That’s a bold statement for a startup founder who wants to work with robots — or more specifically, the software that helps turn a tractor, tiller, or forklift into an automated vehicle. But Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, who previously founded and ran the now-closed autonomous vehicle startup Starsky Robotics, is trying to make a point.
“They’re really tough, they break all the time, and coming to a stable product is really tough,” Seltz-Axmacher said in a recent interview. “Everybody ends up building almost everything from scratch, for almost every application.”
To make matters more complex, robots used in warehouses, mines, agriculture, and other industrial settings 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 spread across the country have specific needs that no one else has.
This is where Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder Ilia Baranov and their new startup Polymath Robotics hope to step in. The duo have developed a plug-and-play software platform and accompanying SDK that enables companies to quickly and cost-effectively automate industrial vehicles. Think of it as a 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 builds from the base a generalizable autonomy intended to automate the some 50 million industrial vehicles that operate today in closed environments.
The San Francisco-based startup’s software is hardware and business model agnostic and focuses on all the features a company might need to run their robot, tractor or automated forklift, including path planning, hazard detection, behavior trees, human detection, control settings and safety.
Polymath, led by Baranov (who is CTO and previously led robotics teams at Clearpath Robotics and Amazon Lab 126) also created, and now released, a free tool called Caladan that allows users to build on the company’s software in simulation. And unlike other sims, this can be viewed and created on an internet browser and does not require the installation of other tools like ROS, Gazebo or even Linux, according to the company.
The Polymath Robotics software platform allows another startup, warehouse owner, farmer, or mining company to skip the often time-consuming process of developing autonomy, a security layer, and a front-end application. Seltz-Axmacher said the software allows those users to just focus on the app, connect to its REST API, and control a virtual tractor, forklift or other type of robot in the simulation.
Polymath is already driving unmanned and working with potential customers. But tech teams interested in seeing how it works can start building in simulation for free through its 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 control a tractor in a dusty lot in Modesto, California via an internet browser while sitting at her desk in Arizona.
Of course, software alone cannot transform a tractor into an automated vehicle that operates without a human. Polymath has partnered with Idaho-based startup Sygnal Technologies to help on the hardware side by providing upgrades with their drive-by-wire kits.
Sygnal 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 shut down, developed an automated vehicle software platform as well as a drive-by-wire kit that many other startups have used in their own AV demos.
This time around, Hartung and co-founder Trey German have developed a drive-by-wire kit designed with redundant throttle, brake and steering controls and proprietary switch technology. And it’s built with commercial fleets and deployments — not demos — in mind. After years of living through the AV hype and seeing many startups, including his own, get caught up in a cycle of demos and proof-of-concepts in order to secure funding, Hartung believes the industry is turning finally to reality.
“I believe the next step in autonomy actually comes down to business principles,” Hartung said, adding that Polymath seems well aligned with this change.
It seems a number of angel investors have already taken notice of Polymath’s 10-person team.
While Seltz-Axmacher isn’t ready to share exactly what the company has raised, he did list 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, former Voyage co-founder and CEO. , which is now at Cruise, according to Seltz-Axmacher.
“What we hope is that robotics will be much more like SaaS in terms of speed in and speed out,” he added.
Sweeney, who previously worked at Neuralink and was head of product and engineering at Uber before launching Thursday Ventures, believes the startup has the right product, at the right time.
“What’s appealing about this approach is that I can see the future of an Oracle-like robotics company,” Sweeney said. “All kinds of companies come to Oracle for hardware and software solutions for their business, and with minor configurations can plug it into their business. is an extremely bold goal, but I think it can also continue to deliver value along the way.