Black-I CEO Brian Hart recently sat down to answer some questions about how and why he founded Black-I Environmental and what the future holds.
Q. You have an interesting background, combining expertise in technology with a previous career as a leading financial and corporate executive. How did that happen?
A. When we lost our son in Iraq, it became obvious to me that we sent our soldiers into battle badly equipped for modern warfare. Our troops simply weren’t getting the equipment they needed. I became a leading civilian advocate working with Senator Ted Kennedy and others to rectify the situation. We focused on armoring vehicles, body armor, tourniquets and blood clotting agents. Bureaucracies were too slow to change when a new paradigm emerged – they needed a push. Eventually that led us into the last decade of work in technology.
Q. And I assume that’s where your interest in robotics came from?
A. Yes. The Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies have long explored the role robots could play in a changing world. Working with my brother and another experienced inventor, we obtained contracts from government agencies and universities. We formed Black-I Robotics and developed several robots and unmanned robotic vehicles and devices, including our Landshark robot. The Landshark robot is multi-capable, from sensing IEDs to dragging a wounded soldier to safety, to being a primary research vehicle for DARPA.
Q. How did you transition from that goal to developing robots to mitigate the Covid19 pandemic?
A. Well, the goal is the same, isn’t it? Protecting the vulnerable. Technology is the tool. My staff and I had experience working with the government, defense contractors and universities, including MIT, Yale, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, and others while also developing chemical, biological and radiation unmanned mobile robotic detection systems. I’ve also been a pioneer in telehealth and previously founded and ran a pharmacy automation company. I learned that companies introducing new technologies into old cultures more often than not require considerable support. In fact, the transition is the most difficult part. Given my experience and interests, I thought I could contribute to the battle against this complex virus.
Q. But you’re not manufacturing your robots in this case, you’re importing them from Asia, correct?
A. Yes, correct. We could have chosen to manufacture the robots ourselves, and we may do so in the future. But we wanted to move quickly, so we did our homework and identified the best robots for the disinfectant jobs required – robots purpose built shortly after the coronavirus outbreak in China. Our private label, PureTech robots, meet our stringent standards. And don’t forget, as I inferred previously, hardware often is not the most important consideration when introducing technology into organizations that have used old fashioned methods for years, perhaps generations. The support they receive from their supplier is just as important, and I’d argue even more so. That’s where our experience comes in.
Q. You also partnered with a logistic company with experience dealing with complicated exports and imports throughout the world. Why?
A. Yes, we did. Speed to market was critical. The virus isn’t patient, and neither are we. Bureaucracies are not known for alacrity. So, we teamed up with a logistics company that has a terrific and well-earned reputation for dealing with documents, laws, regulations, bureaucrats, and the red tape characterizing moving product from one country and culture to another. We’re delighted with the alliance. More importantly, our clients will be too. Moving product to market in a global pandemic is no small feat.
Q. So you no doubt studied the cleaning industry before you launched Black-I Environmental. What’s your perspective?
A. First, when one talks about heroes and essential businesses, the cleaning industry has earned a place at the table. I am a great admirer of the men and women in the business who go to work every day, many working hard with simply detergent and grit. Each is an unsung hero in my book. Second, I think our robots can do a great job in helping cleaning companies achieve their mission, which is to keep indoor spaces clean. If one were to design a device to achieve a quantum leap in the performance of companies in the cleaning business, that device would be a robot. I sincerely believe that in a matter of two years, maybe sooner, cleaning company executives will wonder how they ever did without robots.
Q. You also are getting guidance from executives who know the cleaning business well. Who are they?
A. Yes, we’re getting great advice from a number of people who know the cleaning business inside and out. Perhaps the best known is Ty Hookway, who founded a company in 1995 that has grown to be one of the largest in New York state. It’s called CleanCraft, which is responsible for cleaning more than 10 million square feet of office, university and healthcare space. Ty heard about our plans for importing a robot designed specifically to sterilize space, and enthusiastically agreed to be our beta test site. He will create a protocol – a concept of operations – for using these new robotic cleaning technologies that other cleaning companies can emulate. We’re also getting counsel from Ed Schmitt, who is an expert in helping companies integrate new technologies into their businesses. I can’t emphasize how important it is to be able to turn to someone who can work with management and employees to seamlessly change the way their businesses have been run for years and years. Ed is our general manager and the person to turn to for help on this critical concern. We also are putting together an advisory board of robotics experts, cleaning specialists and healthcare counselors who will guide us over the coming years. Covid19 is not going away. Neither are we, or the cleaning companies we are pledged to work with to mitigate the pandemic.