Jessica Banks, Rock Paper Robot, Woman Entrepreneur

Jessicabanks-1A few months ago Fred and I attended Ayah Bdeirs wedding.  Ayah is the entrepreneur behind littleBits. I love weddings.  People from all over the globe attended this wedding and the personal and intelllectual intimacy between the bride, groom and their friends was obvious from the minute we entered the place where it was held.   Jessica Banks officiated the wedding.  She was magnificent.  Tears were shed by the groom, the bride, the attendees and Jessica.  Very moving.  After the ceremony Chris Muscarella, the entrepreneur behind Kitchensurfing, introduced me to Jessica.  He said Jessica makes robotics furniture, her company is called RockPaperRobot.  Based on the variety of brilliant people at the wedding I was just fascinated.  Our conversation started there and lucky for me it has not stopped.  

Jessica grew up in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Her father was an industrial engineer who managed and designed for GE medical.  One of his projects was the MRI machine.  He would bring home styrofoam mock-ups of the machines and she would lie in them and help him understand how they should work. Her mother is a clinical psychologist.  

Jessica always loved science and she believes a bizarre incident in high school drew her even more into the sciences.  Jessica went blind for two weeks when she was in high school.  It was a minor epidemic that happened to nine other people who she did not know.  She had gone to sleep with a Clearasil mask on (a product that curiously was pulled from the market soon after) and she woke up not being able to see.  She had severe corrosions on her corneas.  When she was finally able to see again the shape of her eyes had changed.  She became dyslexic and she saw things differently.  She would see things from all sides.  This change made it very difficult to read a history book but reading physics and math books came easily.   She learned how to deal with it.  Someone told her to start working with small objects or work in the dark so she could look directly at what she was seeing.  Jessica even covered the sides of her eyes so she could cut off vision from the other side.  In times of stress you compensate.  She was the first case of the other 9 people.  This gave her natural lasix as she can see incredibly clear and that won't change because of the scar tissue.  Needless to say the whole thing was beyond scary and her family freaked. Once she could see again Jessica volunteered to help the blind.  

After graduating from high school, Jessica went to University of Michigan where she majored in physics. She started with a major in astrophysics as she always had a desire to become an astronaut but eventually moved to general physics with a minor in creative writing.   To her, quantum physics and creative writing go hand in hand.  Her junior year of college Jessica spent a semester in England in an intensive creative writing class and afterwards spent some time traveling through Europe with a backpack.

Post graduation Jessica figured she would go into the military and become an astronaut.  She was 1/4" too short but through yoga and of course going back to be measured in the morning (when you are taller) she ended up making the height requirement.  She had worked for NASA one summer in college on the ultra-violet imaging telescope.  After achieving the height requirement she begun to ask tons of questions. Keep in mind that once you are accepted into the program you must complete it otherwise you have to pay them back.  She really did want to fly the shuttle.  She was a blond-haired Jew from Wisconsin with a pierced nose and her recruiter said to her nobody asks questions when they get in so maybe the military is not for you.  They suggested she try something else but the question was what?

Jessica was not prepared for a future on earth.  She had always figured she would work in space.  At the time she was dating a comedian who was moving to NYC.  Maybe she could be a comedian.  She moved to NYC with him and got a job at Comedy Central.  She liked the people but didn't really like the management.  The head of ad sales got her a job after a year at a comedian managing agency.  She did booking for a year and was still kind of amazed on how she got there.  She knew it was not for her.

Then she became Al Frankens assistant where she stayed for about a year and a half.  He had produced a show out in Los Angeles.  When she was out in LA she saw a movie called "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" by Erroll Morris.  The movie profiles four different characters; a lion tamer, a topiarist, a naked rat mole specialist and a MIT robotic scientist.  It was life changing.  Jessica thought I could make robots and still go to go space.  She went home and applied to MIT.

