Rony Abovitz: The Tech Visionary Behind Magic Leap
Major breakthroughs require commitment, time, and the resources to go the distance.
Rony Abovitz is a serial tech entrepreneur and visionary. He co-founded MAKO Surgical in 2004 — a robotics company specialising in manufacturing surgical robotic arm assistance technology utilised by hospitals worldwide. MAKO was acquired by Stryker Corporation in 2013 for $1.65 billion.
Abovitz went on to found Magic Leap — a spatial computing company which envisaged a futuristic world, many years ahead of its time. Starting out of his garage in 2010, Abovitz worked on Magic Leap at night whilst still working at MAKO during the day. He partnered with award-winning Weta Workshop in New Zealand and assembled a world-class team of creative scientists before building their own high-tech factory in the US. He remained Magic Leap’s CEO until 2020 when he helped recruit Peggy Johnson to be his successor. Abovitz remains on the Board of Directors at Magic Leap.
Now on his third startup, currently in stealth mode, Abovitz is working on more “science fiction tech,” as he puts it.
In this interview, we talk about him growing up in an immigrant family, where he gets his work ethic from, what it took to build MAKO and Magic Leap, against the odds. Here’s his story:
Newnham: I wanted to start with your childhood. I know that your parents were immigrants and I think that’s an important place to start. What was your upbringing like?
Abovitz: Both my parents were immigrants who came to America from Israel. They came to the US in the 1960s. My father was an Israeli Air Force Flight Engineer. When he finished his service there, he wanted to come to United States to go to school.
He worked for El Al and that got him his trip here after the Air Force. He came with just a suitcase and $30 in his pocket. He literally had nothing and lived in a YMCA for a while, but he had a dream of starting his own company. My mum’s family came here around the same time and for some reason, they all ended up in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was a great place to grow up because it was very friendly. When I was eight or nine years old, I could wander miles from the house, and we would play football until nighttime and we would ride our bikes everywhere. I would ride my bike in the dark to my cousin’s house which was miles away.
It was a Spielberg kind of childhood where we were just a bunch of scrappy kids running around, like in the film Stand by Me. It was pretty fun. There were snowball fights, and forts, and climbing trees and getting into all kinds of trouble. I really liked it. We lived in a friendly neighbourhood where you didn’t have to lock your doors. So it was a good confidence building childhood in Cleveland. We then moved to Florida when I was ten. And I don’t know if you know about it but there was this story of a boy named Adam Walsh who was kidnapped in Florida? That’s when my parents got really scared about us kids running around. After that, the whole atmosphere in the US changed.
But, before that, I grew up with an idyllic childhood. All of our family lived within a couple miles of each other so grandparents, uncles and cousins…. I mean, I wouldn’t let my own daughter do what I used to do… and she’s in college now.
Newnham: Being the child of immigrants, do you feel that played a part in your work ethic?
Abovitz: Yes. My dad came here with nothing and worked his way up. My mum and her parents came here along with her brothers, and they came here with practically nothing. My mum went to art school at Kent State and she was there when the Kent State shootings took place. She was on campus watching helplessly as the National Guard was killing protesters against the Vietnam War. She was pregnant with me when this was happening. She was walking across the main area where the protestors were gathered, heading to the parking lot to go to work. She was very lucky (and so am I) that because she had to go to work (to pay for school), she was out of the main shooting zone.
My grandmother was a French weaver. What’s interesting about French weaving is that it involves surgical precision. And my grandmother was incredible at it… unbelievably good. It’s a lost art. She gained all kinds of business and would work until two in the morning most evenings. So, again, both my grandparents worked and both my parents worked and everyone was equal, there was a feeling of gender equality. Everyone expected all of us kids to grow up and become like PhDs or doctors or all of that at the same time…. There was extreme pressure to be very, very successful.
Going back a moment to my grandparents and relatives — they were so poor in Israel that they literally lived in what could be described as shanty towns. When the country of Israel was being founded, they lived in wooden shacks. They were incredibly poor, so they developed a work ethic of just working insanely hard. Their idea was that you can make it if you work hard — you just have to outstudy and outperform. So I grew up in an environment where there was a very intense push for all of us to do great things and not to waste a second.
However, at the same time, my mum was a teacher and an artist so whilst I worked hard, I also got to run around, and be free, and create, and imagine — so it was this dual world of being pushed to be super successful but, at the same time, being able to run around, and imagine, and be a space cadet so it was an interesting left brain, right brain mix.
Newnham: Which has served you well in your career…
Abovitz: So far, it’s been OK.
Newnham: When did you get interested in tech?
