Academia and Interstellar: Q&A with RoadBotics President Ben Schmidt

Raquel Ponce

Raquel Ponce

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Summer moved along quickly! During this time, RoadBotics experienced remarkable changes and growth. Our previous CTO and co-founder, Ben Schmidt, assumed the role of President. If you look at Ben’s LinkedIn, you’ll learn a little about him. He studied bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, pursued a PhD in the same field, and then leaped into the world of entrepreneurship and startups. 

But that’s only the surface. Until recently, Ben has led from behind the scenes, whether it was programming, writing blog posts, or developing new ideas for RoadBotics. And like everyone, there is a lot more to him than his resume. There’s a human under there, and he’s pretty cool. We talked about everything from early beginnings and the harsh realities of academia to favorite movies and how Interstellar relates to startups.

Where are you from?​

I grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, which is in Westchester County, New York.  When I was in high school, I got a job working in the recreation department, which is a part of the town DPW. For the whole summer, we’d mow the park lawns, take care of trash, and worked with all of the DPW people. My dad, though, in that same town has been a trustee and/or mayor for about 10 or 15 years. With that, I was heavily exposed to the world of small government my entire life. In fact, for most of the product ideas at RoadBotics, I go to my dad and ask, would this work?

How did you decide on bioengineering?

I really liked engineering. I wasn’t really sure of which one. I remember I saw a video where they had implanted an electrode ray into a monkey, and the monkey could control a prosthetic arm. Then I found Pitt and their Bioengineering program, and that’s how I ended up there.

Why did you decide to get your PhD?

I thought it was fascinating. My dad is a chiropractor, my mom is a nurse/midwife, and my sister is now a nurse. Lots of medical people in the family. So I thought, I don’t want to do any of the clinical side. I want to do the engineering side. That seemed very interesting. I went into undergrad and thought, cool, research! You can really make an impact. 

That was not my case. It’s not real-world practical, and they are not incented to actually make an impact, but rather to write papers – it’s about science not about engineering. But—

My work was in medical imaging and brain imaging specifically, so we did fMRIs and MEG, or Magnetoencephalography. All of them are ways to measure the brain noninvasively. 

At one point, we had a data set that of children with and without autism with brain scans that were around a year or two old. The question was ‘oh cool if you can clinically intervene earlier in a child that does have autism, then you can usually get a better outcome over their life by providing support earlier. But you have to be able to detect it. So, the idea was just to take the data with and the data without, and do what we do now… Throw it into a machine learning model and ask, can you detect from the brain scan alone whether or not that patient had autism? I proposed this to the PhD committee and they said, ‘Woah, that is not permissible here. That will not be your PhD. You’re going to have to spend several years trying to characterize whether or not your method works and then trying to understand the mechanism by which that happens. You’re looking at, at least, several years away from being able to run that study.’

I was like, what? I could literally do this if you gave me the tech. I could do this within a week, and with what I know now, probably a day.   

That was the first moment where I thought, hmm. I don’t think this is going to work. [laughs] 

But you have your title.

You can keep telling me that along with my mom. 

Basically, I have no interest in wasting time. Let’s either make progress or move on. Grad school is where I started learning more about start-ups. I thought now that is interesting. Now that is how to make an impact in the world. 

What are some of your hobbies when you’re not President-ing?

[laughs] #Presidenting. Well, a long time ago, I used to play soccer. 

But I like video games. 

Which ones?

Call of Duty. Titan Fall. I was always an Xbox fan. I played a lot of PC as a kid, then switched to console. I was a huge fan of Warcraft. Not World of— I mean the original Warcrafts. 

How about movies? 

Do you mean favorite movies?

Yeah! Favorite happy movie and favorite sad movie.

I really love Inception, both as a happy movie and as a sad movie. That is one of my all-time favorite movies. Pretty much all of the Nolan movies are fantastic, like Interstellar. 

I loved Inception, but Interstellar freaked me out.

Right?! The best part is, I watched that on an airplane for the first time. I was on a plane, flying from Pittsburgh to San Fransisco. I had my headphones in, watching Interstellar on a tablet through turbulence and everything. I was freaking out. There was someone else with me because we were going on a business trip. I looked at him and was like “dude I just watched Interstellar. That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done!” But it made the experience fantastic. Every bump I was like [woah]!

One of my favorite scenes that I feel like, well that one is life or death, but I relate to as a startup—Do you remember when Matt Damon tries to dock at the station, but it blows up and the thing starts spinning? He was like “oh no,” and then he guns it to the station. He has a great line in there. The robot tells him it’s impossible and he says,

“It’s not impossible. No, it’s necessary.” 

We should do Interstellar-themed road puns.

#ForThePlanet

So now we’re going to do a flash round of questions. Say the first thing that pops to your head: 

Okay…

Dream vacation?

Italy.

Books or Movies?

That’s too hard. I have a crazy amount of books, and I love movies. 

Favorite band or singer?

I like Imagine Dragons. And I used to like Linkin Park a lot back in the day.

Best Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?

I was a really good Bane one year. 

What is the oldest thing you own?

I think I have my dad’s Lord of the Rings books. 

Favorite sports team?

Steelers.

And finally, pineapple on pizza?

Sure. I enjoy a good Hawaiian pizza.

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