Ayanna Howard – Founder & CTO of Zyrobotics

Zyrobotics mission is to create accessible technologies that engage and empower all children.

Dr. Howard has over 13 years of R&D experience covering a number of projects that have been supported by a range of agencies including: NSF, NASA, Procter and Gamble, ExxonMobil, and Intel. Her robotics and assistive technology research, has resulted in over 180 publications and numerous patents. Her accomplishments are highlighted through a number of awards and articles, including highlights in USA Today, Upscale, and TIME Magazine. She was named MIT Technology Review top young innovator, recognized as NSBE Educator of the Year, and a recipient of the Anita Borg Educator Award. In addition to her extensive robotics experience, Dr. Howard’s entrepreneurial experience involves development of a leading genetic algorithm package and Brainsheet, a neural-network optimization package. The IP for both applications were later acquired by larger companies. Dr. Howard holds a degree from Brown University, a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from University of Southern California, and an M.B.A. from the Drucker Graduate School of Management.

Where did the idea for Zyrobotics come from?

Zyrobotics was founded based on an unexpected journey. I received a grant a few years ago as a professor at Georgia Tech that enabled me to develop robot programming camps for children with special needs. These camps not only led to the development of accessible interfaces for children with physical disabilities, but with support from the Georgia Tech Venturelab startup program and the State of Georgia GRA Ventures program, the company was founded and the lab technology accelerated to commercialization. Zyrobotics mission is to create accessible technologies that engage and empower all children.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am both a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and an entrepreneur, so you can imagine my days are really busy. A typical day consists of research, teaching and mentoring students, overseeing software and hardware development activities, handling business matters and attending meetings. Planning really well, having a good calendar with reminders, and checking my email helps me stay productive.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’ve surrounded myself with a great executive team and great mentors who I bounce ideas off of. I also have the unique advantage of being an engineer – I can make things work, so that helps.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

One trend that excites me is teaching kids to code and program at an early age.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am email intensive. I am always on my phone opening and responding to emails. Communication is important because as an entrepreneur you wear many hats. Staying connected with my team helps increase productivity.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My worst job ever was when I was an undergraduate student. To help pay for my education, I had to do a work-study. My first work-study job was doing prep in the cafeteria at 5:30am in the morning, three days a week. Then I would have to get to my engineering class by 9am. After one semester, I finally found a work-study job providing IT support for the engineering lab. What I learned from that job – you have to do what you love otherwise life is miserable.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I were to start again, I would focus more on developing a concrete sales strategy before implementing marketing initiatives.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

There is a lot about starting a new business that’s uncertain. The one thing I do over and over again is not letting the unknown immobilize us, and letting the company strategically pivot if the company’s current direction isn’t panning out.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

We use the research results from my lab at Georgia Tech for product development and license the basic technology from the University. This has helped us tremendously as a business because the product development cycle is shortened and we have greater output.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The one failure I’ve had as an entrepreneur was a failure in not getting our first SBIR grant. Since we started in the special needs domain, our first grant was submitted to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. What I didn’t understand was that their focus was not really on special needs education. We overcame the challenge by looking at agencies more interested in supporting research for K-12 education.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think it would be cool is someone would develop an elevator wheelchair that allowed the user to elevate their chair when stationary so that they were at eye level.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I am a Zumba instructor, so I love to buy workout clothes and other gear that helps me prepare for my classes.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Unity, Adobe Cloud, Dropbox, and Google. I love them because they enable me to communicate with my team. I travel a lot and sometimes work remotely. Tools like Google and Dropbox and Adobe Cloud allow me to collaborate with my team. I love Unity because it enables our software and game developers to create our apps.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

In Search of Excellence – Thomas J. Peters and Robert H., Jr. Waterman . In Search of Excellence is a great book on management and entrepreneurship.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Reginald Lewis has been an influence in my life because he successfully took over a food company and became a multi-millionaire and his story is inspiring to any entrepreneur.


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