Interview with Andrija Milojevic, thtRobotics – building robots with a Human Touch

While robots have conquered many aspects of the food industry, one problem remains: Robots squish things. While humans have no problem handling soft items – whether that be raspberries, sushi or eggs – robots are unable to handle these items without them breaking. This becomes a hurdle in the ever-growing industry of food robots – how do we successfully automate an industry, if certain aspects are still dependent on human involvement?

Enter thtRobotics – a Finnish-Norwegian startup revolutionizing the food packaging industry. Tht, in this case, stands for the human touch – a.k.a., the one thing missing from current state-of-the-art robots. A robot, capable of handling soft things in a human-like way, has the ability to truly disrupt the emerging food tech market.

To enable expansion and research, thtRobotics just raised a €350k pre-seed round, led by Nordic deep tech VC Voima Ventures and supported by angel investors Kari Ollila and Per Lachmeyer, both with previous experience from the robotics industry. Voima Ventures specializes in deep tech with a planet-positive impact, and sees the need for innovation within the food industry.

The Human Touch Robotics is on a mission to employ robots and free humanity by making impossible automation possible. Nordic Deep Tech had a chat with founder and CEO Andrija Milojevic to learn more about thtRobotics and his own story from researcher to entrepreneur. 

VV: Let’s start with you! Walk us through the founding journey of THT Robotics.

AM: Everything started with a challenging yet heretic thought that I could solve one of the biggest problems in robotics – adaptive manipulation (gripping) of objects, in a fundamentally different way. Giving the gift of human hand adaptability to robots (enabling them to grip a wide variety of objects, specifically food items), is considered the holy grail of robotics development. Still, many believe that it is a work of fiction. Solving this problem would be transformative for our modern society as robots could be applied in many areas, regions, and markets around the world where there is a shortage of labor, and where automating this process is impossible due to the requirements for human hand-like dexterity. I experienced this problem firsthand. 

During my Master studies (field Mechatronics) I was working on controlling a robotic arm that had a hand (technically called a gripper) that could only grip one specific type of object (only cylinders). This was limiting the robot’s capabilities and applications. It’s like having a race car but you can only drive on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/h, never being able to use the full capabilities of the machine. It would be more valuable if robotic grippers could adaptively handle various items, especially food items like fruits and vegetables, for example (which seemed like pure fiction at that time). I started thinking about possible ways to replace this gripper with something that would be adaptive and could grip objects of different shapes and sizes, specifically soft and squishy objects like food, which are the most challenging to handle with precision even for humans. This problem puzzled  me and I worked on solving it for almost 6 years, through my PhD (in my home country Serbia and Germany) and Postdoc time (in Finland and Norway). It was exciting and fun to work on this problem (although at times disappointing). But after many failures, trial and error, I got it to work (it was kind of cool when I made it possible for the robot to grip all these soft fruits adaptively and at high speed, you can see a demo video here). 

My girlfriend at the time and now my lovely wife, encouraged me to take this technology further, out of the lab, and make it useful for others and the world (she was my biggest supporter and believer). This was the spark that gave birth to thtRobotics, and the idea that I could build a company around this unique invention. My path and pursuit for commercialization of this technology led me to Finland and LUT University, where I worked as a Postdoctoral researcher. The head of the Lab for Intelligent Machines Prof. Heikki Handroos supported me greatly in building a company around adaptive grippers as something unique in the world. We secured a Business Finland grant to transition from science and prototype to minimal viable product (which eventually we did). After the project ended, in 2019 The Human Touch Robotics (thtRobotics) was officially born.

Since founding there were many obstacles and hurdles that I needed to overcome (both personal and professional, internal and external) to arrive where we are now. The full story of thtRobotics is too long for this interview, but I am humbled and extremely grateful to all the amazing people that contributed to the thtRobotics story.

VV: Why are you building thtRobotics?

AM: We believe in integrating robots and other advanced technologies into industries that struggle greatly with labor shortages (like emerging online food groceries), and automating tasks that are labor intensive, many of which people tend to shy away from. We are working hard on making this a reality, hoping to create a future where robots act as an extension of human capabilities, being our best companions towards continuous and swift progress as a civilization. That is why we are building thtRobotics.

Today at thtRobotics we are working on providing the turnkey robotic system solution for automating food packing in online e-groceries and meal kit companies, where we use our adaptive gripper as a unique advantage over our competitors. The gripper allows us to bring robots to these complex spaces and integrate them seamlessly in our clients’ operations – a feat which was considered virtually impossible up until now. We are also developing other proprietary technologies like computer vision systems, path planning for robots, and we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of robotic system capabilities through innovative R&D.