Abovitz: I think I was just born a tech geek. I was a tech nerd from the very first second that I was conscious. But I was not only interested in tech, I was simultaneously interested in everything — engineering and science and physics and art and literature and music and dinosaurs. I’ve never been “I’m only this one thing.” I’ve always been into an entire range of things.
Tech was just one way to do things but I was equally interested in other things. I was in garage bands and wanted to play baseball and football and fly airplanes and be an astronaut — so it wasn’t this one thing, it was the whole spectrum.
Newnham: Sure, but going back to technology — at some point, you obviously realise that technology might be the gateway to enable you to do what you wanted to do. What was getting your first computer like?
Abovitz: When I was really young, I think it was my parents who said, “We’re going to stick you on a computer.” In fact, it really started when I was about six years old and I got exposed to a video game called Pong. I would beat everybody at it, including the adults, and then my dad later bought us the Atari 2600. My brother and I could beat anyone in the neighbourhood at it. We instantly understood it even though we were very young. After a while my dad was like, “OK, don’t just play games, you can learn how to programme too.” So we took programming classes at Radio Shack.
And then I was given this weird computer — a Texas Instruments computer — which was not what you wanted but that was my first computer. Then, after that, my dad brought home the very first Mac, the 128k Macintosh. I just said, “I’m taking that over” — he probably had to mortgage the house to get it at that time. But at that moment, that was it for me. The Mac coming out was a revelatory moment because all the other things about computing had been super accounting, and nerdy, and lots of lines of code, and the Mac was like, smiling at you and you could paint on it. I was like, Who came up with this thing?!
I think that for a lot of kids who grew up at the same time as me, in the 80s and 90s, it was all about Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak — that was our life. You were watching Star Wars and Spielberg movies and then you’re on the Mac, invented by people like Jobs and Wozniak. And so suddenly it became a world of stories and science fiction but, at the same time, you’re playing on something that is real science fiction, and so that was kind of amazing.
Newnham: That’s interesting because there’s a generation of parents now saying kids shouldn’t have so much game time…
Abovitz: The key thing is that my parents let me play, and discover, and figure things out. I found out what a modem was, and then some of my friends and I were hacking stuff. We were hacking and doing all kinds of mischievous things that you do when you’re young. One of my friends even hacked into the school! It was all fun and discovery, like one giant game.
That was what was cool about it — that you weren’t just a consumer, you were making stuff. You would write code, you would make games and people would send you stuff. It was a two-way environment where you create, and you’d get stuff. I compare that to today where mostly people are just consuming. My childhood was definitely a lot of creating, discovering, and a lot of building things.
Newnham: You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s the difference…
I know you have always been big on giving back — where does that stem from?
Abovitz: My family. Just the culture of my family has always been about that — you would grow up helping people. It was just unnatural not to help.
Being like that has probably hurt me along the way by being too generous and sharing everything with everybody. For example, if you share too much with investors, they end up owning all of your company. I just grew up in an environment where you share your toys, you share your food, and you’re a very open person.
My grandmother would literally invite strangers into her home and feed everybody — that was how she did things and that was our culture. Random people would come over at weekends, and the dinner table would just get bigger and bigger. Everyone was always welcome. That was the culture of our family.
Newnham: After you discovered computers, what was your first company?
Abovitz: I think my very first company was when I was around 12 or 13. I tried to create a cartooning company. I made business cards on my Mac and I was giving them to friends. I was like, I have a business card therefore I have a startup company.
And then while I was an undergrad, I formed this weird think tank company called Sapient Technologies with a computer hacker friend of mine. We were young and we formed it without really knowing what we were doing.
I ended up making an album cover. Then when I was in grad school, these hip hop guys reached out to me — serious hardcore guys — and they were super awesome and they wanted a music video. So I found this cool British photography/film guy from the University of Miami because I was at school there, and we filmed these amazing, crazy, music videos. That would have been one very interesting path of life to follow but a couple moments got so dangerous — like, I would have to ask, “Are those props or is that real?” And they were like, “No, those guns are not props.”
It was a really awesome and fun time but I thought, OK, to stay alive longer, I’m just going to go down the more nerdy path of engineering.
Later, when I was finishing grad school, I started an R&D company called Z-KAT and then spun MAKO out of it.
Newnham: Tell me more about the beginnings of MAKO.
Abovitz: I was doing Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami and the Dean there got a call from an Italian orthopedic implant company called Lima International — a really fun group in Italy. They make Ferrari parts and orthopedic implants and they needed an engineer. I said yes to the job because it was going to give me exposure to the operating room which was exactly what I wanted because, at the time, I wanted to design implants and be a biomedical engineer (while also being in a college rock band).
