Robotics cluster at the epicenter for startup companies

Robotic startup companies are clustering in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley and this has resulted in plenty of innovation and some out-of-the-box developments for robots in industries that wouldn't necessarily be thought of as the forefront for innovation.

01/12/2017


It starts innocently enough. First you have a curious few. Then a tight-knit group of visionaries with big dreams, then a forum of highly motivated individuals with an insatiable thirst. Before you know it, you've crossed over into another dimension. You're in the startup zone. Groups attract bigger crowds, and affiliations spawn more amalgamations. It's what's known as the "cluster effect," and it's often a telltale sign of emergence.

Robotics clusters are thriving from coast to coast. Some are nonprofit, others for-profit. All share the same aim, to nurture and support robotics innovation and commercialization.

East meets west

At the recent International Collaborative Robots Workshop (ICRW) in Boston, there was a meeting of the minds. The Robotic Industries Association brought together leaders from the three main robotics clusters in the U.S.—Silicon Valley, Boston, and Pittsburgh—to take stock of their respective resources, share ideas and common goals, and forge a plan for the future.

"RIA has been instrumental in getting the clusters to communicate," said Tom Ryden, executive director for MassRobotics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The idea is to get a stronger cohesion among the different clusters and to see how that can benefit the industry as a whole."

MassRobotics cosponsored the ICRW event with RIA. "It's a very tight-knit group that is working on that particular aspect of robotics and so we were happy to let them know about the event in Boston," Ryden said. "The talks on collaborative robotics were packed, standing-room only. I learned a lot."

Also in attendance was Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR) in Pleasanton, Calif. She said they've always had communications, but this was only the second time the different clusters have met formally to discuss a common mission.

Keay said the main concern was, "What are the points that we're all unified on, and then how can we amplify our message?" The clusters are also looking for inefficiencies and how together they can better utilize resources.

"I like the idea of joining forces across regions to create this broader support structure and resource base," said Chris Moehle, partner at The Robotics Hub in Pittsburgh. "Right now, there is a lot of waste reduplicating the wheel at different places in the world."

Where three rivers converge

Once the site of the most valuable coal bed in the nation and bounty for the city's booming iron and steel industry, Mt. Washington is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh and one of the nation's great tech hubs. This is where Coal Hill Ventures staked its claim, originally paying homage to the mountain's former moniker. But after being mistaken for an energy fund, the venture soon settled on The Robotics Hub.

Why Pittsburgh? Moehle said the Steel City turned Roboburgh has a disproportionate advantage.

"Carnegie Mellon and the broader Pittsburgh ecosystem have more roboticists than MIT and Stanford combined, in a city of 350,000 people," he said. "On top of that, with the withdraw of the steel industry, there's a phenomenal infrastructure here that's perfectly suited to the development of advanced robotics systems and can be easily repurposed for $15 a square foot. Couple that Silicon Valley-like talent supply with a Midwestern cost structure and it's much easier to form businesses.  You're looking at $200K to $500K initial investment to get companies off the ground."

He said it started about three years ago as an in-house, cross-campus robotics initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. The goal was to define what was needed in the robotics subspace and build a self-sustaining commercial entity to solve that problem.

The Robotics Hub was the result. It was spun out in August 2015 as a legally independent entity, a for-profit venture. A website is in the works and the company is looking for a permanent office while they continue to add to the venture fund.

"It's meant to be a hand-in-hand relationship with universities, trade associations, everyone aimed at getting advanced robotics out into the world," Moehle said. "We have 25 years of infrastructure that uniquely supports the industry, so why not make it a bit more open? Allow the best companies and the best ideas to be able to tie into what Pittsburgh has and really help people start great companies."

Bipedal robot designed to walk across unpredictable, uneven terrain is expanding the mobility potential for robots in real-world scenarios. Courtesy: Agility Robotics, RIATransformational innovation

The Robotics Hub is structured like a venture capital fund, but with more tangible operations then your traditional VC. After all, robotics is a multidisciplinary sport. Moehle said the criteria for startups is simple: It needs to be transformational.

"Things that completely reinvent a marketplace or reinvent an industry, or fundamentally change the way a need is accomplished. We go for stuff that enables people to live their lives in a fundamentally better way than they did before this thing existed. Whether that's being able to get human function back after an injury, or better predict severe medical events months before it's currently possible. Whether that's enabling plants to be grown on 10% of the current water requirements. That's what we're looking for," Moehle said.

"We have several startups, ranging from last-mile logistics to healthcare, and in one case travel, and in another case construction. The startups in our current pipeline we will publicize later this summer. We typically don't publicize companies until they get to a particular maturity level."

One company Moehle mentioned was Agility Robotics, which created the bipedal robot ATRIAS, which is designed to navigate unpredictable and uneven terrain. These developments could go a long way in enhancing robots' applications for real-world scenarios.

"It's a little more involved to get a robotics company started," Moehle said. "Just on the technical side you need three to four different disciplines working in parallel. All of our partners have both entrepreneurial and venture capital background, in addition to an advanced degree in one or more robotics subdisciplines."

Moehle has a PhD in physiology and physics from University of Virginia and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. Fellow lead partner, Eric Daimler, has a PhD in computer science and economics from CMU. Daimler is currently a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and part of the team tasked with revamping the official Roadmap for U.S. Robotics.

"We come in when you need to get a scalable business plan in order," Moehle said. "You need to actually know what the company is going to do and have the technical development done in a way that allows that to happen. Beyond the strategic side, we give between $200K and $5 million per company in funding, typically in stages, to help them execute along the path we help them set."

He said one of the reasons it's difficult for bold robotics ideas to get funded is that it's hard for someone who doesn't understand the technology to adequately assess the risk.

"So startups end up dumbing down or compromising, and in our minds, reducing their potential in the process," Moehle said. "We want companies to stay bold and stay aimed at completely reinventing something. We still want them to do the basic due diligence and customer adoption, all that kind of stuff that a traditional VC wants, but we are in a better position to take risks on emerging technology and we think that gives us and our companies a good chance to change the world for the better. The same way Internet technology 20 years ago reinvented how we live and do business, robotics technology will the do the same if not more in the next decade."

Robots in disguise

The convergence of technologies is further blurring the lines between industrial, collaborative, and service robots.

"What a robot is will drastically blur in the next three to five years," Moehle said. "Like the travel company we're working with, the robotics is all under the hood. The interface isn't shockingly different from a traditional website. Just like 4moms isn't shockingly different from a traditional baby product. When you interact with them, there's a lot of smart stuff that happens behind the scenes that makes it so much easier on you."

Cofounded by Henry Thorne and Robert Daley, 4moms makes high-tech baby gear. "4moms has a playpen you can set up and take down with one hand," Moehle said. "They have a robotic car seat that essentially self-installs and self-levels itself. They incorporate elements of robotics and robotics design into their products, but nominally they look and feel the same as traditional baby products."

These types of robotic devices challenge our preconceived notions of what a robot is and is not. Those notions will have to broaden as service robotics applications continue to expand.


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