Baking up a Career in Robotics: A Q&A with Philip Courtois
Iryna Hlushakova |May. 9, 2023
Today, we’re taking a moment to catch up with Philip Courtois, Realtime Robotics’ Staff Applications Engineer. Philip’s had a lengthy career in the robotics industry, and in chatting with him we learned a lot about his start in Denmark, how he got into the industry…and his love for baking?
Q: To get us started, could you share with us some details on your background?
Philip: Well, I was born and grew up in Denmark. I had always been fascinated with gadgets growing up; I was the one running around with a pocket computer, long before anyone had mobile phones. When it became time for me to choose my career, it was only natural that I explore the technology space. I ended up at the Technical University of Denmark, exploring electrical engineering, with a speciality in mechatronics. I was energized by working with actual, physical equipment that moved and needed to be engineered.
Q: How did you end up going from Denmark to the United States?
Philip: My first job out of university was with National Instruments in Denmark. They were doing interesting things in automation, and offered a program where employees could train in Austin, Texas. That seemed to me like an excellent opportunity - and one I should take advantage of. So I did? As it turns out, it was one of the best decisions of my life, as I met my future wife - a Texas National Instruments employee - on my second day in Austin.
Q: That was an eventful trip? How did your time at National Instruments lead you into the robotics field?
Philip: I continued to work for National Instruments for five years; in Denmark, then Singapore and finally in Austin, Texas. The company had a graphical programming language called LabVIEW that was easy for non-programmers to learn and use. I was excited by the technology as, while I never saw myself as a programmer, I could see how technology like this was able to empower a non-programmer audience to be able to program advanced applications.
From there, I branched out to work for a couple of integrators, including DAC, or Design and Assembly Concepts. While doing so, I was able to utilize my knowledge of the software side of things to work on control systems and user interfaces for industrial robots - something I had never had access to before. It goes without saying that I was excited by the technology and wanted to do more. Robots just pull you in and you get caught up in it, because it's fascinating, and you just want to push the technology behind them to the next level.
Q: What were you responsible for there? How deep did you get into the robotics space?
Philip: I was in charge of programming the robots, the control systems, and the user interfaces and generally do what was necessary to make the systems work. These were industrial robots - the big, scary ones that needed to be separated from the rest of the world, inside a cage.
In 2012, I learned about the newest thing in the robotics field at the time, which was collaborative robots. It was a new way of thinking - the idea of user-friendly robots that could work safely with humans, side-by-side. At the time, industrial robots were thought of as too dangerous to do more than simple, repeated actions - and should always be separated from humans and each other. My eyes were opened.
Q: From there, you started your own company, correct?
Philip: Yes - I struck out on my own, founding my own company, Thinkbot Solutions. We focused on exploring the possibilities of collaborative robots and control systems and working with customers and end-users to make robots systems more user-friendly, easier to use, and to apply them to new applications that weren't possible with industrial robots.
From there, I heard of Realtime Robotics in 2019 and how they led a new chapter in robotics by automatically calculating robot paths to eliminate collisions and make it easier for humans to program and work with robots. I thought, how do we take this kind of advanced technology and elevate the user experience? How can we make working with industrial robots more safe, and more user-friendly? I was intrigued - and I was eventually fortunate enough to be able to join the team. It was a great decision.
Q: So, that brings us up to your current role. What are your responsibilities at Realtime Robotics?
Philip: At Realtime, I’m the Staff Applications Engineer, and I am in charge of establishing and maintaining a connection between customers and our R&D. In short, I take technical customer feedback about what’s working and what’s not, and then make sure that this information is being used to shape our future product features and directions.
I’ve found this role to be perfect for me, as it melds two of my favorite aspects of the industry - technical challenges and the excitement of being able to work hand-in-hand with the end user. I’ve held several different roles in my career - sales, support, marketing, development and even entrepreneurship - and it always comes back to the fact that I love having that connection with the customer. It’s magical when you see the light in their eyes as they realize “this actually works, and it’s so cool.” That has always motivated me.
Q: You’ve been in the industry for a while and have experienced so many sides of it. Any chance we could get you to peer into your crystal ball and tell us what you think the future holds?
Philip: Sure thing. I think - with or without AI - we will see an increasing amount of data and computational power being used to empower better robot planning. At that point, robot applications that weren’t really possible before (because they were too advanced or just not safe enough) will be achievable. Safety is very important, but as technology advances and that becomes less of a concern and more of a feature, we’ll start to see massive efficiency improvements become possible. Technology will keep moving the bar forward.
Q: OK, we have to ask - what’s this about you and baking? Is this what you spend your time on outside of robotics?
Philip: Yes? I love baked goods. Denmark has amazing bakeries and terrific pastries. That’s probably where my passion for baking (and eating) baked goods started. These days, I experiment with sourdough breads and try baking bread every weekend. I truly love making something that the family can enjoy.
Other than baking, I’d say that the other things I spend my time on outside of work are family and mountain biking. My wife, my son and I are really a tight knit team, which I love. The flexibility of Realtime’s working environment has been wonderful, as I appreciate being home more often and being able to have a side conversation here and there. We take a lot of trips together, and often travel to Denmark as we still have ties there. And take a biking trip in the hills when time allows.
Thanks so much for your time today Philip - it’s been a pleasure getting to know you better. We’re looking forward to being able to test out some of those baked goods next time you’re in the office?