August-Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship - Carnegie Mellon University

Boris SofmanAlumni Spotlight:

Boris Sofman, Making Life More Fun!

As a young entrepreneur, Boris Sofman (CS ’05, CIT ’05, CS ’07, CS ’10), now the Co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence and robotics company Anki, Inc, has been working on the Anki software for over five years and truly believes it is something special. We asked Boris for his story, and for advice to future entrepreneurs.

Tell us about Anki.
Anki is an artificial intelligence and robotics company that is taking robotics and artificial intelligence technologies out of the lab and into people’s everyday lives. We use these technologies to program physical objects to be intelligent, and to adapt and interact in the physical world. Consumers have rarely benefited from many of these technologies, which promise to make life more fun, more useful and more efficient.
Anki Drive is the first step for us and demonstrates what’s possible with Anki technology. It’s a physical game whose characters come to life with personality and interaction never before possible outside of a video game.
How did you start the company?
I met Mark Palatucci and Hanns Tappeiner in 2005 at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University when we all started the Ph.D. program in Robotics. We immediately became great friends and shared a deep desire to see many of the technologies we were working on applied to consumer products. In the beginning of 2008, we started working on what became Anki, taking several years in parallel with our Ph.D. research. Although there were challenges along the way, we dove head first into developing the Anki technology because we truly believed that we were creating something special.
We were amazed at the incredible research happening all around us, but most of it focused on space, defense, industrial, and agricultural applications, and almost never on consumer products. With Anki, we saw an opportunity to combine these technologies at a unique time where the proliferation of mobile devices and lower cost of components allowed us to create truly innovative consumer products.
What's the next expansion of Anki?
Right now we’re focused on making Anki Drive the best experience possible; we have built a strong foundation and framework of technology that will open the doors for many things down the road.
The possibilities are endless, but ultimately, we are passionate about bringing this sophisticated technology into people’s everyday lives through innovative and surprising products. Only a few years ago we couldn’t even imagine this would be possible, but the advancements in technology are often surprising; it’s hard to say exactly what our future might look like.
If you hadn’t started Anki, what would you be doing today?
It’s so hard for me to imagine life without Anki, but if I wasn’t here I’d still want to be working on high-impact applications of robotics technologies, whether through another startup, larger company, or university. There are certainly stand-out projects that are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in our field, such as Google’s autonomous car project, where I could see myself working on incredible technology with brilliant people (and many old CMU colleagues). The most important thing is to feel challenged and to have an impact.

Right now Hanns, Mark and I are dedicated to Anki and the technology we’ve developed with our amazing team. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes us. Hopefully it’ll be a very long road ahead!
Greatest challenges as an entrepreneur?
In any small company, so much comes down to hiring. Getting the best people you can, and at the right times, is incredibly hard. When you’re always trying to do more and have key openings that you’re trying to fill, it takes a lot of discipline not to lower the bar and relieve some short-term pain. I’m really happy we always focused on the long-term. In the end, your number one job as an entrepreneur is to surround yourself with the absolute best people you can: engineers, executives, investors. The moment you lower your standards just a bit, it can be a slippery slope.
Greatest success?
Publicly launching our company during the keynote of Apple’s 2013 WWDC (Worldwide Developer’s Conference). We had been working on Anki for over five years completely under the radar. To be able to introduce Anki to the world on such a stage was a great honor, and also a truly emotional experience. The time, effort, and support of a great number of employees, investors, family and friends were validated in an unforgettable way that day. That was just one step for us, but an incredibly important one.
Best piece of advice?
“Make your absolute top priority be to hire the best people.”
We spend a huge percentage of our time making sure that every single person who joins Anki is incredible at what they do and fits the culture we have worked hard to create. One hiring mistake at an early stage of a company can be catastrophic, so we spend a large amount of time evaluating every single hire and work hard to keep the bar high. It’s important to stick to this, even when you are behind schedule or in desperate need of filling a particular position.
Favorite CMU professor?
Aside from my Ph.D. advisors (Tony Stentz and Drew Bagnell) who have been incredible inspirations and mentors, the CMU professor that still stands out in my mind today is Jim Hoburg from my early undergraduate years. I took two foundation classes in electrical engineering with Jim early in undergrad, and his dedication to teaching and skill for conveying information was unmatched, and something I learned a great deal from. I felt such a great connection with him that I almost switched my focus to electromagnetics (quite far from where I ended up). Jim retired, but he’ll have a lasting impression on the ECE department.
Tell us about what from CMU has stayed with you.
Work ethic. Working at super-human intensity is almost a badge of honor at CMU, whether it’s late nights at the computer clusters finishing up an OS checkpoint or crunching on a paper deadline in graduate school. This is a part of the CMU culture, and something that people take pride in (and this definitely isn’t the case in many universities). I learned to work long and hard, which has proven to be a useful habit when working on a startup. Now if only I could borrow some of my energy from back then…
Favorite memory?
I stayed at CMU to join the Robotics Ph.D. program largely because of a great research experience as an undergraduate. I had the privilege then to work with some amazing graduate students (who are still good friends today). Years later, as a Ph.D. student, I worked for about three semesters with an undergraduate, who was in the exact position I was in years earlier. He helped shave months off of my Ph.D. and then he stayed at the RI for graduate school. Now, years later, he is our lead AI engineer at Anki. It really amazes me when people’s stories interconnect in this way, and it seems to happen surprisingly often at CMU.

The Alumni Spotlight Series is part of our e-newsletter. Check out our Summer 2013 E-Newsletter.


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