Nils Funk explains his journey from mechanical engineering to visual spatial intelligence.

As a mechanical engineer, I quickly realized that I could design and build a capable, airworthy drone in a few weeks but then spend years perfecting the software that allowed it to map and safely navigate the world around it. Researching, exploring, and testing how to do that has led me to Slamcore. I was fortunate to meet and work on my Masters under Dr. Stefan Leutenegger at Imperial College in London. When I was looking for supporters for my Ph.D., he suggested I approach Slamcore, where he was a co-founder. As a result, I became the first Ph.D. student to be funded by Slamcore.

Unusually, Slamcore, as well as allowing me to pursue my studies, encouraged me to spend time at its offices. Until recently, I did not work on any Slamcore products or projects but was allowed to focus exclusively on my research into high-accuracy mapping and orientation challenges when path planning for drones. However, I had a unique opportunity to witness first-hand how academic research is transformed into viable and valuable products. Spending one day per week with super-smart people focused on using cutting-edge science to solve real-world problems underlined the practical application of my research. At Slamcore, I improved my research through regular mentoring conversations with experts, including Dr. Pablo Acantarilla and Dr. Juan Tarrio, while also seeing how a deep-tech business is run.

Speaking to my peers at Imperial and elsewhere, I appreciate the opportunities that Slamcore has given me – not only the attention, advice, and high-quality insights of some of the leaders in visual spatial intelligence but a welcoming and supportive culture. Friends who have worked at other organizations have not received the attention or flexibility that Slamcore has offered. Even during the challenges of COVID, when we all worked remotely, I still had weekly virtual ‘whiteboard’ sessions with Juan to help test and refine my ideas.

I’ve also always felt part of the team – even before officially joining as an employee. Socializing, downtime, and fun are all important to the company, and the team days, after-work events, and staff trips all play a role in creating Slamcore’s unique culture. I was included and felt welcomed from the outset, and as a result, not only did I quickly get to know the team, but I built lasting friendships.

So, when I submitted my Ph.D., it was natural that I wanted to remain with Slamcore. I’ve joined the team full-time and am now working on Slamcore’s own code, helping to research the next generation of capabilities in positioning for a wide range of robots, AR/VR headsets, and other autonomous machines. I’ve never been one for research for its own sake, preferring a pragmatic approach to identifying and overcoming specific challenges and finding new ways to accomplish important tasks. My role now lets me do exactly that – working to determine what future customers and devices will need to do and exploring the hard science to make that possible. Collectively we are working on the magic that will help deliver more capable, more useful, and cost-effective autonomous solutions to a host of pressing problems.

Over the past four-and-a-half years, I’ve grown beyond my roots in mechanical engineering to diversify into researching the vital code that allows autonomous machines to know where they are in physical space. My personal interest in exploring the right level of detail for drone maps and creating efficient ways to process complex visual data on constrained hardware resources is now part of my day-to-day role. Working full-time at Slamcore, I am surrounded by friends who collaborate and share their brilliance to overcome challenges faced by robot, VR, and autonomous machine designers worldwide. I feel I can make a difference every day, so there is nowhere else I’d rather be. Any Ph.D. student looking for a sponsor should always consider those who provide support and invite you into their businesses – you never know what can result from that contact.