How the Penn alumnus behind Humanistic Robotics, Inc. is saving the world one landmine at a time—and making money doing it.
BY KATHRYN LEVY FELDMAN | Illustration by Ryan Graber | PDF download
Ten days before Christmas 2012, Samuel J. Reeves W’05 found himself in front of the British Airways ticket counter at Philadelphia International Airport doing a quick cost/benefit analysis: the excess-baggage fee he was being asked to hand over for his third suitcase versus the value of its contents, an essential—but duplicate, and very heavy—piece of mechanical equipment.
Reeves paid the not-unsubstantial fee, which turned out to be money well-spent. When he arrived at his destination—a UN peacekeeping mission in Juba, South Sudan—he discovered that the equipment he’d sent separately by freight container had never arrived.
Reeves’ suitcase held a coupler that his company, Humanistic Robotics, Inc. (HRI) had custom-designed for the UN to attach the landmine roller to an armored peacekeeping vehicle. As it was, despite months of planning and specifying, the coupler still needed to be modified in the field to make it fit. But at least they had a coupler and, in the end, it did fit.
Reeves has become a master at fitting the pieces together in the decade or so since he and industrial designer Josh Koplin co-founded Philadelphia-based HRI, which designs rollers for clearing landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs); creates vehicle remote-control systems; and develops engineering solutions for government agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), and commercial clients. Though HRI works alongside and for many nonprofits, Reeves’ goal was always to create a business that would solve a global problem. “We are not a charity; we are a functioning business here to make a profit,” he emphasizes. “Our contribution to society is our mission. Our contribution to the world is what we do.”
The seeds of this dynamic—often referred to as social entrepreneurship—were planted in Reeves’ consciousness in a class taught by Wharton’s Ian MacMillan, the Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and director of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center. “When you generate positive inflow, what you put into motion is a virtuous cycle,” MacMillan explains. “The more money you make, the more people are helped. It is often a more sustainable model than a charity. At least in some cases, you can solve problems by helping people become self-sufficient.”
These ideas prompted Reeves to start “rethinking what I really wanted out of my career,” he says. “I realized I wanted to start a business with an altruistic end goal.”
What that business would be, exactly, began to come into focus when Reeves teamed up with Koplin, then a master’s-degree student in industrial design at the Pratt Institute. The two met through their parents. Koplin’s father, a business colleague of Reeves’ dad, was entrusted with hospitality duty when Reeves entered Penn. The offspring quickly recognized a synergy between the idea guy and the business guy and were off and running.
Seeking to create “a business that would save the world,” Reeves eventually fixed on a concept in Koplin’s sketchbook for a pressure sensitive, robotic landmine- clearing system. That was the “one [Reeves] couldn’t stop talking about,” Koplin, now HRI’s chief technology officer, recalls. “I wasn’t sure it was a business as much as it was an idea to give the world for free, but Samuel just started working the phones.” Once Reeves discovered there was a substantial market for such an enterprise, he was all-in. (In fact, the market is huge: according to The Economics of Peace and Security Journal, in 2003 the UN alone received more than $40 million for demining.)
Today, says Reeves, HRI is recognized as “the world experts in roller technology” and a leader in the “super niche” of landmine clearing. How Reeves, Koplin, their team of engineers, and village of Penn connections got there—through Afghanistan, Croatia, Thailand, Bosnia, Cambodia, and most recently, South Sudan—is a story of persistence, passion, and self-professed naïveté.
“Basically we were proposing to start one of the more difficult businesses we could start,” Reeves says with a laugh.
“A certain amount of naïveté is good,” seconds Koplin. “We had no idea it couldn’t be done.”