America at work
With Your Help, This Pittsburgh Tech Startup Plans to Turn Potholes Into ‘A Distant Memory’
Cassie Ann Hodges | June 23, 2017

Maintaining America’s transportation infrastructure has always been a challenge, but what if there was a way to monitor and accelerate repairs on our roadways simply by driving on them?

Now, there’s an app for that.

Launched late last year, RoadBotics is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based startup that has harnessed smartphone motion-response technologies and GPS capabilities to let drivers capture real-time information about road conditions as they drive. Drivers can simply download an app and attach the phone to their car dashboard, and by using machine learning, RoadBotics compiles and analyzes the aggregate data to inform government leaders where, for instance, a new pothole seems to have emerged in their town.

Free Enterprise had the opportunity to speak with the CEO of RoadBotics, Mark DeSantis, about the origins of his innovative company, and why it’s so important to better maintain our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

How did you come up with the idea and the technology behind RoadBotics?

Our AI (artificial intelligence) technology was developed at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute within a program called Traffic21 with the explicit goal of providing efficient and cost effective roadway transparency to those responsible for roadway infrastructure. This same institute has produced technology used by the likes of Uber, Google and Ford Motor Company.

With a team of 10 employees, we are now working toward the goal of providing what I call “infrastructure transparency.” For the first time, we now have access to inexpensive technologies that are able to monitor one of America’s largest assets – our roads. And here at RoadBotics, we have figured out a way to promote infrastructure transparency through a road monitoring tool that uses roving sensor platforms to collect infrastructure data.

Why was this the problem you set out to tackle – why is it so important?

Some of the first paved roads were built by hand by the Romans and, in fact, some of those are still in use today. Roads are fundamental to our day-to-day existence and are among the largest single assets owned by our state and local governments. Sadly, we’ve taken this asset for granted for too long and estimates of 30 percent of our nation’s roads now need to be completely replaced.

That is an enormous expenditure when you consider that is over 1 million lane miles of road, at a low-end replacement cost estimate, will cost of $500,000 per mile to replace. The key now is to preserve the roads we have and extend their useful life. One key to that is continuous, close and very accurate monitoring, which can be challenging when you’re, say, the city of Chicago and managing 8,000 miles of roadways.

However, with a simple cellphone and a car, you can map and assess any street in one pass. The result is a form of Total Quality Management for America’s roadways and a day when potholes will be a distant, bad memory.

Can you share some more details about how the product works?

The way our technology works is simple and inexpensive. A driver downloads the app to their phone or tablet, and while the phone is mounted to their car dashboard, our app maps and stores images as well as gyroscopic and accelerometer data to the user’s phone. The app is smart enough to distinguish between road surfaces, and it looks for certain things that a civil engineer would be on the lookout for when assessing infrastructure.

The app then automatically uploads the data when the driver connects to Wi-Fi, and then the data is sent to the cloud platform for our analysis. Our app is valuable to municipal governments, road managers and engineers, and we hope that by capturing and analyzing this data, we can organize repair work and take care of roads in a cost efficient manner.

 

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur, particularly in this field?

You have to realize that you are building something from nothing, and that you are making a difference. I previously worked for the government. I genuinely believe in public service, and like my father taught me, I believe that my responsibility to others does not end at the edge of my front yard. On the other spectrum, I am also fascinated with technology and what it can do. So RoadBotics is the perfect mix because I have the ability to leverage sophisticated technology to make a public benefit.

What were the greatest challenges you faced starting RoadBotics and how did you overcome them?

We had two main challenges: First, raising capital. Venture capitalists are wary of companies selling to governments, mainly because of their fear about the long sales cycle. However, we sell an essential, easily accessible and very inexpensive service, which makes the selling proposition and process of market acceptance far easier.

The second challenge was convincing experienced roadway engineers that AI technology could enhance their ability to see and assess a wide variety of roadway surface features. We overcame that challenge by first capturing and assessing small sections of their own roads and displaying that visually for them — a sort of ‘try before you buy’ approach. That has worked very well, to the point where our customers are now elemental to helping us develop the product.

From left to right: Mark DeSantis, CEO & Co-founder, Courtney Ehrlichman, CCO & Co-founder, Christoph Mertz, PhD, Chief Scientist & Co-founder, Benjamin Schmidt, PhD, CTO & Co-founder

 

As you continue to build your team, what qualities do you look for in new hires?

Leading a startup has its challenges as you are constantly in the creative process of building something from nothing. I have surrounded myself with intelligent people. My colleagues know how to take a few pieces and put them together in an interesting way. My team is here to help solve problems and to make the roads better and safer. I do look for three specific qualities when adding someone to my team:

First, flexibility. A strong addition to our team is someone who not only has technical skills, but they also have to be able to solve problems that are not in their domain or discipline. They must be willing to adapt.

Second, that they’re self- motivated. RoadBotics is a startup, so you have to be someone with a startup mentality. Members of my team are going into a deep, dark jungle. We are truly going into the unknown and you need people who are not fearful of the unknown, but rather, they must have a spirit of adventure, must be willing to take a risk, and need to be excited to explore the jungle.

And third, personal growth. I believe that every person should have the capability to be the CEO.

What advice do you give to other startup entrepreneurs?

First, persistence, persistence and more persistence. Never forget that you’re trying to do a very difficult thing, and neither our world nor our economy is organized enough to make it easy for you to start and grow a company. Second, make things people really, really want. That is harder than it seems, because most people do not always know what they want and/or need. Creating a business is actually more about collaborating between you and your customer or prospective customer.

Third, time — not money — is your most precious resource. We have two phrases in our company: First, do it now. Second, keep the ball in play. My brother says that it is never a good time to do anything, so why not do it now. Oh, and my last piece of advice: Momentum in startups is everything.

What should we expect from RoadBotics in the near future?

Because of the size of the asset, we haven’t taken care of our roads. It is not for a shortage of capital but more about time and dedicated attention, which now our roads have decayed. RoadBotics is aiming to flag and bring to light changes that need to be made on America’s roads so that we can provide remedies that will hopefully prohibit a major issue down the road. In the future, we are hoping our technology will be in autonomous vehicles and play a role in smart cities.

We also want to continue to partner with large-scale industry leaders and engineers to understand what is happening on the road. We are also hoping to expand into Europe and Asia in years to come. The more information that we can gather efficiently and inexpensively, the more improvements to the quality of our roads we will see, and RoadBotics is at the center of this opportunity.