As the CEO of Knightscope, I’m often asked, “Why did you build Knightscope?”
After seven years of hard work to get it off the ground, I thought to write down my answer—some of which I hope will inspire other founders to find something they love, believe in to the core, and would be something that will have a positive, meaningful impact on the world.
First of all, I didn’t build it. I set the direction, raised the capital, meddled a lot in the design area, but along the way we have had the privilege to work with some great people that are driven, relentless, didn’t sleep much, and maybe some have a screw loose to be doing this all—but we built what we were told was ‘impossible’. I’m proud to say that four of us that were here in 2013 when we had literally nothing are still cranking away!
As to why—for me there are two answers. As a former automotive executive in Detroit, I strongly believe that self-driving autonomous technology is going to turn the world completely upside down. Depending on who you believe, more than $80 billion has been invested in this new technology with nearly 200 companies working on it in some form. But did you arrive at work or home today in a self-driving car? Likely the answer is no. So…billions of dollars go into a new sector over a couple of years and literally zero comes out?!? Maybe there is a problem?
What I predicted back in 2013 actually happened—self-driving technology would have a very long road to fully commercialize. I believe autonomous technology to be feasible, but it will take a great deal of time and resources to develop, test, validate, and put into production at scale. Also, there are some pretty serious issues in terms of legal, insurance, and regulatory frameworks missing still, to have a viable business.
Engineers are good at solving problems with “constrained boundary conditions”—not clean-slate, fully random situations, like, “Hey, let’s put this 4,000-pound unmanned vehicle on a public road in a random environment, random weather conditions, and a lot of dynamic situations—people, cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, dogs, cats, sheep, and who knows what else—might crop up. Oh, by the way, there is no regulatory framework or published safety standards we need to design to just yet. Good luck!”
Put a different way, everyone is trying to go to Pluto first without perhaps first considering stopping at the moon (although some folks are starting to reconsider that ahead of the upcoming “self-driving winter”—when the funding from brilliant VCs dries up when they see no revenue or commercially viable products). At Knightscope, we believe that a “crawl, walk, run” approach might be more suitable (and sane).
To our knowledge today, we believe Knightscope is the only company in the world operating fully autonomously without human intervention, 24/7/365 across an entire country, with real clients and real technology generating real revenue. All the haters and naysayers can pick apart every little bit of Knightscope they want—but we accomplished what we were told countless times we could not do. And to top it off we have numerous crime-fighting wins to show for it!
So that was the professional motivation, but the personal one is what gets me fired up. I was born in New York City, and someone hit my town on 9/11. I’m still pretty pissed off about it, so I dedicated the rest of my life to better securing our country. Additionally, the ongoing mass shooting violence across the country is not acceptable. That is why I put in the 80-to-100-hour weeks to do something meaningful about it. Our country is under attack—I was livid then, and I’m even more furious now.
A violent crime occurs every four seconds and a property crime every 25 seconds—and we are averaging a mass shooting every single day. I don’t believe the founders of our great country ever expected that we would build a society where going to school, going to work, going shopping, or to a movie literally came with a risk of being shot or killed. Crime has more than a $1 trillion negative economic impact on the U.S. every single year—a hidden tax we all pay in blood, tears, and treasure. This has to stop. I love my country, but it is not set up to fix this problem—it is structurally flawed in this regard.
At the U.S. Department of Defense, we have an annual budget of more than $700 billion and we give the troops every level of capability you might ever imagine—and there is one person in charge, the Secretary of Defense. There is a process, a budget, and massive technical capabilities in our nation’s defense contractors to build whatever widget you might need. It might be costly, but the process works—and we honor our soldiers by giving them everything we’ve got to defend our nation.
Back on the home front, however, that is not the case. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have no federal jurisdiction over 19,000 law enforcement agencies and 8,000 private security firms. There is no one in charge, there is no process, there is no budget, no risk capital, no innovation—and that is why you have security guards sitting in a parking lot at 3 am with a #2 pencil and notepad.
We would never dare treat a soldier in that manner—but we have 2 million law enforcement and security professionals that get up every morning willing to take a bullet for you and your family and what we provide them as tools for them to do their jobs effectively is beneath the dignity of our nation.
Moreover, how are 2 million officers supposed to secure 328 million people across 50 states around-the-clock with a walkie-talkie, Velcro, duct tape, and maybe a camera? Perhaps we need to give them smart eyes and ears so they can cover a lot more ground while providing an additional physical deterrence. Maybe a combination of self-driving technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence can help humans? Oh, I got it: a fully autonomous security robot!
So when someone shoots up a school, a mall, a nightclub or theater—tell me, who gets fired? Who is accountable? No one. People worry a lot about the robots. Honestly, I worry more about the humans.
We should be outraged. But, instead, all we do as a nation is argue about the problem for decades on end. There is a vacuum of leadership and risk capital—so we will take upon ourselves to fix it one way or another.
To add insult to injury, institutional investors say “physical security is not an investment thesis”—they would rather put money into a photo-sharing app instead of investing serious capital in serious issues requiring serious people with serious commitment. I even had a major, well-respected top firm say to me, “It is too complicated. It is hardware and software. You should pick one.” Yes, now is your cue to roll your eyes. Since when in our country do we choose what is easy to do rather than what is right and what is hard?
My wife says I’m possessed. Probably because when she wanted to have a serious conversation about what I would I want to do if we won the lottery one day, I didn’t skip a beat and said, “We needed a new headquarters, a lot more engineers, a design studio, to develop lots of new products at Knightscope.” Um, that didn’t go over very well, I must say!
And, yes, after hundreds of “no, no, and no,” I took an unconventional path to finance the company with four major corporations and more than 17,000 private investors. But I did it because I believe down to the bone that we have a moral obligation to help fix this major societal problem. It is our patriotic duty to do so and it is in the national security interests of the United States to commercialize this technology.
You might think that we are a bit ambitious to have our stated mission be “to make the United States of America the safest country in the world,” but let’s pause reality for a moment and let the crazy founder dream a little. What if we were able to actually achieve that outlandish mission, as nuts as it might sound?
Talk to me about the impact on insurance rates!
Talk to me about the impact on government budgets!
Talk to me about the volatility of financial markets!
Talk to me about the impact on housing prices!
Talk to me about infrastructure or school budgets!
Talk to me about the safety of your family and loved ones…
If we could make the U.S. the safest country in the world, it would literally change everything for everyone.
Long term, I dream of building a $30 billion equivalent to a defense contractor (e.g., Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, etc.), except focused on helping the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security and the U.S. Dept. of Justice better secure our country with a wide-ranging portfolio of technologies. I think it is possible—it will be painful, there will be missteps, zigs and zags—but we are driven to make it happen and have a track record that’s heading in the right direction, despite the headwinds. And no matter how many times we are told “no” we are going to keep pushing forward to make it happen and accomplish the mission.
I truly hope you will join me here and “be a force for good” in helping build a safer America. Let’s literally change the world, together.
William “Bill” Santana Li is the CEO of Knightscope.