Robotics Entrepreneurship and Classes Earned – An Interview with Celltrio CEO Charlie Duncheon


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Celltrio LogoCharlie Duncheon is CEO, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board at Celltrio, a manufacturer of automation-based solutions for the life sciences industry. Duncheon has led seven other robot companies to successful growth. His accomplishments include establishing an unprecedented worldwide channel of 100+ integrators while at Adept Technology, growing Adept to $100m+ revenues and an initial public offering. He was also CEO of Artificial Muscle (later acquired by Bayer Material Science) and founded EIG America, transferring lithium battery technology from EIG Korea to the US market. In addition, Duncheon founded cofounding Grabit, a SRI spinoff that produces electroadhesion gripping technology designed for industrial automation and material handling, raising two venture backed rounds of several million dollars.

Duncheon is the recipient of the Joseph Engelberger Award for Leadership in Robotics. He is currently an Executive in Residence at Purdue University and a mentor for Plug and Play Tech Center. He was elected President of the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) and served a total of eight years on the RIA Board.

Charlie Duncheon was recently interviewed by Joanne Pransky for Industrial Robot. That interview is reprinted below, with minor modifications. The original interview can be found HERE.

Joanne Pransky: What has been your favorite job in the robotics industry thus far and why?

Charlie Duncheon: I’ve had many different jobs, but I think my favorite experience is successfully implementing brand new applications that have never been automated. I always got a thrill out of that both as an engineer and as a commercial success.

One of many applications that immediately comes to mind was the handling of frozen hamburgers with Adept washdown robots in 1991. No one had ever successfully handled frozen meat patty packout, and it was a really bad ergonomic situation for human operators. Carpal tunnel syndrome was showing up, and the workers were operating in an obviously cold environment.

To use robots, you needed to envision seeing moving patties on conveyors and you needed a robot that could be washed down every third shift. We successfully pulled it off.

Joanne Pransky: What period in your career has been the most fun?

I think any time you’re an entrepreneur, decisions are difficult because you don’t have strong market research resources like you have in a bigger company such as a Monsanto or even Adept.

Charlie Duncheon: There were two periods. Right now I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had working at Celltrio because of the ongoing experience of doing exciting new robot applications in life sciences (Figure 1).

During the first period were the two startups that both went public – Fared Robot Systems, which was the first company that I helped start after leaving a Fortune 50 company, and the second was Adept Technology, which I joined at its inception. The fun part of that experience was developing integrator channels. I really enjoyed the leverage effect and revenue growth of a powerful, effective marketing channel.

One does not just go out and sign up integrators and then watch the cash flow. When we signed integrators up, we created a virtual partnering company; both of us working together to grow the business together. That was the most rewarding experience because I ended up making friends for life.


Figure 1: Celltrio’s Cell Line Automation System

Joanne Pransky: What led you to leave Adept in 2004 and form Duncheon Associates, your own consulting business?

Charlie Duncheon: I left Adept for a short while during the dot-com period, just long enough to get a taste of entrepreneurship before the bubble popped. The entire North American robot industry really suffered in the early 2000s, and it just was not a fun time at Adept. We had gone from a $120m company to a company less than half that size largely because of the large migration of manufacturing from the USA to China. Our company was 60% US manufacturing-based so that had a big impact on us.

I had that entrepreneurial bug and I really felt consulting would be exciting. I could go beyond assembly and material handling at Adept to working on a lot of different projects simultaneously. That’s what drew me into consulting.

I have had a love for robotics my entire career, so one of my first clients was Precise Automation, a company founded by the two Adept co-founders who had also moved on. I helped Precise on the sales and marketing side.

Joanne Pransky: Can you describe your journey and what led you to co-found your companies, Artificial Muscle, EIG America, Grabit and Celltrio, and then how you decided on what the trigger points were going to be for exiting the startups you co-founded?

Charlie Duncheon: I had two successful exits already so I did not go into Duncheon Associates to start a “unicorn” company. I went to Duncheon Associates on a consulting basis to branch out and do a lot of different work in many robot sectors.

I received a contract to look at Artificial Muscle, which manufactured electroactive polymers developed by SRI labs, from the venture capitalists who had invested. I went in and made some recommendations, and then they asked me to do full time business development. I was intrigued by the technology, so I did that and the next thing you know, I was the CEO of the company. None of this was in my plan; it just happened.

I think that the biggest mistake, and by the way I made it twice, is letting your engineering enthusiasm get in the way of business timing reality.

We eventually reached a point where I saw the limitations of the technology in terms of how far it could go. At some point I got itchy again, so I moved on from Artificial Muscle, remained a consultant to help the new CEO, but went back to Duncheon Associates doing consulting again. And then lo and behold, something similar happened again. I got a contract with a company in Korea called DRB, a tier one automotive supply company that had made an investment in a lithium ion battery company, EIG.