VV: When you think about the future. What is the thing that worries you the most (keeps you up at night)? And what is the thing that gets you the most excited (gets you out of bed)?

AM: Let me answer this in a bit of a different manner. Modifying the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke. Whether we live in the future where robots automate everything, or still many labor intensive things are done manually by humans, both thoughts are equally scary. This both  scares me and at the same time excites me to work towards that future.

VV: How has the transition been for you from the research lab to launching and operating a business?

AM: Maybe the best way to answer this would be in the form of advice for other academics who I greatly encourage to found their own companies.

More people from academia should start companies and startups. You will get used to overcoming difficult challenges, many of which are outside of your primary scope of interest and workYou will get used to overcoming difficult challenges, many of which are outside of your primary scope of interest and work. Overcoming the hard stuff, adapting to a constantly changing environment, exploring new things, not being afraid of taking risks, failing constantly but still keep going with your things, knowing when things don’t work to sit and rethink and try another approach. These are the traits that you gain in academia, but they are not so obvious externally. If you just make the switch from your academic mindset to an entrepreneurial one, these are the things you can apply in building a successful startup. 

Moreover, many great ideas and companies come from deep-tech, academia and research  (e.g. Intel, Google). You just need to reframe the things you do and your research and start asking the question: Will my research lead to something beneficial to others, and can I someday turn this  into a great product? Let your research be application-driven. Having this constantly on your mind will make your research more fun and enjoyable. You clearly have all the tools and traits you need, it is just a matter of putting them to use and towards specific goals. Your creations and innovation are for the benefit and use of others. Influence the world through the things you do. It is much more rewarding and enjoyable.

Personally, I think this was the hardest and most challenging thing I could have done with my life – albeit infinitely rewarding. Working in a start-up is like a hero’s journey – clearly, it’s an adventure, but not without its sacrifices and struggles. It’s a call to do something greater than yourself. You choose a very difficult thing to do that hasn’t been done before, and then you go on and try to overcome all the obstacles and challenges you face in a start-up and building a company. At the end becoming the hero of your own story. Like in many heroes’ stories, the journey teaches you the most valuable lessons. For me, entrepreneurship is like the hero’s journey, and the most exciting journey into the unknown.

VV: Deep tech is all about solving the big problems that humanity is facing. What is the big problem you are solving? And why is THT Robotics the best solution for this problem?

AM: The shortage of labor in the emerging food tech industry is growing rapidly, as more and more people shy away from these labor-intensive tasks. People often work in cold environments, standing on their feet for a long time – making it far from your typical dream job. All the while, the demand for food consumption will only continue to rise exponentially with the global population boom, with no efficient and effective solution to meet this demand when it comes to food packing. Needless to say, this is a big problem if you are thinking mere decades into the future. 

While some people may think that robots are advanced enough to solve these problems, still they are limited in what they can do when it comes to handling delicate food items and food packing (especially e.g. packing from a bin full of tomatoes). At thtRobotics, we are solving the big problem of automating the food industry, we are bringing robots and automation to emerging online e-groceries to ensure efficiency and operational efficacy for a better tomorrow.  We do this by automating tasks that were impossible to automate before, utilizing our innovative adaptive robotic gripper to enable robots to handle delicate tasks with the dexterity and precision of the human touch.

VV: What is the stage of the company now? What is the next important step?

AM: We recently raised a pre-seed round from Voima Ventures and a couple of Angel Investors (you can read more about it here).  We are currently a team of 8 amazing people and I am so lucky to have a chance to work with all of them. I’m grateful to the whole thtRobotics team who helped shape what The Human Touch Robotics is and who continue to lead it towards bigger and better things. The funds will be used to finalize our turnkey robotic solution for automated packing for online e-groceries and meal kit companies. 

The next important step will be to  implement the system with some of our potential customers, which is a challenge on its own, with the goal of scaling our solution to automate several fulfillment centers.

VV: What advice would you give to future deep tech founders?

AM: If there is one piece of advice I could give to aspiring tech leaders and founders, it would be this: the world needs more of you. The world needs you and your unique approach to solving that puzzle, that one problem that keeps you up at night that nobody else can solve but you know you have what it takes to overcome it.

You have an opportunity to do it your way, and you need to take it. Find your contrarian truth and build a company around it, embodying what you believe in and your unique approach to making the world a better place. After all, no one can beat you at being you.

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