Why this autonomous vehicle veteran joined a legged robotics startup

Zhang Li‘s professional background looks like a bellwether for Chinese technology trends. When the Cisco veteran joined WeRide in 2018, the Chinese autonomous vehicle company was less than a year old. In the years to come, the country will become a breeding ground for three audiovisual unicorns, including WeRide, whose valuation has climbed to $4.4 billion Last year.

Zhang resigned from WeRide in June, three months after the company was founded confidentially filed an IPO, surprised some people. But as we learned about his next step, it became clear that his decision was driven by his aspiration to work on the “next big thing.”

Former WeRide CEO Joined LimX Dynamics, a robotics startup based in Shenzhen, as co-founder and COO. Zhang will primarily focus on business strategy and operations, channel development, marketing and communications, and government relations, both domestically and internationally.

The timing, once again, seems fortuitous. Last week, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a nine-page plan outlining the country’s goal to mass-produce humanoid robots by 2025. Such high-level guidelines have historically helped attract talent and capital to a nascent technology field.

After working in the audiovisual industry for five years, Zhang felt the need to move on. Again, he was looking for a startup to join and had two criteria in mind: first, it had to have proprietary, cutting-edge technology; second, it should be able to attract substantial capital.

LimX Dynamics was his answer. Founded by a group of robotics scientists, the startup has already raised 200 million yuan ($27.5 million) in angel and pre-A funding. Along with today’s hiring of Zhang, the startup is also naming Dr. Jia Pan, a tenured associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, as its chief scientist.

“My strength lies in working with entrepreneurial scientists and companies where technology and business grow hand in hand,” Zhang told TechCrunch in an interview. Having helped WeRide find product-market fit and scale robotaxi operations in China, Zhang appears to be an ideal fit for the startup working on legged robots, a relatively nascent type of mobile robot that uses mechanical legs to move around.

From intelligent driving to humanoids

The birth of Optimus sparked a lot of discussion about the similarities between robots and automated or autonomous driving. When Tesla introduced the humanoid robot last year, it highlighted the connections between the two fields. Like my colleague Darrell reported SO:

Think about it. We just go from wheels to legs,” explained one of the company’s engineers. “Some components are therefore quite similar [ … ] It’s exactly the same occupation network. Now we’ll talk a little more details later with the Autopilot team. [ … ] The only thing that has really changed is the training data.

Echoing this observation, Zhang said the transition to his new job would likely be smooth, thanks to the transferability of his knowledge and skills from autonomous driving.

“It is evident that, like autonomous vehicles, legged robots also use SLAM [Simultaneous Localization and Mapping]. But as I delved deeper into both fields, I realized they had many other similarities. Today, most households own one or two cars, but in the future, they may own one or more robots to perform household chores. Like autonomous vehicles, robots tackle the problem of getting from point A to point B.”

But as Darrell also incisively pointed out, the similarities might be an oversimplification:

The domain expertise, although reduced to a simple translation by Tesla’s presentation, is in reality quite a complex question. Bipedal robots navigating pedestrian routes are a very different beast from autonomous vehicle routes, and oversimplifying the connection does a disservice to the immense body of existing research and development work on the subject.

There are, however, more compelling parallels between the two sectors. “Vehicles and robots in the supply chain could be shared, along with their sales channels,” Zhang suggested. “If you already make cars, you can also use your parts to make robots in the future.”

It’s too early to tell where bipedal and quadrupedal robots will find mass adoption. LimX Dynamics is currently testing a prototype for industrial inspection, with plans to bring its robots to automobile manufacturing, logistics and household services.

“The inspection is obvious, but my job is to look for cases that are not even possible today,” the executive said. “If you think of robots as devices with an operating system, there’s a lot of room for imagination.”

After years of frenzied investment and hiring, the audiovisual industry’s path to generating significant revenue still remains unclear in China and the United States. Will legged robots face a similar fate? Zhang expressed his desire for a better result.

“Hopefully the robotics industry won’t sprint without being able to land like an autonomous driver.”

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