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‘It’s really good to fail’

Shape Robotics cofounder Moises Pacheco shares his road to success

Published February 19, 2020
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From the produce of Central Valley to the software of Silicon Valley, the world consumes what California creates. If it were a stand-alone nation, California would have the sixth-largest economy in the world. Yet, if we could measure by a less tangible metric, the impact on human life and destiny, perhaps the state’s greatest export is dreams.

Since 1849, visions of fortune have drawn prospectors of all sorts west, and the allure of fame floods the state with hopeful entertainers to this day. Many simply yearn for a modest taste of the good life that the characters in Hollywood’s features seem to enjoy so effortlessly. But there are many who, by circumstance of birth or fate, find the dream particularly far away. And perhaps this distance is felt most keenly by those who, by proximity, are closest to it.

Growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, Moises Pacheco could sense California’s influence reaching across the border. It exercised a hold on his imagination. “I was exposed to a multicultural society,” he recalls. “There were so many things going on in California. Rodney King. The music scene from the ’90s. Social injustices. The start-up environment. So many different conflicts or challenges.”

No one in his circle of friends was unaffected, but everyone took it differently. Years later, some he palled around with as kids were drafted into the Dodgers or found a place in the film industry, while others never saw their dreams bear fruit. Throughout his life, Pacheco has asked himself what the common denominator was among those who realized their dreams.

Pacheco himself dreamed of becoming a robotics engineer. In time, he made his dream a reality as cofounder of Shape Robotics in Copenhagen, Denmark, along with business partner David Johan Christensen, project manager Helene Christensen, and business developer Mikkel L. Overby. Shape has pioneered the educational robotics platform Fable that lets beginners of all ages dive into robotics engineering by creating snap-together robots. As both students and professionals have agreed, the robots are brilliant in their simplicity and sophistication.

Yet the company’s goal is not to raise a generation of roboticists. The true goal – as Pacheco passionately insists – is to foster the problem-solving skills that anyone can use to discover and open the doorways to their dreams. Similarly, Pacheco’s story is not relevant because it is unique to him, but because the principles by which he gained success are universal to anyone who seeks to fulfill a dream but doesn’t know how to get there.

OF BLACK HOLES AND CHAMELEONS

To paint Tijuana as merely basking in the glow of the Golden State is to do a disservice to the dynamic city. “When I was young, Tijuana was growing so fast the government didn’t have time to name all the new streets that were being created,” he reports. There was, of course, crime and poverty, but also a sense of adventure and discovery.

Pacheco’s desire to engineer robots owes a debt to his mother, a woman who felt regret that she had been unable to attend university and become a physicist. Growing up in the 1950s, her family had discouraged the idea, even though her male relatives had achieved academic prestige. Nonetheless, she sowed seeds of science curiosity in her children, sharing names like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking as well as speculations about stars and black holes. She encouraged rebellious curiosity in her children and was even tolerant of the dozens of turtles, chameleons, and cats they brought home.

So, when it came time for Pacheco to enter university, it was in character that his family sacrificed to give him the opportunity to enter one of Mexico’s most celebrated schools, the Tec de Monterrey. The hopeful young man felt he was closer than ever before to his dream of building robots.

THE GIFT OF FAILURE

Yet, as he toiled in school, an uncomfortable feeling gnawed at him. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy his line of study; the intellectual exploration of technology and engineering was as interesting as ever. But his classes seemed to be taking him further from his dream, not closer.

“I was being taught how to be a gear in the industrial system,” he says. “I became frustrated. Will I graduate and become a product line manager at a plant? That didn’t motivate me at all.”

Not quite depressed, but acutely dissatisfied, Pacheco began a whirlwind period of intense searching. Over the next few years he took time off from school and traveled extensively. He lived in Finland and then Germany. Returning to Mexico, he worked with a team to create a soccer-playing robot for the RoboCup world competition. Arriving in Denmark the following year with one suitcase and no plans, he was briefly misidentified by intelligence operatives as a member of the Iranian mob.

Twice along the way, he considered setting aside the engineering path. At one point, he enjoyed a brief stint as a restauranteur. At another, he wrote a novel and contemplated taking up the literary life. Not every foray was a success: grades suffered, money was tight, and delays and obstacles abounded. In short, these were crucial experiences.

Moises explains, “The best way to learn is by also acknowledging that it’s good to fail. It’s really good to fail. Learning to walk, a kid doesn’t give up. They fail and fail until they are walking and then they are running.”

A RENEWAL

Wandering far from the road, he eventually found that he had never really left it. After his explorations, he felt his ambition to work in robotics burn with renewed fire. He enrolled at the Technical University of Denmark.

There, he met David Johan Christensen, an associate professor and robotics professor. The two realized a mutual desire to create modular robots that could be assembled by beginners. Pacheco adopted this as his PhD project, and when the two began putting their ideas into practice, lessons in determination and problem-solving that Pacheco had learned in his life bore fruit.

When Pacheco told Christensen one day that he thought he could reduce the cost of an essential piece of hardware, Christensen was skeptical; an engineer had been brought in to create the component, and this was not Pacheco’s specialty. But Pacheco was persistent. He rethought aspects of the design and found a company that could make essential parts at a reduced cost. In all, the component went from $1,000 to about $40.

This only skims the surface of their odyssey in creating Fable. The PhD project was completed, his degree was earned, and Shape was founded in Copenhagen to bring the system to market. Founding a start-up was another adventure Pacheco felt unprepared for. But he learned from others he met along the way, and today the company sells to schools and hobbyists around the world.

DOORS TO DISCOVERY

“There has to be another way.” That, says Pacheco, is the mind-set of one who will overcome the obstacles between them and their dream.

“So, what are those other ways? You search until you find the path. And then you begin to believe in yourself more. When you face new problems, you learn to say again, there has to be another way. The more you solve problems, the easier it becomes.”

The path from Tijuana to Copenhagen took many twists and turns, each its own learning experience. Over and over Pacheco had to learn how to analyze and navigate the new space he found himself within. Now, he feels proud of his product and his company – and especially the skills he is imparting to students.

“Opportunities in life are offered to everyone,” Pacheco says. “There are so many paths that can take you there. Opportunities are offered to many people. But you have to learn how to detect them because they are very, very subtle. If you know what you want and you know how to solve these problems, the chances of getting there increase tremendously.”

“What I took away from the seminar and STEM Camp was an excitement to see how students and teachers would adapt to the new STEM programs. With Pitsco’s help, I felt more confident in my role as the teacher in leading and assisting my students to be successful.”

– Jana Price, engineering instructor, UMS-Wright, Mobile, Alabama

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