Being in the operating room environment for the first time though was like going to a Texas Chainsaw Massacre live film, it was, “Oh my G-d, what is going on?” I’m wearing a gown and I’m standing right next to the surgeon who was doing open hip surgery. Blood is flying everywhere, the femoral head bounced off my forehead. He’s hammering away, and I’m like, “Oh dear G-d, this is bad. I cannot do this.” I had this vision of what surgery should be like from Star Wars with droids and it was all really cool and amazing, and this looked like something from the 1800s.
I’m not going to say which surgeon or what hospital it was but this was my first time in surgery and it was a real shock. Afterwards, I thought, It’s got to be better than this, and it’s going to include robots and software and AI and I’m going to make this better. And that was kind of an inception point — just seeing first-hand, behind closed doors, what surgery was like — I wanted to make it better.
Newnham: That must have been quite forward-thinking at the time, right? Because I assume no one else was really working on this at that time?
Abovitz: Oh, it was thought of as the stupidest idea by many. Hundreds of surgeons thought, This is dumb, this is stupid, this will not work (I did find one first surgeon who did like the idea, and that helped). And nobody wanted to invest. My parents put a little bit of money in, and some relatives did too. I mean, at that time I was living on 19 and 29 cent bean burritos from Taco Bell. So yes, it took a long time before anyone cared.
And then a company called Intuitive Surgical, which came out of Stanford Research Institute, started to get attention which helped a lot. And then the Intuitive founders, and others, wanted to fund the company and they became early investors in what became MAKO.
For me, it had started with my exposure to the operating room, but getting MAKO going was just about the hardest thing I ever had to do because I’m based in Florida, not Silicon Valley. I was trying to bring robots and sci-fi technology to the operating room and I’m a kid in my 20s so people were like, “You’re an idiot.” “This makes no sense.” “It’s the stupidest single idea I’ve ever heard.” They said, “You have no credibility. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I insisted, “This is going to happen.”
It was like climbing a very steep mountain with people throwing rocks at you as you climb up. And I really don’t know how I kept going. I don’t know what motivated me but I just didn’t stop. I was like the Energizer Bunny. And now almost all of the people who thought it was a dumb idea are now using the MAKO robot because it has become a standard of care in orthopedic surgery. It took a long time but they finally started to see that the vision was a good one.
I was definitely far ahead with it. I was literally twenty years ahead of everybody else. Maybe twenty-five years because I first started to get serious about it in 1995 — we are now in 2020 and it’s pretty mainstream. So I was twenty five years ahead of everyone, trying to explain to people that “This is going to happen.” Not an easy place to be in.
Newnham: I was going to ask you about that. MAKO was your first real experience of growing a business and it is financially hurting you to start with so what kept you going? Do you think it’s down to your personality or was it mission driven?
Abovitz: I think it was a conviction that surgery really needed to get better. There were serious unmet, unsolved problems, and I had no doubt that the kind of robotics and software we were building were going to surpass human capabilities and amplify them, so I just stayed the course. I knew that if we got it right that we would help many people.
I knew that it was going to be a long run but if I just stayed on track, we would eventually bring everyone around. It started with we would win the first surgeon, then we’d win the next surgeon and then the next one and the next one, and as we started to win those little victories, the conviction started to get stronger and stronger and then more investors would come along. But at the very beginning, when you’re trying to convince the first one or two people, it’s incredibly hard and you have no supporters. Once we started to get supporters — a critical mass of other engineers and some investors who are real investors — that’s when things changed.
An amazing moment early on was actually when one of our early investors woke up one day and thought to himself that robots were the future. He went over to the MIT AI lab and he found Rodney Brooks, who was the Head of the AI lab at MIT at the time, and a co-founder of iRobot and all kinds of crazy robot things. He and Rodney formed a venture fund. They called me up one day and said, “We believe in what you’re doing, and we’re coming down to see you.”
They were one of our first investors so that was like a divine intervention. The Head of the MIT AI robotics lab was coming down and thinks that what we’re doing makes sense. And he was coming with this really great angel investor too. I had no idea that was going to happen, they literally called me up and were like, “This is the MIT lab calling on behalf of Dr Brooks and he would like to talk to you.”
“What?!” It’s like you’re playing sandlot baseball and the Head Coach of the Yankees calls you up and says, “Kid, we’re calling you up to the major leagues.” It was really like that.
Newnham: How did he find out about your work?
Abovitz: I really don’t know, it was a miracle.
Newnham: And I guess once they were on board, it was easier to get others on board?
