Distinguished alumna Wise one of the top roboticists in the world
Melonee Wise earned dual bachelor’s degrees in 2004 in mechanical engineering and physics engineering, and an MS in 2006 in mechanical engineering, all from Illinois. She was one of three MechSE alumni to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award for 2016.
After earning her degrees, Wise worked as manager of robot development at the widely revered startup Willow Garage. She then went on to be CEO and co-founder of Unbounded Robotics, where she and her team were the inaugural winners of the RoboBusiness Pitchfire Competition. Since 2014, she has been CEO of Fetch Robotics, and that year was named to “The 15 Most Important People Working in Robotics” list by Business Insider.
With a 12,000-square-foot facility in San Jose, 40 robots, and about 35 employees, Fetch Robotics is a fast-growing startup looking to grow to about 60 employees this year. Wise described the atmosphere at the company as one that’s inspiring and unique.
“We have an open workspace. Every person has to have a robot by their desk, so we have an open floor plan. Someone said that start-ups in Silicon Valley are kind of like pre-school. You walk in and there’s bright primary colors everywhere and there’s snacks. It kind of is like that. But when you walk into Fetch, you also see a lot of robots. At any one time in any one area, we probably have 10-15 robots just strolling around. We also have a secondary site where we do testing, so we have a fake warehouse,” said Wise.
The company currently has two products – Fetch and Freight – to support customers in commercial industries and facilities.
The Freight robot excels at several specific activities: surveying (using scanners, encoders on its wheels, and 3D sensors to map and collect environmental or inventory data in a facility); virtual conveyer (running the last mile of transportation within a facility, thus increasing employees’ productivity); and follow-pick (in which the robot follows a human around the facility, carrying the products).
Wise said Fetch is on target for commercial deployment next year. Several Fetch robots have been sold for research efforts at universities or large innovation centers, including University of Michigan, Virginia Tech, Google, Panasonic, Toyota, and others, but Wise said their long-term vision is to use Fetch in a picking application.
Wise returned to campus in April to receive the award from MechSE, and talked about her career and her passion for robotics.
On building her first robot:
“It was a complete disaster. My best friend who I met here at the U of I – we founded the company that I’m at today. We both decided we were going to build robots but we were really broke. I was on a Pell Grant and Derek was on all kinds of scholarships. But we had all these grand dreams of making things out of metal. So we went to the ECE Department and begged for some motors. We went to the Physics Department and they gave us some circuit boards, and then we went to the machine shop in MechSE and we got all this stuff together. And we had two pieces of plywood and we tied the motors to it – and this is the most embarrassing part – that we’re two mechanical engineers and the best we could do is tie motors to plywood. But we were so broke we couldn’t even afford to get the metal to machine it and make something better. It was really just this desperate need to build a robot, but having none of the resources. It was more of an exploration for us to figure out how to build it. It was really good that we did all of that because there were a lot of really good lessons to learn, like time is money. We tried to save money doing certain things, but then we realized that if we had just spent the dollar, we could’ve saved ourselves like hours of time.”
On graduating from the University of Illinois:
“I loved being here. It was probably the best thing that I went to U of I and not a school like MIT or Stanford because Illinois is so big and the opportunities are so broad. I had everything here. You could build cars, you could do research experiments, you could build robots, you could do anything, and there was a club for anything and everything. There was just a lot to do here and I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”
On being a woman in engineering and robotics:
“It’s definitely a small community. There’s only so many women in engineering and there’s only so many engineers in robotics. So you’re looking at a pretty thin cross-section of a population that is not as diverse as we all hope it would be. And so sometimes it can be very challenging. But I actually think it’s harder as a start-up entrepreneur to be a woman than it is to be potentially a roboticist. It’s challenging but I try not to make a big deal about it because I think that by drawing attention to it, it’s the wrong message. I think the big problem that engineering and robotics have right now is that a lot of people self-select out of it because they think they have to be very smart. But engineering is actually a creative activity. You can be as smart as possible but if you don’t have the creativity to solve a problem, all that intelligence is not worth much. And I think that has created a barrier that encourages people to basically decide that they’re not smart enough and they walk away from engineering. I think that’s the broader message we need to be addressing because it shuts a lot of people out, not just women.”
Her advice to undergraduate students:
“One of the better opportunities I had at U of I was the engineering leadership program. It was definitely a turning point for how I looked at myself, and how I interacted with other people. And I think one of the best skill sets someone can learn in college is to become introspective and be able to assess how they feel about something: Is this too hard or am I just making it hard? Is this impossible or am I just being a jerk face right now? I think sometimes technical people get wrapped up in being the best technically but there are all these other soft skills that many engineers could benefit from. I think sometimes you get in your own way by being difficult. Developing the skill set of realizing how to be humble helps a lot. Along these lines, I would advise anyone who is thinking of getting a master’s degree, to get one. There’s some maturing that happens in grad school.”
On receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award:
“When I found out that I got this award, I was shocked. It’s been such a short time since I’ve been away from the University of Illinois. To me it was my home. I had been here for seven years and it’s only been a short eight years since I left. I feel like the staff and faculty really prepared me for my journey of becoming not only a mechanical engineer but an entrepreneur. And that’s something that I never would’ve expected to gain from becoming an engineer. One thing that was also surprising to me was the fraternity and the wide reach of the University of Illinois when I went to Silicon Valley. University of Illinois is a very respected name and everyone knows it, and that was always comforting to know that I was an alumnus of such a great university. I am very honored to receive this award.”