarship at Stanford, Leo Pang experienced his first Waterloo in life. Having gone through Chinese style education since the start, he was stunned by the PhD Qualification – It was an oral examination and all the questions asked by the professors were open ended questions, his past study methods were obsolete. What Stanford seeks is for students to “really understand,” so that your thinking will be deeper and broader strategically since there is no “standard answer” to many questions.
He experienced failure for the first time in life. Pressures followed one after the other: In the American doctoral examination system, everyone only has two chances. For a Chinese student with only 200 USD in his pocket when arrived America, he faced the risk of his scholarship being cutoff.
Under huge pressure, he started to try out different methods crazily, day in and day out, sometimes even pulling all-nighters.
One day his doctorate mentor told him, “It’s not a big deal, because when you get your PhD, nobody will remember you failed the first qualify.” He was suddenly enlightened because for an entrepreneur, every obstacle at hand is just temporary.
It reminded him of his high school airplane model competition: molding the form, crafting the motor, and shaping the final model, he persevered though many challenges at each stage, but when the airplane model flew successfully into the sky, the parade of trial and error, becomes history.
When he took the Qualify exam for the second time, he passed it with ease.
With the benefit of past experiences broadening his knowledge and wisdom, Leo Pang, already working toward his doctorate in mechanical engineering, started working toward a Masters’ in Computer Vision at Stanford’s Computer Science department. He also participated in volunteering at the student union and served as president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Stanford (ACSSS).
At the end, he completed his education earlier to experience the world and test his wits in the corporate world.
No Turning Back: The Significance Of The Trend
In 1999, a year after Leo Pang joined Acuson, America’s largest ultrasound medical equipment company, Leo found himself faced with the most important decision in his life.
At the time, having obtained both doctorate degree in mechanical engineering and a master degree in computer science in four years, Leo Pang had already applied for 14 patents for Acuson’s R&D department, and produced two profitable products as a pioneer in the use of GPU acceleration.In Silicon Valley, Doctorate Degree in hand, most career aspirants tend to target a position in a well established company. Such an environment represents the equivalent of a good state or federal position: job security and a clear, predictable future.
On the other hand, a fast a fast growing semi-conductor startup started by Stanford alumni called Numerical Technologies urgently needed to recruit talent specialized in computer vision, image processing, simulation and computer science. With appreciation and recognition of Leo’s talents, Jun Ling (Brain) Li, who later became the senior executive of Alibaba group, succeeded in persuading Leo to join their company.
Nonetheless, the real reason for his decision to join was due to his eye-opening talk with Dr. Buno, the CEO of Numerical during a summer in their Silicon Valley office near First Street in San Jose.
What moved him was the Buno’s determination to influence the world and make history. Buno sees the semiconductor as a technology that can change the world. It is the first exponential growth process in human history, far different from automobiles, airplanes or missiles’ linear development. The application of Moor’s Law to the semiconductor industry shows that, given the same cost of production, processing speed will double every two years. This dynamic aligns with the central theme of the semiconductor industry core technology, as well as that of the Internet and computer industry at large. On the basis of this dynamic, we will change the world.
“Join us!” said the CEO of Numerical Technologies to Leo Pang, who came from a big organization as compared to only 60 people at the startup then, “people can’t imagine the development of this industry in 10 years. Let’s make history together.”
From the conversation, the word that influenced him the most was “trend.”
Though he did not realize it initially, he quickly discovered no matter how hard-working and talented you are, ‘trend’ cannot be changed. Even if you possess great technology, if you do not follow the trend, then it is hard to accomplish any mission.
As such, he decided to join Numerical Technologies, perhaps influenced by classmates who were joining Yahoo and other startups, or maybe it was due to the realistic stories of making a fortune overnight during the internet bubble era, what he truly felt was the impulse of “going with the flow.”
