Interview by Lauren Keyson
William Santana Li is the Chairman & CEO of an innovative company called Knightscope, a developer of Autonomous Data Machines (Robots). He is developing technology to one day be able to protect and prevent crime. An American entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience with a broad and deep range of expertise gained from several global assignments in the automotive sector and a number of startups, this new robot technology has the potential to disrupt the way law enforcement works at its core level.
At Ford Motor Company, he held over 12 business and technical positions, focused on 4 continents, cutting across each functional area. These positions ranged from component, systems, and vehicle engineering with Visteon, Mazda, and Lincoln; to business & product strategy on the US youth market, India, and the emerging markets in Asia-Pacific and South America; as well as the financial turnaround of Ford of Europe. In addition, he was on the AMAZON team, which established an all-new modular plant in Brazil. Subsequently, he served as Director of Mergers & Acquisitions.
After internally securing $250 million, Bill founded and was COO of GreenLeaf, a Ford subsidiary that became the world’s 2nd largest automotive recycler. Under his leadership, GreenLeaf grew to a 600-employee operation with 20 locations and $150 million in sales. At the age of 28, Bill was the youngest senior executive at Ford worldwide.
Bill was then recruited by SOFTBANK Venture Capital to establish Model E Corporation as its President and CEO, a new car company where the “Subscribe and Drive” philosophy and also built a world-class advisory board comprised of senior officials that had worked directly for 3 different U.S. Presidents.
William Santana Li: Welcome to Knightscope showroom in New York City. I’m glad to have you here! These are crime fighting fully autonomous security robots that we’ve got running across the country.
We hold contracts in 15 states, across four time zones, running 24/7. They deter, detect and report. So, if I put a marked law enforcement vehicle in front of your home or office, criminal behavior changes. So, if you pull into a hospital parking lot at 3 am, there’s a 5 foot tall, 400-pound machine roaming around that says security on it, likely you’re going to steal a car somewhere else and not there.
That’s exactly what our clients have been experiencing. These machines not only deter negative behavior but capture 90 terabytes of data a year, that no human could process properly and put them in a format that security and law enforcement officers can properly use to help protect their country.
LK: What made you want to do this as a boy growing up?
WL: Two motivations-one personal and one professional. The professional one is that I’m an ex-automotive executive. For me, these are really simple cars to build. Self-driving cars and autonomous technology will turn the world around. I think we have a unique way to commercialize the technology.
There’s been about 80 billion dollars invested in self-driving cars and close to 50 companies working on it. I believe we’re the only company in the world that can claim we are operating across an entire country, 24/7, entirely autonomous.
On the personal side, I was born here in NYC. Someone hit our town on 9/11 and I’m still pretty upset about it, so the rest of my life I’m dedicating to better securing our country.
LK: What makes your mind think like a robot?
WL: I don’t, we’re human. I think Hollywood and the media has done a service and disservice over the years.
LK: Does it think?
WL: Your car has an identification number, these machines have a machine ID number. More than half of our machines are named for our clients. There’s Rosy, Steve to Big Daddy, little mana. There’s all kinds of funny names out there. It’s interesting to watch humans interact with new technologies.
LK: Are these guys thinking?
WL: In a way, yes. We use artificial intelligence in a number of capacities. Practical use of autonomous self-driving technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence into something that’s actually helpful for society. The ability for it to plan and replan on its own while it moves, for you to have a two-way dialogue with the machine, for the machine to learn this is a person and not a fire hydrant, read 1200 driver licenses a minute, run a thermal scan, etc. They’re really good at doing the monotonous, computational heavy stuff and then allowing human guards and officers to do the strategic and enforcement work.
LK: You have lots of values and morals, but do they?
WL: Other than our long term mission to see if we can make the US the safest country in the world that’s their mission. They don’t have any inherent biases.
LK: Whoever programmed them, which was you initially, don’t they have your biases?
WL: No, they do what they’re told to do. There’s no bias in reading a license plate and telling me if that number is 3. There’s no bias in telling if that is a person or not. There’s nothing inherent in these technologies today that would yet today have that capability. One of the biggest issues today is everyone is worked up about robots. Every fifteen years we have this episode.
A new technology shows up and the world is going to end. Electricity shows up and that obvious that’s the work of the devil. The car goes over a dirt road in the early 1900s, that’s going to get somebody killed, and it does.
Then you’ll never see another banker again because the ATM shows up and will take all our jobs. Every fifteen years is the same episode. All I ask you to do is please pull out the employment levels from 1900-2019. There are two dips; one in 1929 and one in 2008 and I can assure you those have nothing to do with technology.
The other thing we need to think about is if you ever want to find out about something, follow the money. There’s $80 billion dumped into startups every year. This one is $100 billion. I’m going to argue significantly less than 1% is going into robotics. So, the reason there’s an Amazon, Facebook, or Google is because a ton of money was dumped into a ton of startups into the same sector over and over again. And a massive amount of failures until you get one or two that worked.
