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Marble co-founder and CMU grad says Pittsburgh can be ‘Silicon Valley of robotics’

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Kevin Peterson, co-founder of Marble, poses next to one of his company's sidewalk robots. (Photo from Marble)
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Pittsburgh’s low cost of living and affordable housing are nice perks.

But they aren’t what will bring the tech talent and companies to the city to build it into an innovation powerhouse.

Kevin Peterson, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who worked at Astrobotic before leaving Pittsburgh for San Francisco to help start an autonomous sidewalk delivery company, said Pittsburgh could become the Silicon Valley of robotics and be the place where companies tackle and solve some of the world’s most vexing problems.

That’s the message the city should be shouting.

“People talk a lot about affordability, and that’s nice, but that’s not what draws somebody who is really, really high caliber,” Peterson said. “People want to be the best in the world. They want to work on the most interesting problems, and they want to solve the most important, social, impactful challenges in the world.

“Robotics will solve those problems, and I think because robotics is here, Pittsburgh has an opportunity to brand itself as a place where you can solve the most important problems in the world.”

Peterson was in Pittsburgh at the beginning of April for the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit, where he sat down with the Tribune-Review. While in town, he met with city and county leaders and drivers of economic development to talk about how the region could better attract and retain top tech talent.

“It’s wild to see the change, and it’s really exciting,” Peterson said of Pittsburgh. “It does feel like there is a convergence of robotics mind-share here.”

Peterson has blazed trails in robotics since he started. Researchers Peterson met nearly 20 years ago while working on telescopes with his father at the South Pole told him robotics was a fad and would soon fade away. Peterson didn’t listen.

A poster of a dune buggy with lasers flying through the desert slapped on a wall at CMU in 2003 lured him to self-driving cars. Five years later, he helped CMU’s Tartan Racing win the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, a victory that launched Peterson’s career as well others, including Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self-driving car project and head of Aurora Innovation, and Bryan Salesky, who founded Argo AI and landed a $1 billion investment from Ford to develop self-driving technology for the company.

Peterson set his sights on the moon and worked with Astrobotic in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. He rose to chief technical officer at the CMU spinoff company, aiming to send a robotic lander to the moon to establish a space delivery service.

He left Astrobotic to explore starting his own company. Marble, which Peterson helped start, is tackling what is known as the last mile problem: How to move people and goods that last mile to their homes, apartments, workplaces? Peterson said it is one of the biggest challenges of logistics. Many say it is the biggest challenge. And it’s one robots could solve.

This week, Marble announced it raised $10 million and plans to expand its delivery services beyond food, which it used to test its robots on San Francisco sidewalks in 2017. Marble will soon roll out an upgraded version of its sidewalk robot and launch in other cities around the country.

Peterson said Marble wants to start delivering packages, perhaps solving the problem of how do you get a package from an autonomous truck with no driver to your doorstep, and medications from pharmacies. Patients who are unable to get to a pharmacy is a leading cause of hospital re-admittance, Peterson said.

“That’s something that we want to solve,” he said.

Marble’s robots caught the attention of San Francisco officials last year. They halted Marble’s tests as they developed regulations for sidewalk robots to keep people safe. Peterson said the robots are designed to merge with the traffic flow. They move at a walking pace. They are programmed to be deferential and polite. When they stop to make a delivery, they pull off to the side of the sidewalk to allow traffic to pass.

“We want to be good citizens, and that’s the goal,” Peterson said.

Peterson said about 4 percent of sidewalk space is utilized. He doesn’t envision a future in which flocks of Marble and other robots invade the space.

Peterson considered starting his next venture in Pittsburgh, but as he talked to venture capitalists and investors, he discovered he had to head to the west coast to make it happen. That’s changing, Peterson said. Investors now tell Peterson that Pittsburgh is on their radar, and they are willing to invest in companies here.

But Pittsburgh still lacks experience. The Bay Area has hundreds of people who were among the first employees at companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter and helped grow those companies into the tech giants they are today, Peterson said. Those people can guide a startup and help it grow quickly.

“Pittsburgh doesn’t have that yet,” Peterson said. “Pittsburgh has the raw talent.”

That talent is a good place to start.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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