Once he joined, Numerical Technologies had started its rapid expansion, and shortly thereafter, the the company went public on NASDAQ with a valuation of $2 billion USD, truly a unicorn at that time. During this time, Leo Pang was the manager for engineering and was responsible for one of three core products. Moreover, out of his love for creativity, he received patent rewards numerous times.
That is until his first entrepreneurial venture in life.
The Most Helpless Moment In Life: Rising From The Ashes
Let’s go back in time to Shanghai in 2002: it was Leo Pang’s most helpless moment in life.
This time around, wanting to prove himself, he started a new venture with his Stanford CS classmate. Abiding by what they knew best, to ride the trend, they chose the Internet gaming industry as its launch. The two of them had met an investor in Silicon Valley who was really interested in them and signed their Term Sheet. The investor promised that once they quit their jobs and return to China to set up the startup, the financing would be secured. Determined to start his own business, Leo Pang quit his job and returned to China without a second thought.
It sounds like a story with a bright future, starting a company and bringing it to IPO with a close friend: a continuation of the legendary stories of Pony Ma and Tony Zhang of Tencent, as well as Jack Ma and the fabulous 18 entrepreneurs. Their chivalrous spirit inspired the name of their Internet game, The World of the Knights, they were hoping to write their own legend bridging the chivalrous world and the real world.
However, reality often turns out more adventurous than the story. After they returned to China, NASDAQ crashed, the investors stood on the sideline, and the local government support was limited. Leo Pang and his partner, who had given up their highly-rewarding stock options, didn’t know what to say.
The Sky Has Really Fallen
In 2017, when Leo Pang reviewed his first startup’s gains and losses, he reflected upon himself the insufficient preparations. Perhaps he was too confident in his abilities, or that of other’s and oversimplified the matters.
If the current Leo Pang returned in time to the year 2002, he’d be sure to persuade his impulsive younger self to accumulate real business experience because like other failed Silicon Valley startups, his great strength in technology and products was trumped by his ignorance of marketing, sales, and financing.
Although there is no medicine to cure regrets in the world, Leo Pang states he has never regretted.
“I do not regret, instead I think the failure in 2002 was a great experience. Once I decide to do something, I will be determined to complete it. After my doctorate degree from Stanford, I had a few different options. If I went to Sony Play Station Division in Silicon Valley, then the rest of my life will be in the gaming industry. If I stayed at Acucson, then I was in the medical imaging industry. There are so many things that at the time you probably think is not an important choice, but could turn out to be a life changing decision.
What really changed Leo Pang’s life was his determination to become the expert in marketing and sales. He returned to Numerical Technologies and became responsible for these two fields for the product he used to lead for development, actively developing skills and plans for his future startup.
A year later, Numerical Technologies was acquired by Synopsis.
Startup, Second Time Around: A Dream That Spanned A Decade
Synopsis is now the world’s largest electronic Design Automation (EDA) provider. Its R&D products are mainly used in integrated circuit, including logic synthesis, physical synthesis, hardware description language simulator and transistor grade circuit simulator in order to help chip and computer system’s logic design as well as operation and debugging environment.
For most, being part of the management team of a startup and later acquired by a big company is a dream beyond reach. This unique uprising path can help the person accelerate the time to obtain financial freedom and to have an enviable salary and position in a big company.
However, a year later, Leo Pang left and took a shot at his second startup.
What made him decide to start again was his entrepreneurial heart awakened by his years at Stanford, in addition to his love of building something from scratch. This time, he joined a group of Stanford alumni and UCLA professors, utilizing super computing and computer vision to help with semiconductor production and testing with additional responsibility for all product marketing and, eventually, also sales.
He never thought that his second startup experience would span a decade.
10 years, how many youngsters turned masters and how many wrinkles crawled on a beauty’s face.
During these ten years, he experienced the first five years of accumulating the technologies, had an amazing product launch with six top customers and partners all on board to endorse his product release, felt like he was walking on water as the general manager responsible for business expansion in China, survived the undercurrent during the financial crisis in 2009, gone through three leadership changes, and dealt with all the problems that a startup could face competing against large corporations.
