Wired In: David Cohen

9/26/2016 9:15:41 AM Paul Wood

Photo by: Heather Coit/The News-Gazette[cr][lf]Dave Cohen, CEO of Petronics, holds up a working prototype at left, and an early design prototype at right, of his company's robotic mouse for cats, known as Mousr, with some of the math formulas and equations his company is using develop the motion strategy to entertain cats in the background. Cohen was at the company's offices last week at EnterpriseWorks in Champaign.
Photo by: Heather Coit/The News-Gazette Dave Cohen, CEO of Petronics, holds up a working prototype at left, and an early design prototype at right, of his company's robotic mouse for cats, known as Mousr, with some of the math formulas and equations his company is using develop the motion strategy to entertain cats in the background. Cohen was at the company's offices last week at EnterpriseWorks in Champaign.

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, DAVE COHEN, 28, co-founder of Petronics, which makes something your cat will really love — and it's very high tech. He has two engineering degrees from the University of Illinois, and a lab in Champaign's EnterpriseWorks.

What does your start-up make?

We're developing Mousr, a robotic mouse toy to play hide and seek with your cat.

Who's on the team?

The three founders: myself, David Jun and Michael Friedman. We have six full-time employees

How did you get started?

I began working on the first prototype of Mousr in 2014. Before entering this in the Cozad Competition, where it won best elevator pitch, I became obsessed with how to make cats love this toy. What if there was a mouse that could run away if a cat chased it? It turns out that is a difficult thing to build. David Jun was important in giving Mousr its brain. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from the UI in 2014. Michael has expertise in signal processing and feline behavior. He is a graduate student in electrical engineering and studies advanced signal processing.

Why was it difficult to build?

Well, what happens it its runs into a wall, or runs onto thick carpet? It turns out the real world is extremely challenging. What if it rolls over? The cat loses interest.

What did you do to build your start-up?

We applied to a program in China called Hexelator, now called Hax. They're not Chinese, but they accelerate companies by putting them in the heart of manufacturing there. The prototype Michael and I built, we could get five seconds of good video at a time, so we put together a little demo to show that if you could pull it off, cats really like it. We got in, and David joined at that point, and we've been full speed ahead ever since.

How many trips have you made to China?

I've made one, for four months. David and Michael went back this year, and Michael's still there.

What have you learned there?

The first learning curve was about prototyping and preparing the product. There's this mentality of prototyping there that doesn't exist in this country. To be exposed to the manufacturing ecosystem and cultural norms helps us with a challenge: everything that makes it really hard for someone like us to understand how to mass-produce a product. Armed with that, Michael and David took it to the next step, and we're going to find partners and create relationships. There's a perception that people manufacture in China because it's cheap, which is not always true. Actually, it's their expertise that is really important. For the kind of thing we're building, tiny robots, no one can design mechanical systems better than they do over there. We want to find the right people who can take mechanical problems that are six months' work for us — and they can do it in two hours.

But this is not a Chinese effort?

SOS Ventures in the parent fund of Hax. It stands for Sean O'Sullivan. They fund excelerators.

How have you improved Mousr?

First, it was too big for cats. Cats would play with it aggressively, as they like to do. If it would flip over, the game was over. We need to make it as small, fast and light as we could make it, so the cats could manhandle it and still keep the game going. So we redesigned it so it could drive on both sides.

Why a camera?

It's really useful at a high level. It can see cats in any direction, and use that information to get away from them. But we discovered if it flipped over with the camera, Mousr couldn't drive. So we moved in a different direction.

Where are you going next?

We're digging in on making home robots autonomous ... new ways of interacting not just with pets but with people, new ways of exploring environments.

TECH TIDBITS ... from DAVE COHEN

Do you have any wearable electronics? My Pebble smartwatch. I just got it. I work with four time zones.

Books or Kindle? Books.

What are you reading right now? Mostly books about start-ups.

Social media? Facebook, Twitter and soon Instagram.