Abovitz: It helped but what was really interesting about that period was that this happened just in front of 9/11. Then 9/11 happened and it was horrific. It was horrific for this country, but it was horrific too for the world. And for investors, they felt like the world was ending so everything stopped. I had to hold the company together for many months during the post 9/11 world. It was intense and people were foregoing salaries just to keep the company alive. We ended up at one point, driving around half of the United States in a grey van with our prototype robot. Just two guys and me and we said we weren’t coming home until we got funding… And we literally did just that until we got funded. It was me, our Head of Robotics and one of our sales/business guys and we were just driving around America trying to get funded in the early days. One of our angel investors told us to go to New York, go to Ohio, go here, go there — we were driving around for weeks, anywhere and everywhere. We ended up in Princeton, New Jersey where a group called Sycamore Ventures finally funded us. It was actually Christine Todd Whitman’s husband, John Whitman, who took a liking to us and led that very important round of funding. Ultimately, if that didn’t happen, there would be no MAKO.
That first funding got us going in the beginning but to do something like bringing a robot into the operating room — it’s not quite like going to the moon but it is a big, complex project, not so unlike a NASA project. It required a lot of fuel and we didn’t have the same funding as NASA who got government funding. I had to find people to fund these giant moonshot projects and that was very hard.
I have no idea how these things happened — I just know that sometimes if you go on the journey and you don’t give up — once in a while, Gandalf shows up and gives you a magic wand — it’s literally in that spirit.
Newnham: So you ended up taking the company public, and then selling, but the journey wasn’t an easy one was it?
Abovitz: One of the most unfortunate things was that MAKO went public February 14, 2008 and around that same time was when the whole stock market started to crash. Nobody was going public so we were one of the only companies to have a successful IPO that year. The worst part of that year was that my father had passed away just weeks before we were to go on the roadshow. It was the complete worst version of everything and that was the time we went public. It was sheer willpower not to give up. My father had been so supportive and then he died. And then literally weeks later, if we didn’t go on the road then the funding window would be gone.
And even when we were on the road, the window was technically gone. Nobody wanted to have an IPO but we made it happen anyway. JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley took us public, and it felt like an Indiana Jones movie where the giant boulder is chasing you and you’ve got to run across the ravine and jump, and we grabbed on and we’re clinging on for dear life. It really felt like some kind of insane adventure movie to get us there, but it worked and we were able to have a successful IPO.
Newnham: You sell the company, and you obviously make a good amount of money. Were you already working on Magic Leap at this time?
Abovitz: So MAKO went public in 2008 and we got acquired in 2013. And around 2010/2011, I would be working late at night on what was to become Magic Leap. Even before that, I had been working with a group of people in New Zealand — Sir Richard Taylor and his team at Weta Workshop. They’re the people that helped design the worlds of The Hobbit and Avatar and all kinds of great movies like Lord of the Rings, so they were a really amazing group. I got connected to him and we would work together initially on my “late night project” which would be from like eight o’clock at night till midnight for me, but it was their next day morning in New Zealand.
I would do this from my garage and then get up and have my whole day working at MAKO. And I would do this again and again until my wife finally said, “You can’t keep doing this.” And the lucky part was that with MAKO, we not only went public but we got acquired by Stryker so that really freed me up to go work on Magic Leap fully.
Newnham: So you’ve got this idea, you managed to get this great team in New Zealand on board. What was the initial idea?
Abovitz: I was dreaming about two things at the same time:
1. What’s the future of storytelling?
2. And what’s the future of computing?
Around the same time, Steve Jobs died in 2011 and if you’re a fan of what he did, that was a very heartbreaking moment for a lot of people, including myself.
I started to think where would computing go now? What would happen next? And what does the future of storytelling and movies look like? So it was a combination of both of these. I thought computing and movies would merge into something new and this is when I started to talk to Sir Richard Taylor about it. I actually reached out and told him I had built a company that had robots and that I wanted to work on something that was even more science fiction. He answered back saying that a friend of robots is a friend of Weta, and that was it. We started communicating regularly and I flew to Wellington, New Zealand and spent an amazing time with them. That formed the partnership and a long-lasting friendship, and he became a founding board member with me at Magic Leap.
It was amazing because here was this Academy Award winner who’s a creative genius and he was like, “I’ll help you imagine this future.” For a while, he actually thought I was making a movie…
Newnham: Was that the original plan?
Abovitz: Well, there was this blurry line of are we making a movie or are we making technology? He thought we were making a prop for a movie and then as it evolved, I explained that we were actually going to build real technology with engineers from NASA and all kinds of supercomputing centres that I was bringing on board. So then Weta got really excited because they could see that we were actually making real science fiction come to life — this was back in 2011/2012 and nobody was doing anything like what we were talking about.
