Monthly Catch-Ups: Dr. Bernard Casse, CEO & Founder of RIOS.

RIOS was founded by Dr. Bernard Casse together with a group of former Xerox PARC engineers (Dr. Clinton Smith, Dr. Chris Lalau-Keraly, Dr. Chris Paulson) and Matt Shaffer. Dr. Casse is a serial entrepreneur who holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics with a specialization in metamaterials engineering from the National University of Singapore. RIOS is a technology company helping global customers automate their factories, warehouses, and supply chain operations by deploying a new class of dexterous AI-powered robots. RIOS robots handle hard-to-automate tasks, typically requiring human-level dexterity, in unstructured environments. RIOS is the first technology company developing true haptic intelligence (i.e., the intelligence behind the sense of touch that enables humans to grasp and manipulate objects) for robots. We sat down with Bernard to learn more about why he founded RIOS and how he has achieved significant robotic innovations with far less capital and time than others in the industry.

Morpheus: What was your impetus for starting RIOS?

Bernard: “I founded RIOS in 2018 with a group of former Xerox PARC engineers holding PhDs across multiple disciplines. In my previous jobs, my team and I built a lot of innovative technologies and solved really hard problems, but in the grand scheme of things these endeavors were not world-changing. My co-founders also came to this realization about their own paths 1.5 years ago – we wanted to make a significant dent in the universe and aspired to be the architects of the next wave of the technological revolution. While working in the field, we saw a massive failure of so-called modern robots’ ability to meet people’s expectations. Today’s robots are very primitive and are light years away from let’s say, Rosie the Robot or the Terminator. Human-level dexterity is still elusive even after decades of R&D, and human-like grasping still remains the holy grail of robotics. We saw a need for disruptive technology, and we knew it would take a world-changing company with some extraordinary people to build it. That’s why we founded RIOS.”

Morpheus: How do you think RIOS will change or transform how we work?

Bernard: “The fundamental problem we are trying to solve is the current global workforce crisis. Our mission is not to replace human labor but augment it by having our robots perform jobs in industries where there is a labor shortage. In particular, our robots are geared to automate the so-called “3D” jobs – the dirty, dull/demeaning and dangerous jobs. These are jobs that humans do not want to do anymore or can’t do anymore. If you think about it, only 3 % of goods produced in the world come from highly automated environments. Practically all other labor-driven businesses face challenges in finding minimum-wage workers to perform low-paying and strenuous jobs. This workforce crisis has exacerbated with the global pandemic as 1) demand surged, 2) social distancing directives prevent staffing warehouses at full capacity, and 3) human operators prefer not to put their lives on the line. Not to mention the amount of low-wage employee turnover these businesses must grapple with on a daily basis. This is where RIOS’ value proposition lies in being able to supplement human labor by providing businesses with the necessary robotic automation to keep pace with increased shifts in consumer demand and a shrinking workforce.”

Morpheus: What separates you from your competitors? 

Bernard: “It’s important to first define who we consider as competitors. Most people think that our competitors are all the dozen AI-powered robotics companies out there. It’s not completely true – we are way more of a threat to most of these companies than they are to us. Our ‘real’ competitors are those who are specifically building general-purpose robots. There’s barely a handful of those in the world. Most AI-powered robotics companies develop single-purpose robots and tend to stay in their own market verticals. There is a technical aspect and capabilities aspect that separates us from other companies. From a technical standpoint, we’re building our own dedicated hardware and software stack (the others are software-only companies). We’re the first company building true human-level haptic intelligence for robots. We’ve developed the world’s most advanced haptic sensor and intelligent end-effector for robots, on top of having developed a world-class perception system and a neural processing unit. From a capabilities’ standpoint, we’ve built an unprecedented infrastructure that allows our robots to be multi-purpose (i.e., perform a diversity of tasks autonomously and be very rapidly reconfigurable). In addition, our robots can perform increasingly complex manipulations tasks from pick-and-place to multi-step, precision assembly of components on a moving platform. We haven’t seen (yet!) any other robot concurrently stacking up on all these fronts.

Morpheus: You have built an amazing team at RIOS, how are you continuing to attract great talent?

