Back in 2004, while Koplin was figuring out a way to integrate the construction of a prototype of his landmine-clearing design into the requirements for his Pratt master’s thesis, Reeves submitted their idea to Wharton Entrepreneurship’s Venture Initiation Program, designed to help Penn students create their own businesses. Once accepted, Reeves began drafting a business plan for the company, which he and Koplin called Humanistic Robotics from Koplin’s original concept of a robotic landmine-clearing roller.
“You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence to get past those people who are skeptical about a 22-year-old starting a business,” Reeves allows. But it certainly helped to have the support and advice he received from his “world-class” Wharton professors, who never once discouraged him from pursuing this idea. “I cannot say enough about the Wharton faculty. It was super-supportive.”
Koplin feels equally indebted to Penn for “adopting” him. “People at Penn were all about ‘How can I help?’” he says. “Samuel was so fortunate to be in a place that let him have the latitude to be what he wanted to be.”
MacMillan acknowledges that, while he thought what Reeves was doing was “admirable,” he wasn’t sure he could pull it off. “But Samuel had this vision of starting a business doing demining and he hacked away at it for years. God bless him.”
An essential part of that “hacking away” was talking to anyone who knew anything about landmine clearing, anywhere in the world.
Reeves “really impressed me as someone who could make connections with partners who could join him in moving Humanistic Robotics forward,” says Karl Ulrich, CBIC Endowed Professor of Operations and Management and vice dean of innovation at Wharton. Ulrich, who was faculty director and founder of Weiss Tech House from 2003-2008, taught Reeves in his course on product design. “He established relationships with governments, companies, and individuals, even as an undergraduate,” Ulrich remembers.
While the campus entrepreneurial community was squarely behind them, Reeves and Koplin did not lack for discouragement from other quarters. They were convinced that their concept for a smaller, cheaper, easier to maintain and transport roller was better than anything on the market, but no one believed them. Everywhere Reeves turned, he encountered naysayers in the industry, who said rollers didn’t work.
But then one of those skeptics, Alex Griffiths—at the time a program officer at the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining, an international think tank that researched landmine clearance—called him back. “He told me they didn’t actually know if rollers worked, and they were putting together a study to find out what did,” Reeves recounts. And, oh, by the way, the center was hiring consultants to do this research, and would they be interested?
Which is how Reeves and Koplin wound up taking some time off from their respective academic programs to travel all over the world to research the most effective method of landmine clearance. With funding from the Geneva think tank, the partners traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, Bosnia, Croatia, Canada, and Afghanistan in the summer and early fall of 2004, and submitted their findings at the end of the year.
Besides lots of valuable data, the experience gave them legitimacy and credibility.
“When we’re talking with people who’ve been in the military for years and have cleared mines, we can say, ‘We were in Afghanistan too,’” Reeves said in a 2005 Gazette story reporting on HRI’s winning the $5,000 grand prize in that year’s PennVention competition sponsored by Weiss Tech House [“Gazetteer,” July|Aug 2005]. Not only that, notes Koplin, “it was like peeling an onion. Standing in the field, we could see we were righter and righter. In the middle of Bosnia, we could see opportunities.”
Winning that PennVention prize “was huge for us,” says Reeves. Weiss Tech House gave the partners space, tools, and support to work on the design for over a year. “Samuel made the best possible use of Penn resources, taking advantage of funding and space from the Weiss Tech House and the Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs,” Ulrich notes. At the time, other mechanical de-miners cost as much as $250,000. HRI’s version came with an estimated price tag of under $100,000, although they had only built a prototype, not the real thing. (Depending on the level of sophistication needed, the company’s current products cost $70,000, $85,000, and $95,000.)
By 2006, both partners having earned their degrees, Koplin had set up shop in a rented 10 foot by 10 foot motorcycle bay he found on Craigslist for $150 a month, while Reeves took a part-time job at the Wharton Small Business Development Center and continued to work the phones. His persistence garnered them $100,000 from the research and development arm of the Department of Defense, which was curious enough about their concept to offer to build it for them. All they needed were engineering drawings.
The Penn network went into overdrive. Karl Ulrich connected Reeves and Koplin with his brother, Nathan Ulrich ENG’87 GEng’89 Gr’90, a world- renowned designer and inventor of award-winning products (the robotic Penn hand, the Xootr line of kick scooters, the Voloci electric motorbike, and the iDrive power-assisted wheelchair, to name a few). From the beginning, it was a fortuitous connection.
“My overall impression is that clearing mines is an especially difficult technical problem, and that current systems are not adequate in many respects, exactly as you had explained in our meeting,” Nathan Ulrich wrote in a 2006 email to Reeves. “I agree that there is an excellent opportunity (and need) for an effective low-cost system.” The inventor agreed to generate the engineering specs.
The Army built and welded the frame at the prototyping facility at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. “But they didn’t make the arms or wheels or assemble the rest,” says Koplin, who ordered the rest of the parts made at a machine shop. He and Reeves realized they had outgrown the motorcycle bay. They needed to hire engineers, and they needed a larger facility in which they could assemble their product.
Enter Congressman Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran elected in 2006 to represent Pennsylvania’s Eighth Congressional District who would serve through 2011. The partners had met Murphy and told him about their project during his campaign. When they—not coincidentally—set up shop in a former textile mill in his district in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Murphy became their champion. During his time on the House Armed Services Committee and later on the Appropriations Committee, Murphy helped HRI secure a series of government contracts that increased from $400,000 to $1.6 million to $3.2 million in 2010.