The first versions we built were half the size of a room. They were just these gigantic contraptions and I was trying to explain to people that one day you’ll wear these on your head. The timeframe for this kind of computing that we were doing — it went from a 1940s and 50s version where the computer took up most of a whole room, to something that you put on your face, in the span of like seven or eight years. So the timeframe got very compressed from 2011/2012, even 2013, from when it was a room-sized device to being able to put it comfortably on your head. That was the miracle that nobody understands… how fast the progress of technology happens.
We had to invent everything and we had to build many components from scratch. We had to develop so many ideas and then wrestle with physics and science and fight some fundamental issues to make it happen — which is usually something that only governments or very large corporations take on. That was the bold thing Magic Leap started out doing. It was taking on such fun, non-incremental innovation — real science, real physics, pushing the envelope, trying to do something completely new, inventing a new field, a new medium, new applications, new products… all of it.
Newnham: I wanted to ask you about the early days. You obviously had a grand vision which I’m sure a lot of people were not necessarily understanding of even if you could explain it well. And you had the added problem of not being able to show them it so can you tell me how you got such brilliant people on board — a lot of whom are still at Magic Leap today?
Abovitz: I’ll give you a couple of examples. Early on in the company, I was a speaker at this conference on the Future of Engineering and Science in the desert in Arizona. It was a three-day conference with visionary people in computing and I met there this young engineer who was a NASA whiz kid named Sam Miller. Sam and I started talking — he’s literally a rocket scientist and I’m a guy who had worked on brain surgery and now I’m doing this wild thing, so we talked about the exploration of the brain which was super exciting to both of us. Throughout the whole time at this conference, we’re just having this great brainstorm about what the future would be like. And all these other people started to hang around us, at night by the pool and by the fire in the desert, and they were wondering what on earth we were talking about.
Sam then became employee number one, and I was employee number zero. I then brought in a friend who had been at Caltech, a theoretical physicist. Another friend who worked at a supercomputing centre came on board too, so it was this little band of physics and science geniuses, plus I had Richard Taylor on the creative side, and we started to make very slick work with just a handful of people. And for a while, we were just woodshedding and working on cool stuff, but people started to hear that I’m working on something new and because MAKO had a good outcome for its investors — an IPO and then a $1.65 billion acquisition by Stryker — I had investors calling me up and asking, “What are you up to?”
I told them I couldn’t talk about it, but they insisted that “Any time you want us to fund you, let us know.” Then people started to fly in to see our early work, and I would explain, “Here’s what we think is going to happen over the next ten to twenty years.” So we got early investment at that point, including from the first software architect at Google. He was a really cool person and he had been responsible for introducing Larry to Sergey, at the founding of Google. After me, he was the second investor in Magic Leap. He said, “You guys should make this happen. This is really cool and I want to see you build it. This is another moonshot.”
Today, the world is more cynical and negative about tech, but if you go back to 2011 when we started Magic Leap, Obama was President, there was optimism and there was still this feeling that we can make the world great. I think it was probably the same feeling when we landed on the moon — this feeling that anything and everything was possible and that feeling was definitely there when we started Magic Leap.
It was a very positive, optimistic view of the future — that you can make really cool stuff happen. And out of that atmosphere, someone’s going to make electric cars and someone else is going to fly to Mars. It was this really great moment in time with people were supporting invention and discovery at a fundamental level. Like, “Hey, you want to invent the television? We’re there for you.” Not an incremental thing where there’s no risk like making an app that sits on top of someone’s cloud but, instead, you want to do real push the envelope stuff like invent the TV, invent the radio, or create the light bulb. There was a moment where the investing world, and others, wanted to do that. They were willing to take big and bold risks.
Newnham: I think a lot of investors are still very much like that but the media has changed things…
OK, so you have this great vision, you’ve got the team assembled. What was the end goal or was it a huge experiment to see what you could do with it?
Abovitz: The goal was that computing would be all around you like oxygen. I imagined the idea of spatial computing — that computing would move from this trapped 2D environment like your phone or the screen, and it would literally be everywhere.
The revelation came when I was walking on a beach and I was just looking around at the beach and then looking around at the world, and the world is spatial. It is ultra-high resolution, it’s amazing and it’s what you see via the world’s best computing display, your brain. At that moment, I was like — how does that work? I have this amazing display built into me already. And I’m a biomedical engineer, so that led to a deep dive into the opto-neuro system. How does the visual cortex work? And my thought was that the world’s best display is your visual cortex. So how did we plug into that? How does computing merge into your visual cortex? Our theory is that what you think is outside is actually all inside you. That was the theory — that the world that you experience is not external, it’s internal. It’s generated by your visual cortex. We are all amazing, imaginative world-builders — every human on the planet.