EIG asked me to come in and see if there was a US market for that technology. Duncheon Associates again did a business development plan to show that there indeed was a very promising market. The next thing you know, I was offered the CEO position at EIG America, which I accepted. After a few years, I got itchy yet again. EIG America was folded back into the DRB company. I decided I didn’t want to work for a big Korean company, so I moved on and went back to Duncheon Associates. I work through a number of different contracts. For example, I worked for Mesh Dynamics, an early mesh networking company in IoT and served on their Board of Directors.

I got involved once again with SRI with electroadhesive technology that had similar roots as electroactive polymers (Figure 2). And again, I was intrigued on the engineering side.

I was contracted to define a market for the technology and once again found myself as cofounder and CEO of Grabit and raised a Series A with my co founder. Like the previous  companies I co-founded, after a few years, I remained as an advisor, but went back to Duncheon Associates.

Grabit Gripper

Figure 2: Grabit’s electroadhesion based gripper picking up a cell phone.

After Grabit, I had a lot of interesting projects: Panasonic, Airbus, Hewlett Packard with their metallic 3D printer market development, and I was really enjoying myself. Then my good friend Dr Jin-Oh Kim in Korea caught up with me, telling me he had developed and installed quite a few successful applications in the Korean life sciences market with his semiconductor robot company. He knew the Korean market was a tiny market compared to the rest of the world, so he gave me a contract to define how big that worldwide market was in life science automation.

I put a plan together and for the fourth time, found myself in the CEO / co-founder position. That was not my intent at all. My intent in 2004 was to be a consultant and enjoy doing a lot of different things, but four different times I ended up in the executive office. Celltrio is extremely promising and an exhilarating company to be part of.

Joanne Pransky: Do you consider yourself to be primarily an engineer or primarily an entrepreneur?

Charlie Duncheon: If you’re an entrepreneur in robotics, you have to be an engineer as well. I think in the early stages I am always both, but in the longer run, I would say I’m more of an entrepreneur. I’ve got maybe three patents, but I don’t develop technology. I am more of an implementer, and a commercializer of technology, so to answer your question I’m probably more of an entrepreneur than an engineer.

One of the challenges for young entrepreneurs is not having made the mistakes in the past. You learn from your mistakes, but I will say the older you get, the better your good decision percentage improves.

Joanne Pransky: What is the toughest business decision you’ve ever had to make?

Charlie Duncheon: As CEO there are many tough decisions you have to make. I think any time you’re an entrepreneur, decisions are difficult because you don’t have strong market research resources like you have in a bigger company such as a Monsanto or even Adept.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to make decisions more on your gut. This is what I mentor entrepreneurial students on at Purdue University. I tell them, “First go work for a Fortune 500,” because I think a lot of young entrepreneurs need to start out with that good first company and put some money away. One of the challenges for young entrepreneurs is not having made the mistakes in the past. You learn from your mistakes, but I will say the older you get, the better your good decision percentage improves.

I think any business decision as an entrepreneur is a challenging decision. I’ve made mostly good ones but I’ve made some bad ones as well. I think the toughest decisions that I ever had to make was when I had to do layoffs at Adept. I was looking at a percentage or dollar target reduction I had to make in my organization. I had to look out at all these 100% loyal employees who worked so hard for me and were like family to me, and I had to choose. I had to tell them face to face that they’re no longer working for my company. I went through two of those at Adept, and it was absolutely brutal decision-making.

The reason it’s tough is first of all, it’s very personal. The second is that I always blame myself – i.e. if we must do layoffs, it’s because I didn’t manage correctly. I felt I had made some wrong decisions that led to the need for a layoff. Yes, there was a big global economic turndown, but you can do planning and you can do forecasting and you can balance optimism with conservatism and at least minimize the level of layoffs you would have to make. That’s where I always hold myself accountable, and I always take those things very personally.

Joanne Pransky: Which one single achievement in the robotics industry are you most proud of?

Charlie Duncheon

Figure 3: Duncheon received the Joseph F. Engelberger Robotics Award in 2000 for his contribution to the robotics sector.

Charlie Duncheon: Receiving the RIA’s Engelberger Award for Leadership was probably the proudest I was for any recognition (Figure 3). But another proud achievement was, as I mentioned earlier, putting together the global channel at Adept Technology because Adept could never have reached anywhere near its revenue level without a powerful channel. And not just putting the channel together, but conducting all the events with integrators – creating mutual business plans, conferences, the integrator application awards, etc.

