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Providing the Next Generation of Work with the Avatar Robot "ugo"|ugo, Inc. continues Development for Social Implementation

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While the Maker Movement took off in 2006 and manufacturing has become more accessible worldwide, Japan, once known as a manufacturing powerhouse, has lost its former vigor. In addition, the new coronavirus has led to a diversification of work styles, and updating "work styles" is a global mission not only for workers in white collar jobs, but also for field operations.

In this context, we interviewed Mr. Ken Matsui of ugo, Inc, a company that is pioneering new lifestyles and new ways of working with the avatar robot "ugo."

Transition from Software to Hardware Engineer|Avatar Robot Aims to Solve Manpower Shortage

Could you tell us about your career to date and your inspiration to start your own business?

I majored in software as a student and later joined a system integrator company. When one of my seniors I met at the company went independent, he invited me to become a member of his start-up company, and in 2006 I participated in the launch of a company called Monster Lab Inc. I was in charge of developing our own products for the music business and developing systems for companies. Around 2011, services that connect smartphones to other devices and create new value began to catch on, including the spread of the IoT and the first crowdfunding service in the U.S., "Kickstarter," which was launched in 2010. The popularity of IoT and "Kickstarter," the first crowdfunding platform in the U.S., led to the release of various devices and gadgets one after another. Furthermore, the popularization of 3D printers promoted the maker's movement, and the age of individuals making things came into being. Inspired by this, I decided to change not only the digital world, which I had been dealing with software, but also the real world with hardware, so I became independent from Monster Lab Inc. and established Mira Inc. Mira Inc. was established before Mira Robotics Inc., the predecessor of ugo, Inc. and was mainly engaged in contracted development of various IoT devices such as cameras and smart locks that use Bluetooth to connect to smartphones.

What are the issues you are working on at ugo, Inc. and what is the outline of your business?

ugo, Inc. is mainly engaged in the development of "ugo Platform," a business DX framework that utilizes the avatar robot "ugo" and various robots. ugo is a robot that solves the problem of manpower shortage, and can remotely and automatically perform inspection work by making automatic patrols onsite. The ugo Platform, a business DX framework, enables robot operation through an intuitive UI and detailed settings for automation, helping to promote business DX. ugo can also be operated remotely, making it effective as a countermeasure against infection by the new coronavirus (COVID-19). We hope to promote the remoteness of on-site work through technology, just as services such as Zoom have broken through the threshold for remote work.

ugo is not just a robot, it has a face. What is its intention?

At first, ugo had no face or facial expression. But because ugo's characteristic is that it is very close to the employees, such as when making rounds on site, a sense of closeness is very important. For example, if ugo could show emotion it could motivate the employees to work hard. We added a face and facial expression because we thought that if people became attached to ugo in this way, it would make it easier for ugo employees to work, and it would also have a positive effect on the employees and the atmosphere at the work site.

What are some of the actual uses?

Currently, they are used as security robots in office buildings and for inspection work on equipment in power plants and data centers. In terms of infection control, they are also used to assist caregivers in private-pay homes for the elderly, where there are many elderly people and infection control is a serious concern.

In addition, we are currently focusing on infrastructure services that support society, and we would like to carry out operations that support electricity and transportation.

Mira Inc. develops IoT devices, but why did you start the robotics business?

As we were developing products at Mira Inc we were closely observing how all devices, including our own products, were being connected to the network and becoming more and more convenient. However, most devices are stationary and often require human intervention to access each other. For example, a washing machine has a front-end process for loading laundry and a back-end process for unloading it, and no matter how automated the washing process becomes, it still requires human intervention. In such cases,  we started the robotics business with the idea that introducing a robot that can run on its own will connect devices that are not moving, thereby reducing the need for human intervention.​ ​​ ​

What kind of impact do you want to make on society with Avatar Robots? What kind of world and what kind of future do you envision?

  I would like to solve the shortage of workers by using avatar robots. Japan's population is expected to decrease and the number of elderly people is expected to increase, so we believe that technology that can expand human capabilities and enable a small number of people to perform tasks will become necessary. For example, in environments where it is difficult for humans to advance due to narrowness or air pressure, teleoperated robots can be used to perform tasks in a way that humans are not able to.

In addition, Japan does not accept many immigrants and faces a future of worker shortages. In this context, the ability to work remotely from overseas will lead to increased productivity.​ ​​ ​

What position are you aiming for in this expanding market?

  In Japan, there is a need to organically connect elements of real space, such as smart cities, to create new value in order to promote Society 5.0. To realize this, we need to promote orchestration by linking various systems and services such as robots and IoT devices. Therefore, we will help such efforts by providing ugo and ugo Platform and hope to become an infrastructure for society in the future.

Have you faced any difficulties since founding the company?

Avatar robots are still new as a field, so it is difficult to be understood as a product. As is true in all new fields, Japan tends to be cautious about new things in terms of investment and product purchases, so it was very difficult to find a way to produce tangible results and promote social implementation. We believe it is important to clarify how the robot can be implemented in society and what value it can provide, and to complete it as a product, rather than just saying that it is interesting or amazing when it is developed.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, I had little knowledge of hardware when I started Mira Inc. and I studied a lot when developing the product. I feel that the knowledge and experience I gained at that time have been put to good use at ugo, Inc.

Is there any difference in development difficulty between software and hardware?

The big difference is the difficulty of maintenance and updating. While software can be operated collectively on the server, hardware must be handled one by one, making it difficult to deal with problems.