She got in and off to Cambridge she went. After a few hours of being at MIT Jessica called her sister to tell her she had made a very bad decision.  She had no idea what she was doing there but in the end she stuck it out.  Jessica began to find her place and meet other people like herself.  As she says about the other women in the program that the odds are good but the goods are odd.  Jessica was enrolled in a Phd program that took her on a 8 and a half year journey at MIT.  She got her engineering degree, her masters degree, worked for Frank Gehry while he was building his program there and then she worked in the artificial intelligence lab getting her Phd.  She loved what she was doing but realized she was not the best at it.  She wrote her advisor, Rod Brooks asking if she should quit and he said yes.  

Jessica was hired to teach at MIT and had built a lab for civil engineering working on hand distributed energy systems around sustainability.  Then she got a fellowship at iBeam in NYC and decided it was time to move out of Cambridge and shift gears.  At IBeam Jessica worked on levitating table systems.  It was at iBeam where she met Ayah.  Once iBeam ended it was time to think about the next step.

Jessica decided to start a company around the table.  Her and her partner would show their wares at art shows but neither of them even followed-up after the shows.  Then she met a guy who thought she should do something more stable.  Jessica landed a job at a creative agency where they would produce things for companies like GE of Ted.  She thought this is not for me and went back to her own company.  Got rid of the guy she was dating and got rid of her partner in the business.  She had owned all the intellectual property so she took it and found a new partner.  In January 2012 she launched Rock Paper Robot.  They design kinetic and robotic furniture.  The furniture is one part of the company as they also do consulting, installations and wearables.  Then like most start-ups the company evolved.  It began with high end furniture but then she designed a lower end levitating table that she got a patent on.  This particular table won awards in NY Makers competition.  It is perfect for urban areas including retail stores, hospitals, universities and work spaces.  The table is super functional as well as affordable and can move easily.  

Now Jessica is ramping up.  She is figuring out the production, building out the company and taking the orders already landing an order for 500 of these tables for one company.  I love the table, Jessica's passion and her story on how she got to where she is now.  Do I plan on getting involved?  But of course.  

Comments (Archived):

  1. falicon

    So awesome – looking forward to hearing more about it all as you get more involved!

  2. Shala

    I love that her career has been anything but linear or expected, and yet is still so fascinating and ultimately makes sense at the end of the day. I have seen the floating table by Rock Paper Robot and it is absolutely mindblowing (and just so darned cool). Great profile to start the week with!

    1. Gotham Gal

      such an interesting career yet as always the dots connect.

  3. Schmeil

    I am proud to say she’s my daughter and I love her dearly and am in awe of her talent and achievements.

    1. Gotham Gal

      she is one amazing human.

  4. panterosa,

    Love the table! Great story. Vision is very interesting, and can expand once you get your brain in charge of what you are seeing. I have trumped my eye doctor several times over. Bravo for sticking it out Jessica!

  5. christmasgorilla


  6. Geraldine Banks

    I am in awe of Jessica’s “vision”. She is creative and imaginative in her life, RPR, art/design, writing and relationships in ways others may find hard to understand. This is because she sees things so differently, relating on emotional, intellectual and spiritual levels. Her resilience and beautiful smile top it all off to make her a most cherished and loved daughter. I am, as always, so proud. MOM

  7. Dotty Amira

    All I can say is WOW…we know Jessica and have always been amazed by her talents and held her in great respect. But reading this profile which describes her journey..we are even more blown away by her. What a fantastic life story..we can hardly wait to see how she continues to evolve and create more and more fantastic inventions.Bravo, Jess!

    1. Gotham Gal

      it is always about the journey.

  8. AG

    Amaing profile as usual. One note, her website seems to be totally mobile unfriendly…

    1. Jessica

      Yes…it’s true. We are going to be updating it in the new year with the launch of our latest product. Don’t lose faith!!! Thanks so much for the comment….

  9. JZ

    I grew up down the street from Jessica and have known her for years. It was obvious to me what a special person she is from the time we were very young. I had no doubt that her life would take her down some amazing paths that ultimately would lead to tremendous success. She is a wonderful person.

  10. Marie Legge

    Wow, what a great story. I actually just met a friend of your’s, Lenny, at a holiday party. I told him I’m interested in making furniture and he started to tell me about your work. I’m amazed, out of this world.