(Editor’s note: Dispatches Europe tracks the tech scene – startups, scale-ups and mature companies – because so many of our highly skilled internationals are engineers, physicists and developers. This post on Will Fischer and Voxdale Berlin is part of our Tech Tuesday series.)
If you’re an American expat and you’ve been in Europe awhile, your reserves of goofy, zany and spontaneous start to drop because Europeans tend to be more formal and reserved. If that’s you, meet Will Fischer.
There is no such thing as a dull conversation with Mr. Fischer, managing partner at Voxdale Berlin, part of the Antwerp-based hardware engineering and development consultancy. Fischer is an authentic American in everything he does including his, well, colorful language and his unorthodox approach to attracting talent at Voxdale.
It can all be summed up in one of the many “wait, what did he just say?” lines he drops with regularity. Talking about Voxdale, Fischer says, “We get 20 to 50 applicants per position. No kidding. We post a position and the floodgates open the f*ck up – sorry about my explicit language but feel free to quote me on it. So, the result is we get extraordinary talent and I think I take a very unique approach to hiring engineering staff.”
Who wouldn’t want to work with Will Fischer? Because there is a sense that wherever he goes, extraordinary things could happen at any moment, which pretty much sums up his life to this point.
Let’s start with the startups
At 35, and after being part of a successful tech exit in The Valley, he’s found his way to the massive MotionLab.Berlin complex, a hard-tech hardware community that includes co-working space, a maker space, seriously well-equipped tech workshops, startups and offices. “It’s where I have decided to make my home,” Fischer said. “Obviously, I don’t sleep here. But this is a place to build stuff, to build physical things. I absolutely adore it here.
“And I am a steadfast evangelist of MotionLab.”
Voxdale has 40 people on staff, including 35 In Belgium, one at High Tech Campus Eindhoven and four in Berlin, including Fischer. His role as a managing partner is to keep doing what he’s done since he left a brief but “super-duper cool” stint at NASA and headed for San Francisco in his early 20s.
The circuitous and highly entertaining story of how he got to Berlin is kinda cray even in the heady startup world of The Valley, Boston and Austin:
• He started out as a rocket scientist. Sort of. Fischer did his master’s research at NASA Langley on convective heat transfer, analyzing astronauts’ personal items before they went into space. Doing research at NASA wasn’t as cool as it should have been because circa 2009, “the space industry was dull as hell.” Old Apollo-era guys were still doing calculations on chalkboards. SpaceX was still nascent, as was Blue Origin. “Nobody was doing anything cool in space that would have inspired a young engineer to want to go do it,” Fischer said, except hardcore rocket scientists. That wasn’t him.
• “So, I ditched that because my big sister was starting a startup in San Francisco.” His plan to be the next Mark Zuckerberg didn’t exactly turn out, but it didn’t not turn out, either. He was the first non-founding employee at Nano Precision Medical, a pharma concept developing an implant for Type 2 diabetes. There, he discovered he was really good at figuring things out at the very beginning, putting into place the structure that could be handed off as the company grew. “And truthfully, that has stayed my specialty.”
When Nano Precision needed somebody to run internal tools for the company, he built the prototyping shop and cleanroom. “I mean, physically, me building. And so, I know how to design and construct a cleanroom and know how to design and construct a machine shop and how to outfit it. And then I was building products for our engineers.”
This week, Nano Precision Medical finalized a merger with Second Sight Medical to form Vivani Medical, which will be publicly traded. “So I have a successful exit under my belt,” Fischer said.
• He became a registered U.S. patent agent while working full-time at Nano Precision. But mastering the nuances and excruciating details of filing patents is just adding another skill set. “So, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons with a bunch of Google employees. And we decided to start building cocktail robots to compete in – I shit you not – the San Francisco Cocktail Robotics Grand Challenge,” Fischer said. “That’s a real thing!”
After some not great betas, they hit on a design that won the robotics challenge multiple years:
“We added to a stirring system, which put a drone motor into the drink, then spun it a little bit. When it wanted to clean itself, it would spin itself to full speed and spin itself clean. Like a centrifuge. We had an ice machine and it would call out your drink order when it was ready, and it had a big computer monitor on there that would show … the weight of your cocktail as you’re getting new ingredients. It was super cool. It was super cool!
The first cocktail robot, N.E.Bree-8, won two First Prizes “after an Honorable Mention for hilarious, yet disastrous failure.”
A later design, The Blaster, shot drinks into customers’ mouths from three or four meters away. Cocktail lovers entered their phone number ahead of time, then received a text message with a link to a website with all of the photos and videos that it took of them getting hit because the robot knew exactly where the shot would land. (See the above photo.)
“That was when I went to business school.”
• Fischer rocked into an MBA program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business with a robot that shoots people in the face with liquor. Within 48 hours, his entire 600-person class knew that some guy had a robot that can shoot you with liquor.
“That was my reputation through school.” Noooo!
THE GROWN-UP WILL FISCHER
After the successes at the Robotics Grand Challenge, Fischer’s team incorporated under the name of D20 Robotics with plans to use the robot to target liquor companies to advertise their own liquors. That business model was fundamentally flawed, not by the fact that the technology wasn’t fantastic, “but by the fact that any lawyer in any liquor company immediately looks at our product and goes, ‘Ahhhh, no!’ ”
Fischer cheerfully describes it as “like the most unnecessary use of technology that has ever been created, possibly in the history of mankind. But I love the fact that in my past is a robot that shoots people with liquor. That’s great. That’s insane. And I think that’s something I want everyone to have … that joy. To look back and say, ‘I had the dumbest idea ever. And I f*cking went for it.’ ”
Donald Trump becomes president in 2016, and that was too much even for his appreciation of the absurd. So, Fischer ends up in Berlin with a second company, Rinckl uG, building a canopy bed which used a track system in the legs to raise the bed out of the way and expose a large sit/stand desk.
That company folded during the pandemic but brought Fischer to MotionLab, where Voxdale hired him as an engineer.
Sadly, there’s also a grown-up Will Fischer – a serious engineer, a veteran of the startup and tech world who can dig into the serious elements of taking tech to market:
I love also then taking a step back sobering up a little bit going, how do we actually execute this? Why are we executed? Who’s gonna pay for it? Where is this headed? Six months from now, a year from now, five years, 10 years from now? I like the strategic side of things. I like thinking through how people can take their wacky ideas and turn them profitable with intellectual property.
He can talk wackiness and innovation. But without the grounding of the fact that there is a viable path, :there’s something missing,” he added. “There has to be a counterbalance or you never move anywhere, and you float through the mists and never get anything done.”
You can read how Will gets things done and about his role at Voxdale in Pt. 2 here.