You don’t have that going on in the robotics space. If you told me out of the 80 billion, 50 billion is going into the robotics space, then there’s going to be all kinds of massive change happening very quickly. But the talking point doesn’t match the cash, and that’s where I have an issue. That continual discussion of this is going to happen doesn’t actually match the reality of the money moving.
LK: Tell someone you have an idea like yours out of the blue, how did you get the idea and go from the idea to starting to work on it, to finishing it.
WL: We’re not a robotics company, we’re an advanced physical security company, Whatever technology we need to develop to help or fix our clients, that’s what we’re going to work on. Which is the opposite of what most roboticists do. I’m an ex-car guy. Some folks will criticize, well why is he running Knightscope? And to me, the problem with most roboticists is we’re still stuck in the 1970s of what was the PC industry.
Robotics is finally starting to come out of the hobbyist category, but most technologists are still trying to find the problem for the technology they have. They think this little robot hand is a company. This is not a company, it is a feature. They can’t understand and distinguish between adding value for a client or promoting their own technology.
That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to solve serious problems. Crime has a trillion dollar negative impact on the economy in the US every single year. It’s a hidden tax we all pay every single year in blood, tears and treasure. Our country is not structured to address the issue. The US Dept of Defense has a 700 billion budget. There’s one person in charge and there’s a huge military industrial complex to help build you any submarine, jet fighter, tank whatever you want. (Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing etc.) It actually works.
Our country has a million law enforcement professionals and security officers that get up every morning, are willing to take a bullet for you and your family, and the technology we provide them in this country is below the dignity of our nation. So you’ve got 2 million people trying to secure 320 million people across 50 states. That math doesn’t work. The second piece of math that doesn’t work, is the US Dept of Justice and the US Dept of Homeland Security have no federal jurisdiction over 19,000 law enforcement agencies and 8,000 private security firms.
There’s literally no one charge, no capital going into the sector and that’s why over the last 100 years, there’s been no innovation in this space. You have securities getting up every morning with a notepad, number 2 pencil and maybe a stun gun usually for a law enforcement officer, not a guard. That’s the level of technology we provide for them.
Then we wonder why every morning and wonder why some new horrific new violent act of violence occurs on our own soil. We don’t invest as a country in giving the people tools for them to do their jobs more effectively. So, if you’re going to do that, you need to come up with a set of technologies that can deter a lot of negative behavior in the first place.
Can we give the guards superhuman capabilities to see around the corner, cover more ground 24/7, to detect new things you would’ve never been able to do before? Does the hammer take the carpenter’s job away? No, they need it to do his or her job. It’s time we give guards additional capabilities to be able to actually do their jobs effectively. Those jobs are in question.
You have 100 to 400% employee turnover rates, they cannot keep the people in the job. It’s worse than the fast food industry. You tell me that someone’s sitting in the parking lot at 3 am twiddling their thumbs is a viable job, then I’ll show you a disgruntled employee, unengaged and most likely not to stay in that job.
What if the robots could actually promote everybody? Now if you went to that security guard and go, hey we’ve got 7 of those robots then I’ll work for you. Now you’ve got a completely different conversation.
WL: They will show up on time, show no attitude, not take any days off or anything like that so the humans can actually do what they’re really good at.
LK: They’re more than just a tool…
WL: I’m not so sure.
LK: Well they have names…
WL: Humans have this funny fascination with giving robots names. We have this one client where they were experiencing 1 to 2 criminal incidents a week. Stolen car, theft, assault, really bad stuff going on. It got so bad, human guards said I’m not patrolling out there at night. So we put a machine there, and all the incidents have gone down to zero. For the last 15 months, we’ve had a lot of success and then obviously if you ran your car and you drove it 24/7 for a month, you would probably need some maintenance or service.
So we had dispatched a technician to service the machine at a hospital. The story goes he got surrounded by some nurses and doctors saying, “you’re not taking away our robot are you?” Now Knightscope can stand up and say we’ve helped a law enforcement agency get an arrest warrant for a sexual predator, helped a security guard apprehend a thief, stopped a corporate vandal, a fraudulent insurance claim etc. There’s been over a dozen of these wins and we’re just getting started. If you start fast forwarding you would never build a building today without a smoke alarm or fire detector. It’s going to be the same a few years from now where you didn’t want to be at having a $6-$12 an hour to guard your facility properly, you invested so much in your people, you invested all this money in your assets, why didn’t you invest in a state-of-the-art security system.
LK: You had this idea, what was the first thing you did next?
WL: Don’t EVER let anyone tell you no. It took us 364 days to raise the seed round of funding in 2013. I was told, “Hey Bill, you’re out of your mind, this will never work and you’ll need 15 million to build your first prototype that probably won’t work. It’s hardware and software, you should pick one.”
Lastly, physical security is not an investment thesis, you need to go away. My encouragement for all the founders and entrepreneurs out there, don’t let anyone ever tell you no. Go do what you feel is right as long as its sound, you just keep at it.
Now we’re working on what we hope will be our pre-IPO financing. We’ve secured our ticker symbol on Nasdaq, it’s going to be KSCP. We’re raising 50 million now and if you’re an accredited investor you can hit the green investment button and actually join us and be a force for good.