The deep inspiration was the neuroscience of the sensory system — the visual system, touch, smell, taste, all of that. So, my biggest vision was that we’re doing something called sensory field computing where computing will match the senses. So a spatial computer will effectively become the size of the world visually, but you can enjoy it whilst still being in your own world. It would not block you from being in your own world like VR does. What I was trying to do was have the whole world there and you’re able to blend it with a new signal — from zero to a hundred percent. The blending of digital synthetic and analogue real-world signals was going to be the magic.
I began to work with physicists who were working on optics and computing — as well as neuroscientists, and there was alchemy in that mix of people. We wanted to see the world and then blend in a new digital signal with ultimately, one’s own visual cortex being the display which is a radical, long-term vision and it will happen over time. The trajectory that I put the company on was to ultimately make that happen. But that’s like saying we’re not just going to orbit the earth and land on the moon, we’re going to go colonise and live on Mars too. And that was the ambition. I still think it’s a great ambition. I learned so much about neuroscience and physics and I think that this really is the end state for computing — a fusion of biology and technology. It will teach us so much about how reality works, and about human perception. The fact that we learned so much about the brain and the eye is, I think, one of the best outcomes. It’s not really publicised but it is truly one of the best things that I experienced there.
Newnham: I think you are right in your prediction and if it’s not you that gets us there, it will pain me. But what do you think people don’t understand about this long-term vision that you have? Because I feel that people don’t really understand it and I do wonder if it was because maybe you hadn’t communicated it or do you think people just can’t comprehend it because it’s not easy to?
Abovitz: I think it’s a few factors and I’ll give my view. I think some people — not all — have a hard time looking at the long view. They’ll only look at one short frame of the movie — but they miss the whole picture. One example of having a very long vision is when we wanted to go to the moon. Going to the moon meant multiple missions: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and a whole series of things that I believe cost hundreds of billions of dollars (today’s dollars) for the government to get the US to the moon. However, if while we were trying to get to the moon, and we stopped at the Mercury Program — it may have seemed as if the program failed. People would say — “Well, you’re not at the moon yet, you’ve only orbited the Earth.” It’s a lack of understanding of what’s actually going on and what it takes to go long. Major breakthroughs require commitment, time, and the resources to go the distance.
Another issue we faced is the immense complexity of what we were doing because it was one of the hardest forms of computer vision, AI, real-time computing, new optics and photonics and all kinds of things in sensing, and then we needed to synthesize that with our growing understanding of the human visual system and brain. Spatial computing is amazing and easy to understand once you have experienced it directly — but it is hard to understand for someone who has never tried it. Some people are super curious as to why it works. Other people, they just want it to work and they don’t really care why it works. I grew up caring about why things work.
I had hoped that there were more creators in the world and more imagination and discovery and open-mindedness for something new. There are still many inventive and creative people, but more people today simply want the final, finished thing — and they do not have much patience for the journey of a new technology. I am very optimistic about the future of spatial computing — it will be perfected, and it will achieve utilization at large scale. I do think we need to intensify STEM education in the US, as well as encourage the arts, music, and using our imagination at the same time. We need to become a country of inventors and thinkers, and not only be thought of as a society for consumption. I believe in the future optimism of a world of creative people.
I enjoy projecting a far and future vision. Not everyone may understand it at the time, but the ones that do, help to build and create that very cool future. Part of being a pioneer is to be far out in front. You may not always be understood — but that is OK. It is part of the job of those of us who invent and create to show the way forward.
Newnham: You have obviously moved away from the day-to-day running of Magic Leap, and I think it’s a real testament to what you’ve built, the team you’ve assembled and the investors you have, that Peggy Johnson has come on board. So what’s next for the company?
Abovitz: I am still on the Board of Directors, and part of what I do is to provide Peggy with my perspective and ideas. I knew Peggy for a number of years — when she was at Qualcomm and then while she was at Microsoft — and I am really happy that I helped recruit her to become my successor at Magic Leap. As a founder, it is your responsibility to think about how the company will one day operate without you. You have to think about who your successor will be. I have always been inspired by George Washington’s precedent of a two-term limit, and his ability to walk away from power. That ability to leave power behind, a concept that Tolkien writes about in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, is something that I believe in deeply. True power is the ability to walk away. It is healthy and good — and it is also good to make room for the next person, and to support their success.
Newnham: And Magic Leap, what’s next?
Abovitz: I largely want to leave that to Peggy Johnson, but I can say what’s already been made public.
