Some people worry that robots will take away human jobs, but the automated fleet overseen by Matthew Ennis is based on the idea of “putting the worker at the center.”
Ennis is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Build With Robots, the Albuquerque company whose Breezy One models roam around disinfecting such places as the Albuquerque and Houston airports, Los Lunas high schools and the University of New Mexico’s Pit.
The company’s first “co-development customer” was the Albuquerque Sunport and its staff, whose cleaning and disinfecting duties were greatly expanded during the pandemic.
“They had all their normal cleaning jobs, but now they’re also asked to disinfect,” Ennis says. “They didn’t have the bandwidth in terms of being able to do that. We actually sat down with their custodial team many a night and went through how would they use it (the robot), and what were their needs.”
Breezy One was put to work sanitizing the terminal’s indoor spaces, winning praise from airport employees, who said they felt safer coming to a clean work site.
Ennis, a chemist and an entrepreneur, has an affinity for janitorial staffs. Among his jobs while growing up in a housing project in Kalamazoo, Michigan, were loading trucks for a cleaning supply business during the day and waxing the floors of a local mall at night.
He also would clean out apartments when tenants left, sometimes finding piles of highly undesirable remains.
“I think it probably sparked my interest in people doing the work — understanding what they were doing and how do we help them,” Ennis says.
How did you become involved in Build With Robots?
“(Build With Robots co-founder and CEO) Chris Ziomek started it. He had invested in my last entity, NTxBio, so he knew me from that. We actually knew each other from riding and racing (bikes.) If I start going to conferences and I know what everybody is going to say before they say it, I get pretty bored pretty quickly. This has been fun because it’s a new industry. It ties in kind of the ‘workers of the world’ (idea) and the changing nature of their work by bringing them automation tools so they’ll be more effective. And then layering on a science approach to what they’re doing. That’s attractive to me. And so it pulls together a bunch of things.”
What’s next for the company?
A minibot that allows us to disinfect the spaces where the Breezy One is not quite appropriate. We have a retired (fire department) captain from Rio Rancho who’s going after fire stations and ambulances. They’re … also making recommendations about assisted living places, because they go there an awful lot, and it’s about making those environments more safe.”
What has been a difficult experience for you and how did you overcome it?
“From the outside, people would say (it was) ‘Oh, when you’re young, walking into a 7-Eleven with food stamps to get bread’ or whatever. But my mom always made sure there was enough. She provided a lot of love. So even though on paper that was the hard piece, it didn’t feel hard. It felt like what it was. What that time taught me, though, was that I’m not afraid of being poor. As long as there’s connection with people. I think that life is hard, and everybody has struggles. If you’re successful, you have an obligation (to) … support the common good. I’ve had a ton of support from people, my brother and sisters.”
What are your favorite places?
“That’s a really hard question. When I was with Lumidigm, I worked with biometric projects all over the world. But here’s something I learned. One of the places I ended up was Tasmania. I was doing a backpacking trip across one of the more wild sections, and I didn’t see a person for seven days. Not very often do you not see a human being. Day six … I’m going through the forest, and I feel like I’m being watched. I look, and there’s a bunch of wallabies … who were literally hiking parallel through the forest and would occasionally poke their heads out from behind the trees … and look at me. I’m sitting in the tent that night, thinking, ‘This is awesome, but I need to be able to share this with somebody.’ So that was kind of the important piece is finding things that you could share with people. And, thankfully, I learned it as a 20-year-old. Even the entrepreneurial thing is family. Some of the best adventures are when you get a group together, and they pull together. Everybody has a job to do to make it successful.”
Whom do you look up to?
“I’m going to say my wife, my children. They are constant reminders of love and striving and endurance. Historical figures that I find really attractive range from Ben Franklin to Yvon Chouinard, (founder) of Patagonia (outdoor clothing and gear company).”
Is there something you wish you’d done differently?
“I wish I would have known the importance of kindness, and that it’s actually more important than truth. I didn’t know that, or I didn’t feel that until too late in my life. The idea of fighting for what I thought was right took too much of an emphasis over understanding how kindness is really important to everything. You’ve seen people can just deny facts as facts. But don’t debate the facts. Listen to them and let them feel they’re being listened to, and now you have a chance to maybe learn something but also maybe getting to something that’s true. It’s not that truth doesn’t matter, but it’s that kindness actually matters more.”
THE BASICS: Matthew Shields Ennis, 56, born in Warren, Ohio, but grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan; married to Pamela Cheek since 1994; two children, Eliza Rebellion Ennis, 25, and Quinn Wilder Ellis, 18; one “trail dog extraordinaire,” Pecos, a black lab; Ph.D in chemistry, Stanford University, 1995; bachelor’s in chemistry, Bowdoin College, 1989.
POSITIONS: Co-founder and chief strategy officer, Build With Robots, since 2020; interim CEO and investor, NTxBio, LLC, 2019; CEO, consulting and investing, Monsoon Road, LLC, 2015-2019; vice-president of Open Source Intelligence & Media Analytics, Novetta, 2014-2015; CEO, News Imaging Inc., 2009-2014; vice president of business development, Lumidigm Inc., 2004-2009.
OTHER: Board member, University of New Mexico, Anderson School of Management’s Management of Technology program; adviser to a number of companies, including RS21; angel investor in 10 local companies; former board member of New Mexico Technology Council and former president of New Mexico Entrepreneurs Association, among others.