Syyn Labs began as an art collaborative. But thanks to its mesmerizing, over-the-top Rube Goldberg machine for the indie band OK Go, Syyn is now an actual business. As the core group of original Syyners prove, the staff is an unbelievably diverse mix of extraordinary talents and colorful personalities.
The League of Nerds
The Roboticist: Heather Knight
Knight is a pioneer in social robotics. After working at the MIT Media Lab's personal robots group, she moved to L.A. and joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. While in L.A., she became a regular at Mindshare and a member of Syyn. Last year, she moved back east to pursue a Ph.D. in robotics at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon. She also runs Marilyn Monrobot Labs, a robot theater group in New York.
"Our biggest fear is not that we won't succeed," Knight says of Syyn. "It’s that we’ll lose the fun spirit and the brotherhood."
The Fire Starter: Eric Gradman
Syyn has more than its share of polymaths, but the breadth of Gradman’s talents is more extreme. He's a former roboticist at Applied Minds, a fire-juggling circus performer, a rock musician, a semi-pro whistler, a software engineer, and a video-game developer. Last year, he and Syyn co-founder Brent Bushnell founded a video-game company called Dopplegames.
"Syyn gave me the confidence to quit my job," Gradman says, "I was doing computer vision stuff for my job, and I wanted to make art with it." After people interacted with his first piece at Mindshare LA, "I got hooked."
The Connector: Doug Campbell
Campbell, a designer, co-founded Mindshare LA, a TED-like monthly art and tech gathering where the Syyn gang first met in 2008.
"We're so close as a group," says Campbell. "That's important when you're doing projects where you're not sure how they're going to work out and you're on deadline."
The Mad Scientist: Dan Busby
By day, Busby, who studied physics at the California Institute of Technology, works as a test engineer at AeroVironment, which makes electric vehicles and unmanned aircraft. At night, he heads to Syyn headquarters where he's the self-professed "mayhem coordinator."
The group's favorite Busbyism: "Most of us are trained engineers. Some are trained artists. The rest of us picked it up on the street."
The Illusionist: Dave Guttman
Guttman studied graphic design at Parsons, project management at UCLA, and economics and psychology at the University of Virginia. He's a co- founder of Meemle, a mobile app development company and currently works in the social media group at Disney. "I'm a coder. I love making data beautiful," he says. "But at Syyn, I can use physical tools I've never used before. It expands my horizons."
The Gamer: Brent Bushnell
The son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is a startup veteran. Syyn is one of two ventures he's currently starting. The other, Dopplegames, develops social video games. "A certain amount of business is posturing, but with Syyn I've been able to be exactly myself. We're this crazy engineering group, so when we're in business meetings, we can be ourselves spouting these creative, wild ideas. That's the part I adore. None of the projects feels like work."
The Producer: Hector Alvarez
Alvarez, a former advertising art director, works as a free-lance designer in L.A., which gives him flexibility to handle Syyn's marathon sessions to make deadlines. Part of the group's Rhode Island School of Design contingency, he was the art director on Syyn's Rube Goldberg machine for Google.
When Syyn began, he says, "we would just get together and talk about what we were working on. 'What do you need help on? Have you thought about this?' We became good at collaborating."
The Ringleader: Adam Sadowky
Sadowsky, a serial entrepreneur and Syyn's president, is the company's only full-time employee – for now. He's hard at work creating a pipeline of projects to generate enough revenue so that other Syyners can afford to quit their day jobs and keep expanding the Syyn brand through corporate gigs, public art installations, and perhaps a TV series.
In the meantime, Syyn continues to attract dozens of talented volunteer contributors. "I don't take it for granted that there are so many people who are willing to put in hours for no money just to be part of something extraordinary," Sadowsky says. "I hope that never changes."
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Watch the photo shoot
See the Rube Goldberg machine
The making of the Rube Goldberg machine
And obsessive breakdown of the Rube Goldberg machine