We have publicly stated that we have our second generation product which our amazing team was able to get into manufacturing just before COVID-19, a truly amazing team accomplishment given the difficult circumstances that the world was about to face with the pandemic. In addition, the company closed significant investments over the summer. The company got funded in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis. I think that it was one of the largest funding rounds in the world, and then we were able to recruit Peggy in to be the new CEO (I remained CEO until July 31, 2020 and she officially started on August 1st).
A couple of interesting data points — The International Data Corporation (IDC) put out a study about the spatial computing sector projections for 2024 — and there are a number of good market reports about this — how the spatial computing sector will have a market of around $140 billion. 2024 and beyond will be the era of scale and wide adoption.
We see this from the data that we have collected. The Magic Leap Generation One was a Creator Edition — a developer platform designed to help us learn from consumers, developers and enterprise. It was meant to be a way to test consumer and enterprise developers and we could learn from them because no one had ever done anything like what we were doing. So how do you learn? We got a lot of our own data, and we got a lot of great external data. What we were seeing was that enterprise had a takeoff vector that was much faster. It was going to be adopted a lot more quickly. And in December 2019, we launched an enterprise version of the system. So contrary to what has been misreported, we didn’t pivot to enterprise in 2020. There are actually three or four major news articles that came out in December that said, Magic Leap Has Launched an Enterprise Platform. In those articles, it states that we had been developing our enterprise platform for the past eighteen months, which is true. At the time, I still felt we needed to be dual track (consumer and enterprise), but that enterprise would be more widely adopted first.
We were testing with consumers, with developers, testing within the US and outside of the US. We found that certain parts of enterprise were taking off, and we made a bunch of commercial announcements in December 2019, well before COVID-19, that enterprise was going to be important. The big decision that we made after COVID hit was that we couldn’t pursue both tracks simultaneously anymore (enterprise and consumer).
That decision made economic sense because the economy was falling apart and it was a very difficult time so we picked the most near term route that was going to bring in the most near term revenue. I felt like if this is the direction we are going in, it’s the right time to bring in someone who has grown up with deep expertise in the enterprise market — that this truly was the right time to bring in a successor.
I think that enterprise is going to be the next near to mid-term future of the company and I think there are lots of major opportunities available. Another interesting thing to think through is that COVID has created a massive boon for things like Zoom right now. There’s almost no doubt that what comes after 2D Zoom is spatial computing because I don’t think the workplace goes back to being in the office like it was before. 2D video is an in-between solution.
At a recent Magic Leap board meeting, we did part of the meeting in Zoom, part of the meeting in Magic Leap, and then went back to Zoom. The difference was like going from black and white to colour or, from like black and white to Woodstock, and then back to black and white. It was completely different. I think the people who have backed the company, our investors as well as our partners, also see that. I think that’s the future.
And if you look at the reports I mentioned, the market size around 2024 and beyond, is when it starts to take off in a big way. So why would you invest in front of that? The technology is very complicated. You want to have the biggest and best tech portfolio in the world. You want to have the best learnings, you want to go through all of the Mercury phase and the Gemini phase so when the market’s really there, you want to be in your Apollo moment and that’s a good way to think about it. There will be good growth and opportunity between 2021–2023, but I see 2024 as an inflection point year.
Newnham: That’s an interesting point and something I wanted to bring up was the fact that one thing which everyone focuses on with Magic Leap is how much money has gone into it yet, if you’re in this industry, you’re probably aware that big tech companies are also spending huge amounts in this area and putting it down as R&D.
So the way you’re priming yourselves is that when the market is ready, Magic Leap will be at the forefront. Do you think it’s weird that people don’t talk about anyone else and the cost of their research?
Abovitz: IDC describes the market as being $140 billion worldwide by 2024, so the question is what’s happening now that’s growing this $140 billion worldwide market? That’s a serious market. That’s a pretty giant market so you want to be in on the run up to that. I think that’s one thing.
The biggest companies in the world are spending orders of magnitude more money per year than Magic Leap, and that’s an important thing to note because people may not fully understand the complexity and scale needed to try to build great spatial computing. We have been very efficient in terms of what we have accomplished, relative to the massive spend happening at the major players, which ranges in the many billions of dollars per year. Everyone \putting serious effort into this field is a superpower with immense funding — my garage start-up dream is likely the only real indie effort at scale in the sector.
Newnham: Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
Abovitz: I will be able to talk more about it in the coming months but what I will say is that it’s even more sci-fi than Magic Leap (or at least as sci-fi), which makes it really fun. It’s a very left brain, right brain company, currently in stealth mode. But I’m having a tonne of fun with it, and I am using everything I have learned about where technology is going.
