Sankarshan Murthy has worked on some seriously starry products, including the Apple Watch and Tesla's Model Y electric vehicle. For other employers he has sought to revolutionize construction sites using drones and--in an audacious project that never gained traction--exoskeletons for laborers.

The inspiration for his first startup? Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

The Disney Junior program was a favorite of Murthy's 18-month-old daughter when the family lived in uncomfortably close quarters in downtown Mountain View, California. In 2012 Murthy, an engineer, had answered Apple's siren call and relocated from Baltimore, where he'd been an innovation lead at a division of Black & Decker. Encountering the thumb-in-your-eye that is Bay Area real estate, Murthy was forced to downsize. He argued with his wife over what to consign to storage. (He wanted to keep his old product prototypes close. She didn't.) When his parents visited from India there was nowhere to put them.

Watching Mickey with his daughter, Murthy envied the clubhouse's shape-shifting features. "When Mickey wants to entertain friends it is in clubhouse mode," says Murthy. "If Goofy wants to cook it becomes a kitchen. There is a robot in the basement who runs around getting things."

If Murthy lived in such a place, his parents could sleep in a guestroom. When they weren't there it could be a game room for the kids. "I decided, I am going to build Mickey's Clubhouse," he says.

Square footage is so yesterday

What began as a garage hobby evolved into San Francisco-based Bumblebee Spaces, launched officially last year. Bumblebee makes a robotics and AI-based storage system that doubles-to-triples the usable space in a room by packing all the occupant's stuff into ceiling modules, then raising and lowering those modules on hoists as needed. At night, the occupant informs an app on her phone or an iPad in the wall that she wants to sleep. Down comes the bed. In the morning: bed up, yoga mat down. When it's time to work, mat up: desk down. Also, it's cold in here, Bumblebee. Can you fetch my gray cardigan? Think of it as just-in-time living.

"Instead of square feet you start looking at real estate in volume," says Murthy. "You are already paying for all this air and ceiling space you are not using. We unlock that for you."

The company's first market is real-estate owner-operators who can install the systems in new construction. While Bumblebee also is able to retrofit existing rooms, building developers will achieve a bigger buck-bang because they are able to eliminate closets, cabinets, and other storage on the ground.

The business has sold units to three customers for installation in a multi-family building, employee housing, and a co-living space. It will do short manufacturing runs while perfecting the engineering and design, Murthy says, and expand to mass-production by mid-2019.

Bumblebee has raised $4.3 million in seed money from several investors, including Loup Ventures, a Minneapolis-based VC firm specializing in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies. Loup Managing Partner Gene Munster says Bumblebee needs to get a few hundred units into the marketplace as proof-of-concept for developers. Once that happens, "it can fundamentally change housing," he says. Over time, the robotic ceiling system "is going to be as standard as a closet. There is no reason why you would not want this."

From Apple to Tesla to a garage

Murthy started two businesses while a student in India. Beginning in high school he assembled and sold computers. In college he discovered web design was more lucrative. Distracted from school by those side hustles, Murthy had to repeat a semester, "which in India is a huge taboo," he says. But he used the time to prep for exams to study in the United States. In 2003 he moved here.

With degrees from the University of Maryland and Wharton, Murthy embarked on a corporate odyssey that groomed him for tech entrepreneurship. At the Dewalt Division of Black & Decker he learned gears and motors--but also onboarding and leadership development. At Apple, where he was assigned to the iPhone 5c before the watch, Murthy was indoctrinated into that culture's obsession with user experience and exhaustive attention to detail. Tesla's ability to roll myriad changes into an operational assembly line bowled him over while working on the Model 3 and Model Y. During a stint on a special projects team there, Murthy also absorbed Elon Musk's change-the-world ambition. "He would have these crazy ideas and say, 'is this even possible? Go find out,'" says Murthy.

Murthy started prototyping his robotic room system while still at Tesla. "Tesla is pretty life-consuming. This was like detox," he says. Co-founder Garrett Rayner, who is in charge of hardware at Bumblebee, also hails from the electric car company. The two bonded there over stories about astronomical home prices and grueling commutes.

Murthy had begun by noodling with walls that dropped down to create private spaces. "Then I realized home is these piles of stuff," he says. "If I could make my shoes disappear it becomes more spacious." The ceiling spoke to him. People mount water heaters in ceilings and hang chandeliers there. "As long as I stayed within the [building] codes I could pack it as densely as an Apple watch," he says.