Leo Pang clearly remembers when the CEO gathered the management team during the difficult time to buy the stock options in order to raise enough money to pay the employee salary next day. In the startup world of Silicon Valley, this is a surprising situation, yet common to many.
At the time, he could work for almost any semiconductor and EDA company, why did he insist on the path of a startup?
“I really want to see the company through to the finish line. It may not be an IPO, but at least I believe it could be acquired. I believed one has to finish what one started. I joined this company since the beginning, and no matter if others choose to leave or not, I felt I should be responsible to our investors. They trusted me, therefore, regardless of the difficulty, I have to stand by it. Unless we close our doors, then I am out of luck.”
Leo Pang’s feeling of insisting on a long term goal is very much like the airplane model competition when he was little and also similar to his expertise in long-distance running. He believes that the most important factor of success is endure and stick to it ‘til the end.
In 2012, part of Leo Pang’s company, Luminescent, was bought by Synopsys, and finally in March of 2014, KLA-Tencor acquired the rest of the company. Leo Pang’s perseverance was ultimately rewarded.
Soon after, Leo Pang started his third startup business.
The idea was inspired by a trip to China when Leo Pang lost his cell phone on the high-speed train. He recognized the opportunity immediately, the loss prevention market is huge,, from wallet to keys, from to luggage to umbrellas… from the point of view of Moor’s Law, when the hardware cost is lowered to a certain level, all products are able to have an anti-loss device. Regarding the technology aspect, the power supply and transmittal problem in the industry was supplemented by the uprising low energy consumption of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 4.0. With this new low power consumption technology, it is possible to use a battery as small as the size of a button to operate the anti-loss device for a whole year.
Pretty soon, Slightech produced its first product: MYNT Smart Tracker —the thinnest anti-loss device in the market and it can be kept in the wallet. The size is only about two coins placed side by side.
This was the subject of the story since the beginning.
Leo Pang thinks that smart hardware is the popular trend of recent years. From a macro view of the industry, semiconductor chips have already reached a very low price and possess an extremely strong ability to resolve the processing speed. The ubiquitous use of smart phones and APP reduced the design complexity of smart hardware. All interacting functions are made possible by the smart phone and the APP, which dramatically lowered the cost of the hardware and transformed the hardware design concept.
Currently, the cash flow of Slightech mainly comes from MYNT tracker, which won both the Red Dot Award from Germany and the iF Design Award. The future of Slightech, on the other hand, will be betting on computer vision and its application in the service robot market and autonomous driving.
Choosing to make robots stemmed from his childhood dream as well as from the angel investor of Slightech, Yang Ning. With the combined backgrounds of mechanical engineering, image identification, computer vision, optical enhancement and metrology and semiconductor, Leo Pang is the obvious expert to choose this field. After studying all the potential developments of smart hardware, the Slightech team could not have agreed more with this idea.
What opportunities were there for the robot market in 2015?
The most important part in a robot is voice interaction, which has many years of research by Iflytek, Baidu and Google. The mechanical part has been researched extensively for decades by Japan, which means further breakthroughs in the degrees of freedom of mechanism and the degree of fineness will be difficult. Screen and other parts are fully equipped with facial and voice recognition technology also at a relatively matured stage. If there is any chance for Slightech to accelerate and overtake the robotic industry, it would be to use Leo Pang’s expertise in computer vision and optical metrology method for the R&D of Simultaneous Localization and Area Mapping (SLAM) technology.
Regarding this technology, Leo Pang gave an example by of the sweeping robot, “a sweeping robot’s 2D SLAM is fundamentally different from a service robot’s 3D vision. A service robot is relatively tall, and it requires the 3D perception of the environment. In addition, a service robot’s reaction of bumping into a wall and bumping into a person should be completely different. When they hit a wall, they should walk around it, when they hit a person, they should talk to that person.”
