It’s a bold statement for a startup founder who wants to work with robots — or rather, the software that helps turn a tractor, tiller, or forklift into an automated vehicle. But Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, who previously founded and led the now-closed autonomous vehicle startup Starsky Robotics, is trying to make a point.
“They’re really hard, they break all the time and it’s very hard to get to a stable product,” Seltz-Axmacher said in a recent interview. “Everyone eventually builds almost everything from scratch, for almost every application.”
To complicate matters further, robots used in warehouses, mining, agriculture and other industrial environments have hyper-specific applications that are structured and often repeated thousands of times. In other words, the farmer in Iowa, the yard truck operator in Florida, and the e-commerce giant with 100 warehouses across the country have specific needs that no one else has.
That’s where Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder Ilia Baranov and their new startup Polymath Robotics hope to come in. The pair have developed a plug-and-play software platform and associated SDK that enables companies to quickly and cost-efficiently automate industrial vehicles. Think of it as SaaS for industrial robotics.
Polymath Robotics, which came out of stealth on Friday and is a Y Combinator Summer 2022 cohort, aims to become the oracle of the robotics world. The startup is building basic generalizable autonomy designed to automate the approximately 50 million industrial vehicles used today in closed environments.
The software from the San Francisco-based startup is hardware and business model independent and focuses on all the features a company needs to run its automated robot, tractor or forklift, including path planning, hazard detection, behavior trees, human detection, control tuning and safety.
Polymath, led by Baranov (who is CTO and previously led robotics teams at Clearpath Robotics and Amazon Lab 126) created, and now released, a free tool called Caladan that allows users to build in simulation on top of the company’s software. And unlike other sims, this one can be viewed and created in an internet browser and does not require installation of other tools such as ROS, Gazebo or even Linux, according to the company.
With Polymath Robotics’ software platform, another startup, warehouse owner, farmer or mining company can skip the often long process of building autonomy, a security layer and a front-end app. Seltz-Axmacher said the software allows these users to just focus on the app, connect to the REST API and control a virtual tractor, forklift or other kind of robot in sim.
Polymath already drives unmanned and works with potential customers. But engineering teams who want to see how it works can start building in simulation for free via the API.
Polymath’s API tells the robot what to do, whether in the simulation tool or in the real world. For example, this TechCrunch reporter was able to drive a tractor located on a dusty lot in Modesto, California, via an Internet browser while sitting at her desk in Arizona.
Of course, software alone cannot turn a tractor into an automated vehicle that works without a human being. Polymath has partnered with Idaho-based startup Sygnal Technologies to help on the hardware side by providing retrofits with their drive-by-wire kits.
Sygnal’s CEO and co-founder Josh Hartung knows a thing or two about automated vehicles and drive-by-wire systems. His previous startup PolySync, which has since been discontinued, developed an automated vehicle software platform and drive-by-wire kit that numerous other startups used in their own AV demos.
This time, Hartung and his co-founder Trey German developed a drive-by-wire kit designed with redundant controls for the accelerator, brakes and steering and patented shifting technology. And it’s built with fleets and commercial implementations – not demos – in mind. After years of experiencing the hype surrounding AVs and seeing countless startups, including his own, get caught up in a cycle of demos and proof of concepts to get funding, Hartung believes the industry is finally shifting to reality.
“I believe the next phase of autonomy will actually return to business principles, Hartung said, adding that Polymath appears to be well aligned with this shift.
It seems that a number of angel investors have already taken note of Polymath’s 10-person team.
While Seltz-Axmacher isn’t ready to share exactly what the company has delivered, he did mention some of the company’s angel investors, all of whom have backgrounds in autonomous vehicle technology, software and robotics. The group includes Catapult Ventures managing director Darren Liccardo, Thursday Ventures general partner Matt Sweeney, Cruise co-founder and CEO Kyle Vogt and Oliver Cameron, Voyage’s former co-founder and CEO who is now with Cruise, according to Seltz-Axmacher.
“What we hope is that robotics will become much more like SaaS in terms of how quickly you can get in and out,” he added.
Sweeney, who previously worked at Neuralink and was a product and engineering lead at Uber before launching Thursday Ventures, believes the startup has the right product at the right time.
“The appeal of this approach is that I see a future for an Oracle-like robotics company,” Sweeney said. “All kinds of businesses come to Oracle for hardware and software solutions for their business, and with small configurations, they can plug it into their business. If you’re projecting 10 to 15 years ahead, where can this be a really bold goal, but I think it can also continue to provide value all the way through.”