The Essential Interview: Cory Kidd, Human-Robot Interaction Pioneer and Catalia Health CEO

Robotics Business Review

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently spoke with Cory Kidd, founder and CEO of Catalia Health Inc. He has applied his 20 years of experience in human-robot interaction to commercial products designed to address large-scale healthcare challenges.

Kidd has a B.S. degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and was a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow. He earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in human-robot interaction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

At MIT, Kidd conducted studies that showed the psychological and clinical advantages of using a physical robot over screen-based interactions. In 2007, he founded Intuitive Automata, which created interactive coaches for weight loss.

In 2014, Kidd founded San Francisco-based Catalia Health, which has developed a human-robot interaction platform to help patients change behaviors for chronic disease management.

Among his honors, Kidd was the Wall Street Journal and Credit Suisse Technopreneur of 2010. Kidd holds several patents and is director of business development at the nonprofit Silicon Valley robotics.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until June 30, 2017. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: At what point in your career did you make a realization to design for a specific problem application?

Kidd: I’ve always had an interest in healthcare, and I actually thought about going into medicine. A lot of the early academic work I did, including a bachelor’s degree in computer science, was fairly general — technology and concepts that can be applied across a lot of different areas, including medicine.

In my Ph.D. work, I understood that if we want to go out and test this in the real world, we can’t do something just general and theoretical; we need something that will work with a specific set of patients. This is why I chose to combine my work at MIT with working at Boston University Medical Center.

Human-robot interaction example Autom

Intuitive Automata’s Autom robotic weight-loss coach (Source: MIT Museum)

In thinking about building a company around this, if you’re building something that’s new, it’s very challenging to build a platform and then expect a lot of other people to start building on top of it right away. There’s the practical side of it, and once we actually get the tech out and start helping people, we need to choose particular areas to work and focus on.

Pransky: Can you share what you learned from your startup, Intuitive Automata?

Kidd: I built my first company, Intuitive Automata, in Hong Kong. When I started that company in 2007, the technology we were building — interactive robots — was very expensive. And our market — healthcare technology — was starting to grow, but still very slowly at that time.

We knew we were early to this market, but were making a big bet that the costs would drop and interest would rise fast enough for this to be not only commercially viable, but quickly scalable. And scaling quickly is the lifeblood of a startup.

After five years, just as this prospect was on the horizon, I found that we were seen as ancient in startup time, which made it very difficult to raise money just at the time that it would start to be feasible to start seeing real growth in the marketplace.

For that reason, I ended up closing Intuitive Automata, taking some time to rethink the market opportunities, and started off in 2014 with the much faster growing Catalia Health that is positioned well for bringing this type of technology to market.

During this period, I ended up doing deals with pharmaceutical companies, payers, healthcare providers, self-insured employers, and some direct-to-consumer. Through doing all of that, I built up a huge network in healthcare, mostly in the U.S., but also around the world.

The big lesson here is understanding the business of healthcare. I learned a lot about how the actual healthcare industry works as opposed to the medical side of it: where the money is flowing, why healthcare is so difficult and slow to change.

Pransky: Can you talk about the transition from Intuitive Automata to Catalia Health?

Kidd: A lot of the lessons that I learned through Intuitive Automata have helped us to move much faster here at Catalia Health.

I basically shut down Intuitive Automata in 2013, though the company and its intellectual property still exist. I’ve patented the work that I’ve done for well over a decade now.

I then moved back to the USA and I spent about a year focused on answering two questions: Where is this technology useful in healthcare? And who is willing to pay for this today? That’s where having that network in healthcare and spending a lot of time going back to many of these companies and people that I knew and understanding where and what patient engagement or behavior-change programs they were paying for was very valuable. That’s what really gave us a narrow focus around chronic disease management.

Once I had that focus, I launched Catalia Health in 2014 as a patient care management company that delivers everyday care to patients who are managing chronic conditions, through Mabu, an interactive robot platform that combines artificial intelligence, psychology and medical best practices.

Human-robot interaction is key to Mabu's design.

Catalia Health’s Mabu personal healthcare companion

Pransky: Mabu is obviously the key to the patient’s care via conversations and engaging patients in a relationship in order to help manage their treatment. How did your team come up with its human-robot interaction design details?

Kidd: We worked with IDEO, a leading international design firm and investor in Catalia Health, on several projects and we gave IDEO a very simple design brief with the features and the size of what we were looking for.

The industrial design of the Mabu robot was about a month-long project. The first phase was broad ideation. At that time, the industrial design team went off in many different directions, which got our team to think about many different things, and through that iterative process, we narrowed it down to what might work in the market today.

Some of that was based on my experience. I had put robots like this in front of thousands of different people. But much of it was testing mockups — first drawings, then 3D prints, cardboard boxes with stuff taped to them and finally prototype robots — with our potential patient population across several different disease states.

Pransky: What do you expect Mabu’s greatest customer to be and where?

Kidd: Our company is B2B2C. Our customers are large healthcare institutions. One type is the large pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the other kind is the large healthcare systems. We ship the device directly to patients, and we’re helping to provide care to the patients, but the patients aren’t paying for this service.

Pransky: What is the greatest challenge you’re facing when you go into the marketplace?

Kidd: Many parts of the healthcare industry are highly regulated. Our customers are companies with tens if not hundreds of thousands of employees and that brings a lot of bureaucracy and processes with it.

Working in healthcare can add a big burden on a startup, but there are very good reasons as to why this is the case. We’re focusing on the U.S. first and next internationally.

Healthcare is a big part of the economy in most nations in the world, so the other countries that we’re working in right now may not necessarily have the same flow of money as the U.S. healthcare industry, but they have their own areas where this technology is highly applicable.

Click here to read the entire interview.

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