Jeremy Conrad is the CEO of Quartz Robotics. Previously he was a founding partner at Lemnos, an early stage hardware-focused venture fund. Prior to Lemnos, he was an active duty United States Air Force officer working on the Airborne Laser Program. Jeremy graduated from MIT in 2006 in Mechanical Engineering.
How did you get involved with the Edgerton Center?
After I’d been accepted at MIT, I knew I wanted to join the Mars Gravity team. I worked on that for two years along with two of my good friends. Along the way I’d gotten interested in the DARPA Grand Challenge [a competition to design, build, and race an autonomous vehicle that could travel over 100 miles]. With my friends Kyle Vogt ’08 and Collin Johnson ’07 SM ’08, we went to talk to Kim [Prof. J. Kim Vandiver, Forbes Director of the Edgerton Center] about getting space and resources and Kim very graciously said, “You guys sound crazy, but sure,” and he supported us.
We had 15 people [on the team], got a truck and went to the semi-finals [of the DARPA Grand Challenge]. We didn’t make it all the way [to the finals] but it was a super amazing experience. While we weren’t ultimately successful in the thing we were trying to build I think it made us better engineers and better leaders as a result. Kyle [Vogt], part of the DARPA team, founded Cruise Automation, a self-driving vehicle start-up, and sold it to General Motors in 2016.
The Edgerton Center was critical to us, to help fundraise, to get space, to get people.
The ability to work on real stuff in small teams and have real leadership authority is what makes the Edgerton Center really distinctive. It’s one of the more unique places at fostering talent and fostering creativity.
How did the Edgerton Center influence your career today?
For the last seven years I’ve been a venture capitalist, investing in hardware start-ups, including people I knew from the Edgerton Center, like Jonathan Downey ’06 who was captain of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle team and later founded Airware.
The Edgerton Center mimics a lot of stuff in start-up land where there is no text book that says this is how you go do it. It’s this blend of, you need to recruit, you need to fundraise, you need to do project planning. The first time I had to think about a lot of these problems was at the Edgerton Center. “OK, we need to do this, we don’t have the skills, we can recruit, we can learn them.” Having the authority to execute like that as an undergrad is pretty rare.
We were prepping for the semi-finals for the DARPA Grand Challenge, the self-driving car competition. To test our vehicle, we needed open space. So we got permission to test on the Astroturf between the tennis courts and the Student Center. Of course, this being Boston there was an unseasonably late snowstorm and the entire Astroturf field was iced over. We borrowed a tent from the MIT Outing Club and huddled up in there while the entire time we had this truck sliding around on the ice-covered Astroturf. Suddenly you’re on the ice and you want to test brakes and you’re skidding ten feet. Somehow the Astroturf, the tennis courts, the Outing Club’s tent, and our vehicle all survived!