December 5, 2022
Leif Jentoft ’09 is filling gaps in the supply chain with intelligent, autonomous robotics.
Growing up in Minneapolis and spending his summers tinkering with things in the Northwoods, Leif Jentoft ’09 received an important piece of advice from his dad: “Make sure you build something valuable, not just cool.”
Jentoft took that advice to heart, choosing to attend Olin in part because of their focus on “helping you identify what’s worth building and scoping what’s achievable,” he says.
“In 2007, I did research in the Olin Robotics and Bioinspiration Lab, which got me excited about new technology could make things come alive like never before,” says Jentoft. “People were working on things like force-controlled actuators and bipedal robots. I worked on algorithms that helped robots emulate the locomotion of snakes.”
Jentoft also got to meet Scott Miller when he came to campus to speak about setting up the Roomba manufacturing line in Asia.
“It was exciting to see the stuff beyond the engineering and learn more about how to identify what technology solves customer value and build it,” says Jentoft. “I knew I wanted to eventually start my own business.”
After graduating from Olin, Lentoft began his PhD in engineering and applied sciences at Harvard to continue his technical training. He worked in that biorobotics lab as well, where the team began working on a problem for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“Because of the number of roadside bombs in Afghanistan, DARPA launched a competition to build better gripping robotics to be used in unstructured environments,” says Jentoft. “One of the big challenges was how to create a gripper that could handle the variability outside a controlled factory environment while also making it less expensive.”
By examining how the human hand and forearm operate and imparting those mechanisms into the robotics, Jentoft and his team won the competition. This gripper and complementary AI software are now core to the product offerings of RightHand Robotics, which Jentoft co-founded in 2014.
“My co-founders and I began working together on nights and weekends from our grad student apartments,” says Jentoft. “We were selling all over the world to other researchers and companies like Boston Dynamics.”
Now, RightHand Robotics sells piece-picking solutions for flexible, autonomous order fulfillment. Over the past 10 years, they have been fine-tuning what Jentoft calls the three Rs: the range of items a system can pick, the rate of picking, and improved reliability.
“In order fulfillment, one of the biggest challenges is limited labor availability,” says Jentoft. "Our RightPick™ platform combines advanced AI software with intelligent grippers and machine vision to help the ecommerce industry meet consumer demands.”
In warehouses, thousands of different items come in through the dock doors and are sorted into totes. When orders come in, the robots pick the appropriate items out of the totes using an overhead camera and a gripper arm; check out a video of the process here.
“The challenge is how to enable the robots to pick up something they’ve never seen before with little to no information about what the item is,” explains Jentoft. “Our system understands a variety of plans to pick up unknown objects, and machine learning algorithms means that the whole fleet is constantly learning.”
For Jentoft, his dad’s advice from long ago still rings true.
“If you want to build something that matters, you have to prove that it matters,” says Jentoft.
“You have to understand the bridge between what the customer needs and what you can build. A lot of engineering education focuses on creating value, but the other side of that is capturing value, which translates into sales so you have resources to re-invest in the organization and product you are building.”
To that end, Jentoft is currently working with Olin’s President Gilda A. Barabino to design a class around entrepreneurship for engineers.