Shoes, go away. Shoes, come back

But packing dense wasn't enough. Murthy and Rayner also had to pack smart. In Murthy's vision, when someone living in a Bumblebee room sent her brown polka-dot blouse up to the ceiling she could retrieve it by voice command. He needed a software version of the robot in Mickey's clubhouse. To create it, Murthy lured Prahlad Athreya, a friend from Wharton, who became Bumblebee's third founder.

Working with AI expert Aaron Licata, Athreya developed technology that directs the ceiling robots to move around modules and also acts like a library circulation desk. The system uses artificial intelligence to identify and tag each item when it is stored and log each time it is checked in or out. "It will say this red stapler was stored by Sankarshan on Wednesday morning at 11 a.m. So next time I am looking for my stapler it comes down," says Murthy. Modules are customized to serve as book shelves, clothes drawers, toy bins, electronics containers--whatever the user needs.

And Bumblebee is making the system even smarter. Within an apartment building, for example, neighbors will have the option to share data about their possessions with one another to facilitate borrowing. Eventually users will be able to control modules by pointing rather than speaking. The modules also include safety sensors so they don't accidentally descend on a child or a pet.

Olson Kundig, a design firm in Seattle whose portfolio includes museums, high rises, and hotels around the world, is collaborating with Bumblebee on a private residence in Napa, California. The client was struggling with family members' competing needs, so Olson Kundig suggested that instead of a single house it design a series of small "camping huts," each outfitted by Bumblebee to increase its square footage. (For reasons unrelated to Bumblebee that project is temporarily on hold.)

"Traditionally we try to provide some flexibility, but this takes it to the extreme and allows people to customize their spaces as their families evolve and as their taste evolves," says Chris Gerrick, a principal at Olson Kundig. The firm also is talking to Bumblebee about non-residential applications and opportunities to serve different populations. "For example, storage units that are on a high shelf can be brought down dynamically to a usable height for somebody in a wheelchair," says Gerrick. "That is something we are eager to explore with them."

A dishwasher in the ceiling

Bumblebee, which employs eight people, operates out of 600 square feet of office and machine shop space in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. Murthy is on the market for a showroom, possibly near AT&T Stadium.

The company sources globally: sensors from Europe, machine parts from China, motor transmissions from Japan. Local contractors build furniture to Bumblebee's specs so it folds into spaces not much deeper than a foot. To date the business makes a bed, a dresser, and a prototype desk that latches to a wall. Later it may add appliances, which will require slightly deeper modules. "We are not doing couches or coffee tables because those are seen as home décor," says Murthy. "We are doing the things people want put away."

Once production ramps up, Murthy expects to earn new clients and expand sales to existing ones, who represent tens of thousands of apartments or condos. The price for the modules and furniture runs $6,000 to $10,000 per room, depending on size. Customers also pay Bumblebee between $199 and $399 a month for maintenance, software updates, and other services. At scale the business will outsource installation to contractors but perform its own quality assurance tests for each customer.

To date, Bumblebee has no direct competitors, and Munster believes its headstart will protect it for some time to come. However the company faces several obstacles: notably scaling the manufacturing of high-tech hardware in an era of trade tensions. Staffing is a challenge given the high salaries commanded by tech talent and scarcity of H1-B visas for startups. Then there's the learning curve peculiar to novel products. "When you first hear about it it sounds outlandish and contrarian to how people live today," Murthy says. "We have to overcome user behavior." 

Murthy's grand vision for Bumblebee is that it helps sustain vitality in urban centers that are rapidly pricing out of the average person's reach. Given that about 12 million households spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing, "we must be able to optimize real estate," he says. Murthy argues that renters will benefit financially from having more options in the market: for example, one-bedroom apartments become two-bedroom Bumblebee units appropriate for families who might be unable to afford a traditional two-bedroom in the city. In addition, "we have been selecting partners who align with our mission on enhancing urban living and affordability," says Murthy. 

"People have always used four walls and the floor, which is like a fifth wall," says Murthy. "The sixth wall is the ceiling. We want to enable the sixth wall to live." 

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Published on: Aug 29, 2018