The development process is also very different. While software development methods are increasingly agile, it is difficult to change the specifications of hardware after it is created because of the actual hardware. Therefore, the waterfall method is often used, and development is carried out by carefully following the steps and specifying the specifications in detail at each stage.

However, we are also aware of the fact that we have been developing software. Hardware has often been treated as a consumer item, and its value basically declines after purchase.  However, considering the environmental impact of hardware, it is necessary to adopt an up-cycle format to increase the value of hardware, just as software is updated over and over again. Today, we are moving from the trend of mass production and mass consumption to an era of high-mix low-volume production and non-possession, and we are trying to access solutions to problems with this kind of development awareness.

You changed the name of the company in May 2021, what was the process and intent?

The product itself became famous, and the word "ugo" became widespread, so we changed the company name from Mira Robotics Inc to ugo, Inc. as a form of brand unification.

The name ugo also expresses the company's stance of wanting to "integrate" various things in the world through products.

The slogan is "Social Implementation First," a strategy that focuses on global issues.

Could you tell us about the organizational culture and recruitment?

As I mentioned earlier, as a company we place the greatest emphasis on "social implementation." 
Robot development is often conducted at universities and other research institutions, and robots are often developed in a closed environment according to predetermined prerequisites, which means that the technology cannot be used in society. In many other cases, the focus is only on the technology, and the product is developed from a product-out perspective, thinking that because this technology is good, it must be a product that people will use. Our focus is on listening to the voice of the people in the real world and implementing products that can solve real problems. For this reason, we are conscious of developing products based on all perspectives, including cost, functionality, ease of use, and design.

We are currently looking for a mechanical design engineer to be in charge of improving and mass-producing robots, a platform engineer to work with ugo and other robots and expand the range of services, and a field support engineer to handle the on-site installation of the robot and return feedback to the engineer.

We are not concerned about age groups, and welcome anyone who is interested in ugo and can deliver value to our customers with an awareness of social implementation. Also, since we still have about 25 employees, we frequently discuss ideas. If you are able to discuss constructively and like that kind of culture, we would like you to apply.

What are your thoughts on global expansion?

Globally, Japan is an advanced country with a declining birthrate and aging population, and is facing a variety of problems. If this were to happen on the scale of the populations of China and Europe, problems would arise even on a scale many times larger than that of Japan. Since such problems await us in the not-too-distant future, I believe it is very meaningful to take advantage of the fact that Japan is a country with advanced social issues, and to use the know-how and technology we have developed there to expand our business overseas in the future.  We will first accumulate knowledge in Japan, and then expand our business to China, Europe, and other countries where there is a shortage of labor.  

In addition, Japan was originally the world's top manufacturing powerhouse, but with the current situation where overseas forces are growing, I feel that we must change Japanese manufacturing. Specifically, as I mentioned earlier,  it is important to build a business model in which products are not disposable, but rather upcycled, that is, they are not depreciated, but rather accumulated in increasing value. The global environment and resource problems are global issues, and by resolving these issues, we aim to make Japan a manufacturing powerhouse that we can be proud of again on a global scale.

How did you spend your time as a student?

I have loved making things since I was a child. When I first entered university, I was making music using computers, and from there I became interested in video expression through programming, which led me to video production as well. At the time, interaction design and animation by Flash creators were popular, and I became interested in the engineering part of creation through a wide range of creative activities, such as adding music to things to create a single content, and CG production. I became interested in the engineering part of creation. For example, when I think about how to link the created products and systems with various other things, the study of software engineering becomes necessary. In college, I studied software engineering and how to think about and deal with the issues that arise when creating something with a team of colleagues.

Also, when I was a student, offshore development was starting to become popular in India and other countries, and there was a growing number of companies that seemed to specialize in software engineering. I was also very interested in software engineering, so I actually did a two-month internship at a software development company in India. It was a great experience for me to learn the process of software development and software engineering at the forefront while I was still a student.

Can you tell us how you spend your days off and how you refresh yourself?

On my days off, I often program or think about business, but I do it for fun, not as a job. However, if I do all of those things, my mind becomes too preoccupied, so I often play tennis to refresh myself, and recently I have been jogging. I also sometimes go out for a drive.

Do you have a message for startups in the pre-seed to seed stage?

I think the most important thing is to meet people. Not only for fundraising and recruiting, but also by meeting various people, sharing your ideas and what you want to do, and brushing up your content, you will broaden your perspective, which will lead to the growth of your company. In the beginning, we often focus too much on product development, so I think it is important to talk to people and review the company and its products from different perspectives.

What are the things that have contributed to your growth and the growth of your business?

I think  it was good to have the experience of speaking at pitching events because it allowed me to clarify my thoughts and verbalize them to the outside world. Exposure in this form can lead to employment opportunities, and the more opportunities you have, the better.

I also think that my experience at Monster Lab Inc. was significant. At the time of the start-up, I experienced the process of building a team, growing the business, and managing sales, etc. I feel that the experience of experiencing business growth up close and personal is still useful today.

I also participated in an acceleration program at the beginning of my career, where I learned a lot about branding. I believe that PR and branding are just as important as the product itself, because even if you only develop a product, if it is not well known, people will not buy it.  Through my experience in the Acceleration Program, I was able to successfully develop the character of ugo and the brand of the company as a whole, and I think that is why the company is currently being featured in various media.

Finally, would you like to say a few words to our readers?

We provide a variety of services utilizing robots and robotics. If you share our vision of changing society with new technology or creating the future, we would be happy to hear from you and would like you to apply.