(left to right) Mary Ellen Sparrow, Kirk Schoen and Sakina Tawawalla.
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Spotlight: Mary Ellen Sparrow Wants To Make It Easier For People To Work With Robotics

NextShift Robotics cofounder Mary Ellen Sparrow talks about what her company does and misconceptions about robotics.

Mary Ellen Sparrow, a Massachusetts native, spent most of her childhood outdoors. These days, the robotics entrepreneur spends most of her days in her Lowell robotics test center— and she loves it.  Her mission is to make it easier for people to work with robots.

After starting her career in geology, Sparrow returned to school for her master’s degree in computer science.

“I love working with robots. There’s a misconception that robots will take our jobs and that robotics firms are anti-worker,” Sparrow said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth. We’re building robots to work with, not instead of, people.”

In her over 25 years in the robotics industry, Sparrow has helped create material handling systems using a monorail for PRI Automation, an automated storage retrieval system (ASRS) for Symbotic, and an e-retail warehouse material handling system using collaborative, mobile, and autonomous robots for Harvest Automation. When Harvest returned to their original agricultural roots, Sparrow and Stephen Toebes bought their warehouse system and founded NextShift Robotics. NextShift Robotics specializes in creating material handling systems using collaborative, mobile, autonomous robots. The company is focused on meeting the demands of the exploding e-commerce order fulfillment market.

“This is where I want to be,” Sparrow said. “It’s a lot of work running a startup, but a lot of joy too. There’s something satisfying about doing what you love with an innovative, inspired team.”

Passionate about the power of automation to transform industry for the better, Sparrow said, “Workers in e-commerce warehouses lift heavy totes and walk for miles over the course of a day. It’s stressful and can cause worker fatigue, so the idea that someone can take a break or perform a different task periodically is a positive one, both for the employee, who can expand into other skills, and for the company.”

As much as Sparrow enjoys the outdoors, for now, she’s happiest indoors, working with robots in a warehouse. 

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