Years later a client came to me at Duncheon Associates and gave me a contract to put together a partner channel because they were told by people in the robotics industry that everybody ended up emulating the Adept Integrator channel strategy. That was as flattering as getting the Engelberger award and as the Japanese say, “Copying is the ultimate compliment.”

Joanne Pransky: What is the biggest mistake or greatest lesson you have learned?

I think that the biggest mistake, and by the way I made it twice, is letting your engineering enthusiasm get in the way of business timing reality. I guess I got spoiled with the amazing commercialization I experienced at Adept led by co-founders Brian Carlisle and Bruce Shimano.

I underestimated this aspect of the business at Artificial Muscle although it made it as a company and was acquired by Bayer. Today it functions as part of two different companies, but it never reached the potential that I thought it could. I got enthralled with electroactive polymer replacing motors, encoders and harmonic drives, and I was not realistic about the amount of time required for commercialization.

I made the same mistake again at Grabit by underestimating the amount of commercialization required (Figure 4). Grabit today is part of a larger company, Burke Porter, but it never reached the financial returns I think people were hoping for. We still beat the odds of startup companies because most startup companies do not even survive, but I learned my mistake of the fundamental time it takes for a technology to be reliable enough to be on the factory floor. I am not going to make that mistake again.

Grabit Gripper

Figure 4: Grabit’s electroadhesion based gripper.

In Celltrio’s case, the technology is not only developed but is running on the floors and laboratories in Korea. Our primary goal is to continue to enhance and develop life science automation offerings for the global market.

I’m a mentor at Plug and Play in addition to Purdue, and I always tell the startups the same thing – that “rebooting” is not an acceptable option on the factory floor. For the level of reliability needed on the factory floor or broad ranges of environments, that product has to work 99+%. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time to get there if you’re starting with raw technology.

Joanne Pransky: What do you think Masters and PhD engineering students should be doing to best prepare themselves for the commercial world?

Charlie Duncheon: I think the keyword in your question is commercial. I see engineers get so excited about pure robot technology. My advice to Masters and PhD students is keep an eye on the application and commercial side. When you look at technology developments, keep your eye on the path to that application or vertical solution and how big the market is for that technology and application. I think that can lead to a much more balanced approach to R&D and robotics.

Joanne Pransky: What robotic project do you think you’ll be working on ten years from now?

One future trend, certainly in life sciences and probably applies in manufacturing as well, is articulated arms on mobile platforms that connect production cells and storage to packout in warehouses.

Charlie Duncheon: If I’m still doing robotics in ten years, it’s probably going to be in life sciences because it’s exciting and I see so much potential in it. The interesting thing about life sciences is what’s going on in individualized medicine. It’s heavily into R&D right now, but it’s beginning to move into the production and clinical side. I just see huge advancements coming, similar to the semiconductor industry’s strong growth path of the 1980s, because of the volume requirements. A good example is COVID-19. We are providing automated cells that can do initial drug or vaccine discovery. But a much larger market opportunity comes once you have a drug that’s approved and now you need that high-volume production to manufacture it. I think that path will also apply to individualized medicine.

Celltrio RoboStor

Figure 5: Celltrio’s RoboStor

In the early days when I first started in robotics, it was all about cutting labor costs. What we do now at Celltrio is help cure diseases in a shorter time due to the pure consistency obtained with robotic automation (Figure 5). As an example, we’re actually increasing the number and improving the quality of cells that are produced in a flask by picking the flask up and accurately managing it 100% of the time.

We’re not talking about cutting jobs to automate these labs. We are freeing up scientists to work on their formulas, and we are introducing all this consistency, which of course, ends up compressing the time that it takes to discover the drug. For me, it’s a lot more fun and rewarding to work in robotics when you’re making a positive impact on society versus just improving the bottom line of the manufacturer.

I see the expansion of very flexible factories producing cells and antibodies with robots. One future trend, certainly in life sciences and probably applies in manufacturing as well, is articulated arms on mobile platforms that connect production cells and storage to packout in warehouses. If I am still still involved with robotics ten years from now, I am probably going to be in the middle of the high-volume production side of life sciences.

Joanne Pransky has been an Associate Editor for Industrial Robot Journal since 1995. She was also one of the co- founders and the Director of Marketing of the world’s first medical robotics journal, The International Journal of Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery. Pransky also served as the Senior Sales and Marketing Executive for Sankyo Robotics, a manufacturer of industrial robot systems. She has consulted for some of the industry’s top robotic and entertainment organizations, including Robotic Industries Association, Motoman, Stäubli, KUKA Robotics, ST Robotics, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., and for Summit Entertainment’s film Ender’s Game, in which she brought never-seen-before medical robots to the big screen. She can be contacted at joannepransky[@]