Bernard: “Great talent naturally gravitates towards two things: 1) they love to work with like-minded world-class talent, and 2) they are attracted to solving challenging and meaningful problems because those provide them with a sense of purpose. At RIOS, we’re organically attracting great talent as we are going after one of the holy grail of robotics, and we’re moving the needle towards better social benefit for the world in our quest. In addition, we already have an extremely talented workforce that most people would want to work with – the team has built hardware and software that was deemed impossible to build, even by robotic experts’ standards, who thought that this technology stack was at least 10 years out. As we’ve emerged from stealth mode, a lot of world-class talent, even from prospective competitors, reached out to express a strong interest in working at RIOS.  We took the world by storm by what we’ve developed – especially the haptic intelligence, which fueled the imagination and interest of some of the smartest people in the world.”

Morpheus: What do you see are the largest challenges and obstacles as you seek to grow and expand the business?

Bernard: “The largest obstacles that we see today have been created by the current pandemic. COVID-19 is a double-edged sword: On the bright side, it has prompted way more industries to accelerate their use of automation – we’re observing a tremendous influx of customers, all scrambling to implement automation and gung-ho in building much more resilient infrastructure.  However, many prospective customers are still very distracted, as they focus on more pressing internal issues that stemmed from the collateral effects of the pandemic. This has yielded longer sales cycles, and for most start-up companies (RIOS is also not immune!), long sales cycles are showstoppers to rapid growth and expansion. This does not mean that we’re not expanding – it simply means that our expansion is slower.  I can safely say that these obstacles are universal at this point. To overcome this, we have repositioned our customer pipeline to engage companies in industries less affected or have seen increased demand due to COVID-19. I can’t expand on this, but we’ve recently developed a thesis around mitigating these effects and we’ve created a much more streamlined business development operation that enables us to expand our footprint rapidly.”

Morpheus: How have you been able to achieve and surpass what your competitors have touted with much less capital and time?


Bernard: “I think what separates RIOS is that we have people with strong intellectual horsepower possessing a wide variety of backgrounds ranging from quantum computing, optics, astrophysics, machine learning, robotics, and more. This is a very atypical team for a robotics company – but this diversity of thought, experiences, and backgrounds allowed us to really think outside the box. Within 18 months we have gone from a PowerPoint slide to a full-stack robotics system that really stacks up against the competition. We weren’t constrained by the preconceived notions of robotics experts on how things should be done. In any field, experts who have been looking at the same hard problem for too long have difficulties thinking creatively! The way we approach problems in robotics is vastly different from the way most robotics experts would go about it, which allowed us to make these giant leaps in robotic capabilities rapidly. Furthermore, if you look at other AI-powered robotics companies, you’ll realize that they’re founded and/or led by robotics people coming straight from academia. RIOS is an oddball in the sense that the people driving the company are not academics, but rather product-oriented engineers. That also allowed us to be swift and capital efficient in building our technology stack and acquiring a customer base.

Morpheus: What is your ultimate vision for RIOS? 

Bernard: “We are building next-generation robots – machines with higher levels of dexterity, cognitive skills, and autonomy, designed to perform increasingly complex automation tasks in unstructured environments. Those are the fundamental building blocks of the machines of the future. We’re moving away from traditional robots. The long-term vision is to see RIOS robots everywhere and across various industries including manufacturing, logistics, retail, food services, lab automation, and many more. Ultimately, we want to see robots in your home performing some of your chores.”

Morpheus: What advice would you give your fellow entrepreneur?

Bernard: “Entrepreneurship is really hard, especially if the goal is to disrupt the status quo and build a billion-dollar business from the ground up. In its nascent stages, a disruptive technology start-up is not obvious to most people in the world – think Amazon, think Airbnb and others. After the fact, everyone would claim that it was obvious, but in the beginning, it is really not. When most people can’t see what innovators are seeing, it makes the journey uniquely challenging. Many successful entrepreneurs make it look like they didn’t break a sweat. No one ever talks about the rollercoaster ride and how much blood, sweat, and perseverance go into building a truly valuable company that benefits society. That being said, my piece of advice to all my fellow entrepreneurs is to be resilient, to never give up, to trust your instincts, and to never keep your eyes off the goal.”