How did she do it? A Q&A with Mary Ellen Sparrow, co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics

Dave Anderson, managing director of Golden Seeds and board member of NextShift Robotics and managing general partner of Supply Chain Ventures

July 11, 2018

Mary Ellen Sparrow, co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics

Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate female entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How Did She Do It?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.

Today, Dave Anderson, managing director of Golden Seeds and board member of NextShift Robotics, interviews Mary Ellen Sparrow, co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics. Below, they discuss what makes NextShift Robotics unique, and how the organization is bringing automation to warehouses.

MS: In 2017, the U.S. consumer spent $453 billion via online purchases, which is a 16 percent increase over 2016. This demand dynamic has created a new market, changing distribution and manufacturing execution processes. Our relevant supply chain is focused on smaller and more frequent orders requiring faster delivery schedules to satisfy this demand. Currently, with more than 1 million retail (e-commerce) orders per hour (and growing), approximately 45 percent of warehouses continue to use manual picking systems. This problem becomes more complex with an increasing labor shortage. Warehouses are now looking for scalable collaborative productivity solutions with reasonable cost and schedule implementation options, enabling targeted business growth. In order to remain competitive, we see many long-standing facilities turning from manual picking methods and large fixed automation systems with static business processes and high capital costs, to flexible, scalable systems. With progressive e-commerce growth, NextShift was designed envisioning a solution for these facility automation challenges. We created a simple system that is easy to install, leveraging existing workers and facility infrastructures.

MS: The NextShift Robotics system introduces a unique workflow, which optimizes material and worker movement providing throughput efficiencies with the “worker-free” robots doing the carrying, loading and unloading of totes automatically. The installation is simple and cost-efficient for e-commerce companies given the reuse of their existing infrastructure and shelving, resulting in minimal disruption to their existing operations. Our operational software is integrated with warehouse planning and operational software. Manufacturing companies are also seeing operational efficiencies through the use of this system, to move parts and materials quickly within their process. Among competitive solutions, some fixed automation solutions require high capital investment with significant infrastructure modifications, high support for installation and maintenance, and worker “keep out” zones requiring additional segregated warehouse space. Other collaborative systems may have the limitation of robots waiting for workers, which does not optimize efficiency. The unique workflow provided by NextShift Robotics enables the robots and workers to operate independently. And, the robust design of this second-generation robot allows for durability and consistent operation in less than ideal warehouse conditions, such as cracked floors and reduced lighting.

MS: As with many early startups, we have been focused on reaching out to customers for validation of their unique business challenges and to provide them exposure to the efficiencies and unique benefits of our collaborative, autonomous robotics system. Aggressive efforts have been centered on fundraising, bringing in the right execution team and advisors, building critical company infrastructure and establishing market traction; to facilitate company development and growth. We continue to mature our sales pipeline with associated marketing and PR efforts, connecting us to a growing network of interested companies. To facilitate this growth, we’ve also relocated the company to a facility with space to accommodate our growing needs. The funding process is time consuming but valuable. We find the collaboration is valuable in assessing our business plan and aligning on critical execution priorities. It’s also an opportunity to leverage external perspective, to gain feedback and validation of our value proposition. In this capacity, we have sincerely benefited from our relationship with Golden Seeds. They have been incredibly supportive as our lead investor.

MS: We have completed our first Series Seed funding and are now in the execution phase, with the objective to grow our sales pipeline and establish customer installations. Through trade shows, marketing and PR efforts, including speaking engagements, we continue to build our market presence. With increased customer engagement, a supplemental funding plan is in the works supporting continued company growth, including team, manufacturing and product expansion.

MS: When starting this company, my partner and I developed a solid business plan and possessed in-depth understanding of the evolving market from careers of exposure to the industry. We became actively involved in related tech forums and speaking engagements to gain exposure. Through an incubator group, TechSandbox, I was introduced to Golden Seeds. What we didn’t envision was the value we would gain from developing investor partner relationships and the benefits we would derive from their network of experts and connections across industry. Although the funding process requires significant effort, it is also a tremendous opportunity to learn from others and expand your thinking, resources and capabilities. The development of this community has been critical in moving us forward to this point. Being open to receive feedback and learn from others is a valuable part of the process. We were fortunate in receiving the support of Golden Seeds and our other investors within our syndication.

Building a business takes a community. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. We invited industry executives, colleagues and experts to support the company in an advisory capacity. Their guidance and understanding of our message, the market and technology was invaluable in starting the process and also in developing credibility in the marketplace and with investor communities.

MS: Pitching Golden Seeds was stressful and exciting. It was great to be able to talk about the company and share our vision. The questions were exciting because they challenged us to think through our plan and question each point. When creating a business, you won’t have every answer, but you want to have the basics. As a result of the angel syndication, we went through this process with every group: initial screening, a forum with questions, then a deep dive where they would spend three to four hours diving into our business and sales strategies, followed by a due diligence process. Golden Seeds has a very thorough diligence process that takes two to three months.

Another memory I have from our initial pitch is when we went to a Golden Seeds forum in New York. My co-founder is a male, which is key to the story. We presented at the forum to a room of mostly females. After the presentation and questions were over, he looked at me and said, “For the first time, I understand what you have done throughout your entire career,” because I was usually the only woman in the room and he finally got to experience a similar scenario. This really sets Golden Seeds apart; they are women-led and focus on women-led companies.


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