"UPOP is amazing!" says founder of Barrett robotic arm

Photo | Barrett Technology
Bill Townsend PhD ’88, CEO of Barrett Technology, checks out one of their robotic arms

"The UPOP program has been amazing, the preparation that they give the students is so important in letting them understand the professional environment," says Bill Townsend PhD ’88, founder and CEO of Barrett Technology. "The students are on fire! It’s so much fun working with them.”

Interns have been an integral part of the development of Barrett Technology.  According to Townsend, “giving interns well-defined projects is a great way for us to stay innovative. When one of us thinks ‘wouldn’t it be great if …’, we can get an intern to explore the idea.”

Barrett is now one of the most successful surgical robotic arm manufacturers in the world, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Townsend grew up in Philadelphia’s treeless inner city, but that didn’t stop him from building a tree house. He built a “house” and rigged it up along the basement ceiling of his building. After a youth filled with Legos, model airplanes, and erector sets, Townsend landed at Northeastern University, and then MIT’s Artificial Intelligence department, where he earned a doctorate. Townsend focused on ground-breaking projects: building robots that could interact with people.

At the time (the early 1980s), this notion was a striking departure from the widespread perception of robots as huge, dangerous machines. Used primarily in large-scale industry (such as car manufacturing), they caused many accidents. As Townsend remembers, “the only way to protect people was to put a fence around the robots.”

But Townsend’s team envisioned a different, more delicate robot. The first haptic robot arm, named the Whole Arm Manipulator™ (WAM), was designed for surgical use. Townsend explains, “The surgeon and the robot hold the cutting tool together. The surgeon guides where the tool goes, and the robot gives hints, in a friendly, gesturing way, by projecting light forces against the surgeon accompanied by audible noises. When combined with human intuition, it is just amazing what the robots can contribute in terms of accuracy, consistency, and instant-time calculations.” 

It took years, however, for the marketplace to respond to Townsend’s vision. When he started in 1988, “there were only one or two customers—in the whole world—for this kind of product. I sold two systems to NASA. And then, between 1990 and 2000, I was destitute. At times, the company existed in name only.”

Townsend’s unwavering belief in the technology finally paid off in 2000. Several leading universities understood that the WAM arm was the only product that could execute new types of human-interactive robotic tasks, and they asked Townsend to resurrect it.

Success followed gradually and was marked in unexpected ways.

“I did an exit interview with one of our first interns, and asked him why he chose to work at Barrett. He said he’d chosen us because Guinness World Records named the WAM ‘the world’s most advanced robotic arm.’ I had no idea we were in the book!”

Interns have been a key part of Barrett’s development since its inception. According to Townsend, “giving interns well-defined projects is a great way for us to stay innovative. When one of us thinks ‘wouldn’t it be great if …’, we can get an intern to explore the idea.”

In 2003, UPOP asked Townsend to participate in the program.

“It was unbelievable!” he remembers. “The program seemed too good to be true! In the past, students were mostly looking for UROPs and we couldn’t give them academic credit for their work. But with UPOP, we could finally get MIT students."

Placing interns at Barrett’s small, dynamic office provides them with valuable exposure to the different facets of the industry. The limited office space allows everyone to interact. Robot assembly is done on-site. As Townsend says, “real artisans are putting together the machines, and everyone is within 30 feet of them.”

During a typical day, the office’s quiet intensity is punctuated by laughter and smiles and cries of “all right!” when successes happen—or moans and groans when they don’t. When challenges arise, Townsend says, “everyone gathers around a single computer to solve the problem. It gets intense—almost like ‘ER’—with people brainstorming and throwing out solutions.”

The hard work is finally bearing fruit: 2007 was Barrett’s biggest year. It shipped 12 robots to universities and industrial clients like GM. Its license-partner, Mako Surgical, shipped several of the WAM arms at $750,000 each. 

“People think we’re bigger than we are,” he says. “We’re ten people, and we have fierce competitors world-wide. We have to build equipment that’s not just reliable but innovative, and to start solving problems before others are even recognizing them.”

Cultivating this kind of ingenuity results in an environment in which interns thrive. Ronda Devine, UPOP’s employer relations manager, considers Barrett a top employer. “They care about what the intern gets out of the experience, not just what they get out of the intern.”