This integrated technology that allows robots to move freely and recognize objects inside the house is rare even in Silicon Valley.
This technology is derived from the research that Leo Pang had done at his university in China as well as Stanford on optical metrology and stereo camera. The patent they filed solved the problem of vision based SLAM’s difficulty when running into a white wall and a glass window. This breakthrough made it possible for a MYNT robot that can help at trade shows, shopping malls, airport, museums, walk around freely, provide information and usher visitors, take them from one place to another, as well as many other functions. Slightech benefits from an elite team consisting of US Academia Berkley professor Eli, along with the previous key employees from Baidu, Alibaba, Amazon, Samsung, Motorola, and Nokia. Slightech also received funding in 2015 and 2016 respectively from Zhenfund and Chengwei Capital.
As for the future of commercial robots, this serial entrepreneur who believes in riding the trend said, “I firmly believe in the development of commercial robots. In an average convenience store in America, the yearly average salary of an employee is 38,900 USD, and they work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. This kind of convenience store is open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, including insurance and vacation, the annual cost amounts to 70,000 to 80,000 US dollars. On the other hand, the annual rent for a robot is only 1/4 to 1/5 of an employee’s salary. Currently, a robot that works 24-hours can already replace the cashier and customer representative jobs, the function of, only the function of refilling the inventory on the self is not ready yet. In America, we have 2,100 kinds of assistant positions.” – Looks like a robot that only costs a few thousand dollars is enough for the job.
Having been in the semiconductor industry for so many years, Leo Pang trusts that he can foresee where the technology would be in 5 years.
In the present day, a one or two dollar chip’s computing power could already match the America’s popular Pentium PC of the 90s; smart hardware has built a solid foundation. The two great trends of ‘internet of things’ and of artificial intelligence plus the increasing computing power of the GPU have made it possible to proactively combine chips and machines. The application of deep learning marks the beginning of a commercial robot’s complete study of human habits to provide intelligent service.
There is a progressively strong voice in Leo Pang’s mind: in 5-10 years, the robot industry will welcome a bright future which is not less than that of the automobile industry.
The Ultimate Future
Sometimes when Leo Pang looks back, he imagines if he had chosen a different path. He jokingly said that the only thing he cherished was when his company was acquired by KLA and if he had stayed, he would be flying business class. That is the best gift given now he flies every month between China and the US, as well as numerous domestic flights.
Besides that, he has no nostalgia. he ponders most is the question: “What is the future for human being?”
If 10 years later, robots become ubiquitous and they are combined with AI (artificial intelligence), will they replace humans?
Leo Pang, who loves science fiction novels, thinks that perhaps the form of human society will be fundamentally changed, turning into a “short of oxygen” society, meaning most people do not need to do anything, or only do the things they like to do, then supplies, food, and money will be provided by the society.
Leo Pang has always been meditating on the origin of human beings. It is hard for him to believe that humans are evolved from inorganic substance. Or, perhaps we may be just a game played for the amusement of aliens. Similar to the airplane modeling competition when he was little, the aliens may be in a robot building contest. Everyone builds a different robot and puts them on earth to compete, leaving it to survival of the fittest. Then after a while, they will return to see the results.
How is this wild imagination different from what he is working on now? In the startup world, the things they are working on are the same on a certain level to the creation of new species.
In fact, the service robot is a new species, and it will either exist as an individual robot or transform into a condition of machine and human coexistence.
“I think our generation may be able to witness that mankind could be immortal, using some equipment to transfer our brain awareness and thoughts to machines, so that these machines could replace our bodies. Finally, we merge together to become immortal. I am kind of curious and expecting this future to come.”
This may be mankind’s wildest overestimation, or it may be every visionary’s deepest desire.
As the wind surges and the clouds move in, , the robot’s future has arrived upon the horizon.