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Business: How Woodside exec uses robot at his Sand Hill Road office

 

By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

How can you be in two places at once? If you ask Geoff Rehnert of Woodside, it's easy. Now that his company has a small team of telepresence robots called BeamPro, "it's like having an avatar," he says.

Since leasing four BeamPro robots six months ago, his company has saved "hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel costs and time," says Mr. Rehnert, co-CEO of Audax Group, a private equity firm with offices in Menlo Park, Boston and New York.

Leasing runs $574 a month for each BeamPro or it can be purchased for $16,000, he says.

Mr. Rehnert demonstrates how he uses BeamPro every day, starting with greeting guests in the reception area of his Sand Hill Road office. In rolls a 5-foot 2-inch silver colored machine that looks like Skype on wheels.

Equipped with two wide-angle cameras, a microphone and speaker, the 17-inch LCD screen shows Mr. Rehnert's face and the speaker broadcasts his voice. The screen is mounted on two poles, which are attached to a base outfitted with headlights and automatic brakes.

The robot moves rather quietly and at different speeds controlled by Mr. Rehnert using the arrows on his computer keypad. The system requires 4G and Wi-Fi.

His co-workers barely look up when the robot rolls by their desks to escort guests down the hall. "We're used to it," his assistant Kim Gamma explains.

Mr. Rehnert pushes the "P" button on his keypad to park BeamPro in its loading dock, a platform that requires a 120V plug to recharge the eight-hour battery.

Next he uses his computer to activate the company's BeamPro in Boston so he can talk to his assistant Natasha Sugarman there.

"Geoff and I catch up each day and do our to-do list on the robot. It's better than doing it on the phone, better to see his reactions," she says.

The one thing she doesn't like is when the robot sneaks up on her. "I tried putting a bell on it," she says, but hasn't found the right bell for the job yet.

Mr. Rehnert prefers BeamPro to videoconferencing because he finds using a robot is less disruptive, less formal, and more natural. "I can pull up and join a meeting and join the conversation; it's very much like being there," he says.

With the robot's mobility, he can cruise the halls to check in with workers or invite them to roll with him into his office for a private conversation behind closed doors.

As for the downsides, Mr. Rehnert says, it's hard to read the fine print on documents displayed on the screen, and every once in a while a robot needs a little push to restart it in a Wi-Fi dead spot.

Otherwise, "it's incredibly efficient. I think it's going to be a game changer," he says, pointing out how BeamPro is being used by doctors working remotely so they aren't exposed to infectious diseases.

BeamPro is designed and manufactured in Palo Alto by Suitable Technologies, a company founded in 2011 by Stanford grad Scott Hassan. The company has a showroom on University Avenue in Palo Alto.

Stanford Athletics uses BeamPro for meetings. Some schools use the robots to give recruits virtual tours of their campuses. The San Diego Air & Space Museum offers docent-led BeamPro tours to housebound visitors. Many companies such as Microsoft Research and Square use the robots, too.

There are several similar telepresence robots on the market. Suitable Technologies makes another product for smaller companies or personal use.

Beam+ is approximately 4 feet 5-inches tall with a 10-inch screen. It weighs a little over 68 pounds and has a battery that lasts a couple of hours.

Beam+ is selling for about $2,000 on the company's website and on Amazon.com, where it is receiving rave reviews from customers. One writes, "On late work nights it allows me to Beam in and see my kiddos before they head off to practice or bed."

Surprisingly, no one has made any Star Trek references in the comments so far.

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