In 2012, Elmar Mair finished his PhD in Computer Science at TUM. Soon after, he felt the urge to work on an actual robotics product. He joined Robert Bosch’s Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, and worked on autonomous driving. Living in the Silicon Valley, he couldn’t resist and tried his luck with a start-up.
About three years ago, Mair joined X, formerly known as Google X. Since then, he has been leading a team working on perception and navigation for a not yet publicly announced robotics project. TUM San Francisco liaison officer Dr. Dolores Volkert met the TUM alumnus in Silicon Valley.
What brought you to Silicon Valley?
To be honest, it was always a dream of mine to live at the ocean – but no one ever told me how cold the Pacific in Northern California is. I was definitely intimidated by the idea of working with some of the brightest people in Silicon Valley but the thought of doing research on cool tech in California was too exciting.
What makes the area so special?
Silicon Valley is a unique place with an incredible high density of tech companies and start-ups. The pool of talent is enormous and many companies work on highly innovative projects. In my opinion, one of the main differentiators in this area is the openness to risk and novel ideas. Rather than asking “Why?” the question is ”Why not?”. This enables an ecosystem of innovation which is so far unseen anywhere else.
Since about three years now you are working at X. What is it like working at Google’s top-secret moonshot lab?
X is an extremely exciting place where I've been learning a lot. I'm working with amazing people on a super exciting project which is, as all X projects, highly audacious. It often has the typical start-up vibe but at the same moment you feel like you are standing on the shoulder of giants and being able to leverage Google's infrastructure. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you much about my project since it is still confidential. However, it is becoming more and more mature and you might soon hear more about it.
You did your Master’s degree and your PhD at TUM. In your opinion, how have your studies there prepared you for your following career?
TUM was the first place where I got in touch with real robots and fell in love with robotics. Hence, it definitely had a crucial impact in my career. I'm still in touch with many of my former colleagues – several of them are here in the Bay Area, working for companies like Apple, Facebook, and Velodyne.
Why did you choose to study in Germany – and why in particular at TUM?
I am originally from Italy and did my Bachelor in Austria. The reason why I ended up at TUM was because Germany has an excellent engineering culture and I heard that TUM had several programs where one could work with real hardware. Many universities don't have the funding to afford the latest technology to train their students. It was very important to me to go beyond the theory and have the opportunity to apply the learned knowledge right away.
What was your goal after graduating from TUM?
I was still very interested in learning new technologies and pushing the state of the art in research. Luckily, I didn't get stuck in one place right away. I'm very grateful for all the experiences I gathered by working with different companies and I encourage everyone to explore different work environments before getting settled.
Can you tell us a little about the ways in which you have maintained a connection with TUM?
I am still in close contact with my PhD supervisor Professor Burschka and we even meet from time to time. He recently gave a talk at X and I visited him last December at TUM. As mentioned earlier, I'm also still in touch with many colleagues here in the Valley as well as back in Munich. I found many friends at TUM and, whenever we meet, we are often still talking about the 'good old times'.
What advice do you have for prospective students considering studying at TUM?
You are not studying for a degree, but to grow your knowledge. Do what you're excited about and go beyond what is required by each class. TUM offers a lot of opportunity to work with great students on exciting and innovative projects. Don't hesitate to take on new challenges – you learn most when you leave your comfort zone.