The thing I’m comfortable with is — inventing and creating so I feel like I could continue to do that a lot. I’m actually quite excited to do it all over again. In addition, I’m excited to see Peggy take Magic Leap to the next phase and to commercial success whilst I get to do something creative and inventive from scratch all over again. I’m in a good place.
Newnham: That’s good to hear. We’ve touched on the type of people you like to bring in to your ventures and the culture of entrepreneurs and innovators. What are some of the traits you look for?
Abovitz: I can tell you what I’m looking for in the new company because I’ve learned a lot from MAKO and from Magic Leap, as well as from hundreds of CEO friends and others who run some of the biggest, best companies and some of the coolest startups in the world.
So what I look for now is — first of all, just decent human beings. Someone with a lot of empathy, a lot of decency, people with low ego, a high degree of collaboration and a really wide imagination. Decency and low ego are very important. I want people who are going to be incredibly inclusive, diverse, not thinking one, narrow way or being a narrow type of person — I think those things are very important.
I am also looking for brilliant geniuses, it’s a complicated maze of people who have high empathy, genius, brilliant with your left and right brain at the same time — so it is about creative scientists. And doers, people who are not just content to sit around ideating. An additional, very critical, trait is the ability to endure and to never give up. With anything I’ve done, I have had to endure and never give up.
So it’s a whole set of unique traits which means that it’s a very select, unique group of people. These small groups of brilliant, high empathy, creative, highly cooperative folks exist. You don’t need giant teams. A small team like that could do amazing things. What I’ve seen myself, as well as learned from talking to some brilliant founders, is that more than one and less than 10 people, have created much of the innovation and breakthroughs in the world. You can be four people and become The Beatles. You don’t need the largest teams in the world. Founding teams are the smaller groups that just envision everything and can even create the raw DNA. And that’s kind of the mode I’m in right now.
Newnham: Rony, there’s been a fair amount of press recently. What do you think people get wrong about you?
Abovitz: I think a few things. Something that people probably never realise is that I’ve been under budget the entire time in running companies. You know — you have a budget, the board approves it and then I make a big deal to not exceed that budget, and that’s something people do not realise.
I also think there are people who may not understand left brain, right brain people. If you are a highly imaginative, creative person they put you in the Willy Wonka box. They don’t understand that you can also gearshift into the kind of person who can command a team to get something done and build it and ship it. Which I have done over and over again with very complex, first of its kind tech.
If you visited the factory in Florida — we built one of the most amazing factories in the country. Something you would normally see in Asia is here in the USA. I think what people don’t understand is my ability to be a highly imaginative person on the one side, and on the other, I am a person who can do command and control and execute and inspire and deliver. They like to bucket you — are you left brain or are you right brain? And I just don’t fit into a bucket. So that leads to people not understanding me at all.
However, I’m not complaining because I’m fortunate to have found people who do understand me. And I think most of the really cool, pioneering, founder, innovative people that I’ve met are also these kinds of misfits. I feel like we’re misfits that just don’t fit into someone’s box. We don’t conform very well and that leads us to being inventive, creative people.
Newnham: I agree. I know we’ve talked a bit about your career but what has been a big hurdle for you in your life and how did you overcome it?
Abovitz: I think when my father died, it was just a supremely difficult time. That was a very difficult thing to overcome, especially in the middle of trying to build a company that was going public (MAKO). He had been sick for a number of years before and it caused a lot of issues for the whole family. That was just a very difficult, traumatic thing.
Then during COVID, one of my best friends died from cancer. In the middle of trying to get Magic Leap to a good place, with the pandemic blooming. It was just a horrible, awful time and it reminded me of the time when my father passed away and we had to have a successful outcome for MAKO going public when everyone wanted to shut down Wall Street. It was one of the worst times in my whole life and this spring was very similar because he was one of my best friends from high school. It’s not something you normally share but that, plus the pandemic, and the economy crashing, and all of it happening at the same time… that was incredibly difficult.
And sometimes you just have to go on, no matter what. Even though it feels like the end of the world. I don’t know how I did it — you just have to trudge on and keep your chin up. It’s one of those moments, you know?
Newnham: Thank you for being so candid. What are you most proud of?
Abovitz: I hope that fifty years from now, my daughter thinks I was a good dad.
I think that’s what matters most in the end, out of everything. None of the stuff I’ve done ever goes to her head. It just comes down to were you a good father, a good husband, a good brother, a good son? Were you a good friend? I think those things matter the most so if in fifty years from now, I can hold that up, that will be the thing I’m most proud of.
Newnham: And if you could go back in time, what one piece of advice would you give a younger Rony who’s just starting out?
Abovitz: I would say, “You’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s going to be a wild ride… and don’t give up.”