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From Duke Startup Challenge to Carbon Robotics Co-Founders

Published: 7 months ago | 0 comments

Story by Katie Jansen | Video by Pilar Timpane
This package originally appeared on Duke Today.

Rosanna Myers and Dan Corkum both graduated from Duke in 2009. The pair met during their sophomore year via the Duke Startup Challenge, where they called themselves the Green Cooling Group and entered a product they’d built that could cool water and other liquids 120 times more efficiently than other products on the market at that time.

Now, they’ve founded a company together – Carbon Robotics, which this year was named one of the Top 50 most influential companies in the global robotics industry by the Robotics Business Review.

But when they first came to Duke, they were on much different paths.

“Entrepreneurship was not at all on my radar,” Myers said. “I was going a completely different path in school, and I didn’t have any idea what it meant to be a founder and start a company.”

Initially, Corkum, too, was considering a more traditional career in consulting or banking. But through an enterprise and leadership class at Duke, he helped start a Duke student record label.

He said this experience helped him to realize that “you bring people together who all really care about something, and it can quickly get bigger than yourself and cause a real difference.”

Still, Corkum initially saw building products as a hobby.

“It wasn’t part of my major, but it was what I was really into – building things with my hands, building a new, physical, tangible thing – that was immensely satisfying,” he said.

But through the Duke Startup Challenge, both Myers and Corkum began to see that entrepreneurship was a viable path.

Their project won the hi-tech track – but they discovered afterward that the Duke Startup Challenge wasn’t open to undergraduates at the time.

Their prize money wasn’t rescinded, however, and they used it to buy equipment necessary to build a better version of their product. The Startup Challenge opened officially to undergraduates the following year.

Their Duke-related success has continued even after graduation. In May 2015, Carbon Robotics won the DukeGEN Startup Showcase in San Francisco.

Both Myers and Corkum view the Duke Startup Challenge as a pivotal point in their lives.

“That was the first time I knew I could start a company to enact the change I wanted to see in the world,” Myers said.

“It completely changed the way I thought about my career,” Corkum said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to go interview for a big company. I’m going to start a big company.’”

Years later, they’ve done just that with Carbon Robotics, where they are building a low-cost robotic arm that has the capabilities of an industrial robot but a price tag comparable to a laptop.

Another crucial aspect of the product, Myers said, is that it solves software problems that currently exist in robotics in addition to hardware problems.

“We provide a machine intelligence layer on top of that that makes programming really, really easy,” she said. “So what we’re doing is shortening the gap between a person who wants to automate a task and what it means to roboticize that.”

Corkum said the company also hopes to solve a social problem by removing people from dangerous jobs and replacing them with low-cost, easy-to-use robots.

Both said they wouldn’t have found success without learning how to build products and advised current students to do the same.

“If you have an idea, do it,” Corkum said. “If you don’t have an idea, do something. Just build.”

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