Editor’s note: The Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering is occasionally featuring alumni who are helping to find solutions to challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis.
Ian Bernstein doesn’t mince words on his Twitter profile: He wants a robot in every home and office across the globe.
The former CSU electrical engineering student is on a path to achieve that goal – with or without a pandemic.
Most people have likely heard of his first company, Sphero, which he co-founded in Boulder in 2009 to build robots controlled by then-emerging smart phones.
Shifting gears to fight COVID
An early beneficiary of the Techstars Boulder Accelerator, Sphero nearly became a household name in 2015 with Disney’s release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The company produced millions of phone-connected BB-8 robotic toys, eventually requiring 1,000 people on an assembly line to build more than 28,000 robots a day.
In 2017, Bernstein and five Sphero colleagues spun off another company called Misty Robotics. Their robot – also named Misty – is 14 inches tall and 10 inches deep. She has a cuteness factor like Pixar’s WALL-E, but Misty is meant to be useful in the real world. Before COVID-19 hit, the robot was being tested as a companion for the elderly and as a teacher for children on the autism spectrum who need non-threatening introduction to human interactions and expressions.
So what does a robotics entrepreneur do in the face of a global pandemic? You pivot your product to take non-invasive, accurate temperature readings.
This summer, the company plans to test 50 Misty II “Temperature Screening Assistants” in Boulder and Denver businesses as part of COVID workplace screenings before shipping the final solution worldwide in September.
“This is a good job for Misty,” said Bernstein, who transferred to CSU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department in 2005 and left in 2007 to start his first business without graduating. “Temperature guns are unreliable and not accurate unless they’re in ideal circumstances.”
Most people don’t use these thermometers correctly, he said. For example, they must be within a certain distance of a forehead and account for things like sweat on a hot day and eyeglasses.
Misty uses a sensor in a little black box that heats to a person’s body temperature and scans tear ducts to take accurate temperatures.
Beyond COVID, Bernstein said they’re still working with customers who are evaluating how Misty could be resourceful for a variety of functions including assisting with elder care, working with prisoners, teaching social skills to children with special needs and as an office greeter.
Building name recognition
In the meantime, COVID offers a “good proof point for our platform,” Bernstein said. “It’s a perfect visibility spot for us.”
Misty began rolling off the production line in September 2019. Prior to COVID, she was being tested on the East Coast and in the homes of senior citizens in Barcelona, Spain, to detect potential safety issues for seniors such as loud noises or a fall.
Even as a kid growing up in New Mexico, Bernstein was taking things apart and building robots. He first came to Fort Collins to visit friends and fell in love with the CSU campus, so he transferred from New Mexico Tech into CSU’s electrical engineering department.
He participated in two senior design projects while at CSU, one creating urban search-and-rescue robots and another developing electronics curriculum for K-12 teachers. The experience helped him with structure and hands-on learning.
“One of the most valuable experiences for me was senior design,” he said. “It just felt more like the real world – like real industry versus the theoretical. I’m more of a hands-on person.”
Bernstein stays in touch with faculty and staff in the department, including senior design instructor Olivera Notaros, and occasionally returns to speak to classes. After he formed Sphero, he sought out the services of University Distinguished Professor Jorge Rocca on the mechanics of electromagnetics.
He failed electromagnetics three times at CSU – a course he never thought he’d use.
One of many lessons learned, he said.
“I made tons of mistakes and had to borrow tons of money from my parents,” he said.
Still, he continues to work toward his goal of putting a robot in every household and business. The company has created tools for programmers to make their own modifications to Misty to suit their needs.
Despite his worldwide fame and financial success, Bernstein is humble about his journey and his time at CSU.
“At least I know to ask our engineers the right questions,” he said.