At Karl Ulrich’s suggestion, Reeves and Koplin also reconnected with some engineers they had met in the PennVention contest: Erik de Brun GEng’06 and Stephen Ahnert, who had started their own design firm, Ripple Design, and agreed to take them on as clients. What began as assembly work continued with research and design until HRI was able to hire its own engineers.
“We were emotionally invested in the product from the beginning and it has been incredibly exciting to be there from the beginning and watch them grow,” says de Brun. As a result of the initial involvement with HRI, his firm has continued to be significantly involved in landmine-clearing technology, he adds. “It is fair to say that because of Samuel and Josh, between 25 and 40 percent of our business is in humanitarian demining. It is a life changing business to be a part of.”
The team spent several months testing their machine in the factory and in the field at an army testing range in Michigan, burying mines at different depths, varying the speed of the machine, adding weight, and tinkering with the design. “We simulated land fields of different terrains (sand, dirt, gravel), and we practiced on the hardest types of (inert) landmines to hit, Chinese Type 72, lent to us by the Canadian government,” Reeves notes. “By the fourth generation of rollers [they are currently on their sixth], we had achieved 99.6 percent detonation rates over 1,300 mines buried as deep as 10 centimeters. No one else could claim that rate of success.”
The HRI Mine Roller is modularly constructed so that it can be easily assembled and refitted, easy to maintain, efficient to transport, cheap enough to use over and over again. It was proven to be more safe, reliable, and effective than its competitors. It finds mines more accurately than any roller has done in the history of the technology.
In 2011, the UN approached HRI about custom-designing anti-tank mine rollers for peacekeeping missions in South Sudan. The UN forces wanted mine rollers to attach to their armored vehicles when they were traveling throughout the country. HRI designed, manufactured, and delivered to the UN 25 such custom rollers in 10 weeks, which then eventually made their way—or failed to, in the case of the coupler mentioned earlier—via cargo shipping through security hurdles and various special clearances to their destinations. Late last year Reeves, Koplin, chief roller engineer Justin Dodd, and Paul Collinson, their UK-based field-operations specialist, went to South Sudan to oversee a five-day training course. Two days were devoted to assembling the roller and learning how to maintain it, and three days to practicing driving the armored vehicle while pushing the roller. It was the first time the custom roller had been tested in “real life” and according to Reeves, it was “an eye-opening experience.”
“Afghanistan seems more developed than South Sudan, which has been at war with itself for about 40 years,” says Reeves. “There are no utilities—everything runs off of generators, and water from the Nile is pumped into tankers that deliver it to villages. Just upstream from where they were pumping the water into the tanks, women were bathing and doing their laundry.”
Reeves, Koplin, and Dodd stayed in what was called “River Camp,” essentially a compound of shipping containers that have been converted into hotel rooms. “They called them VIP containers,” Reeves says. Relatively speaking, the accommodations were more than adequate, with air conditioning, running water (from the Nile), flushing toilets, and mosquito netting. “The camp was filled with a lot of people like us doing State Department or embassy work,” he says. “We got a chance to explain our machinery and talk about our company, so it ended up being one part marketing and one part making sure we did what we said we would do.” Reeves and his crew stayed until the rollers were up and running and the peacekeepers knew how to maneuver them. To date, the feedback has been positive (though much is classified).
HRI’s success with its Mine Roller may finally enable Reeves and Koplin to return to the robotic side of the business. “Our first vision for the company was to create a small, cheap robot to clear landmines,” says Reeves. “We became a roller company because we didn’t have enough money to explore robotics. It took us eight years to get back to the beginning.”
One of the products they have already developed is the Open Integration Platform (OIP) for robotics, a remote-control system to transform commercial, off-the-shelf vehicles into robotic ones. The OIP has implications beyond landmine clearing—for example, in construction and forestry. “The person controlling it can be miles away; a camera on the roof sends data to the operator, who can view the operation on an android device,” explains Reeves. “Any industry in which it is safer for the operator to be removed from the vehicle can make use of this product.” There are other robotic control systems in the pipeline, not all with military applications—although, as Reeves notes, “There are plenty of landmines left to clear.”
Since the company’s start, “we went from struggling, to making several million dollars, [to] becoming a prime defense contractor,” says Reeves. “We have 12 to 15 people who work for us, on and off, and we are starting to look like a real organization.”
Few have been more proud of this success than Ian MacMillan, who recently invited Reeves to address his class of would-be social entrepreneurs.
“Honestly, Samuel’s was one of my high-anxiety cases,” he says with a laugh. “He poured years of his life into this project with no guarantee that it was going to work. But it was his innovative thinking and talent that helped make it happen. If it was easy, it would have happened long before Samuel thought of it.”
Nathan Ulrich has been similarly impressed. “Startup companies are always risky, and I applaud Samuel and Josh for their dedication to such a meaningful endeavor, one that doesn’t have glamor or a huge potential financial reward,” he notes. “It’s gratifying to see them realize their original goals. I’m proud to have worked with them in the early stages of their company.”
“We were so fortunate that Penn was the place where our business was literally incubated,” Reeves says. “They helped us with research funding, we had access to world class professors, we were incredibly privileged. I truly feel that we have a responsibility in the world to do something good and impactful. And I’ve learned that you can do that while making a profit.”