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.
By Tanya M. Anandan January 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.

Valley of the service robots

Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR) is working to help the robotics startup community, its investors, and potential users better understand the service robotics sector. SVR is about to launch the second in a series of case studies on Service Robotics in Silicon Valley. The first case study published in November 2015 highlighted Fetch Robotics, Fellow Robots, Savioke, and Adept Technology, along with insights from VCs and accelerators.

Mobile robot scans store shelves to aid with inventory control, misplaced items, and pricing errors. Courtesy: Simbe Robotics, Inc., RIA"Our first report had over 500 downloads and more than 5,000 views," Keay said of the case study. "It’s really fresh information about emerging business cases around robotics."

The latest case study in the series will focus on consumer-facing enterprise robotics and robots as a service. She said many of these new service robotics startups are exploring non-capital purchase business models.

One example is Simbe Robotics’ Tally, which is an autonomous mobile robot designed to audit store shelves for out-of-stock, low stock, and misplaced items, among other tasks.

"For some time to come, the most interesting range of cases in robotics are going to be enterprise robots that are consumer-facing," Keay said. "So you have to factor in the interaction with people, but the people that are interacting with the robot are not necessarily your customers. If you look at Simbe, their customer is either a brand or a retail chain, and the robot is potentially working on commission.

"These are new areas for everybody. That’s the whole reason for putting out these reports. It’s information that you can’t get anywhere else. We choose companies that have several deployments under their belt and real use cases out in the field. This isn’t just one story. This is a collection of stories. You can start to see similarities and the emergence of entire new robotics industries."

Startups compete on global stage

SVR is a nonprofit industry group launched in 2010 by an alliance of Bay Area robotics companies. Current sponsors include Bosch, Fetch Robotics, Jabil, Sick, and SRI International. The tech hub represents both established robotics companies and newly emerging robotics startups and entrepreneurs. SVR hosts the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party, networking events, investor forums, a directory, jobs board, and provides additional services and information for its members.

"Our mission is to support innovation and commercialization," Keay said. "We’ve been tuned into the startup field for five to six years. That’s definitely our strong point. What we do best is help startups in the very early stages from pre-seed to Series A. We advise a lot of the investors and venture funds. We advise a lot of the accelerators. We help connect startups and we don’t limit it to startups from Silicon Valley. It’s surprising how many of the Silicon Valley Robotics projects are international in scope. That’s actually been the trend over the last year."

Keay is excited about the Robot Launch Startup Competition, which is in its third year.

"ViDi Systems from Switzerland was the 2016 champion but there were 30 top-notch semifinalists across a wide range of robotics. We’ve had two hundred entrees in the last two years and more than 20 countries represented. Some of the finalists in our competition last year went on to be finalists in the largest startup competitions in the world, like TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield."

The growth of the competition is a microcosm of the industry’s overall growth and the passion on display.

"Five years ago we were saying, ‘Hey, everybody, robotics is here. And it’s in Silicon Valley, who knew?’ We were delighted to get people noticing what was happening at all," Keay said. "In 2015, there was $1 billion invested in robotics in just one year. That’s how quickly things have changed."

Shared workspaces for robotics startups

Back on the East Coast, the greater Boston area is a thriving hub for robotics innovation with world-renowned research universities, large pools of high-tech talent, and a rich startup sector attracting evermore investors. It was more than ripe for MassRobotics, which officially launched in June 2015. Ryden said the idea germinated much earlier and now the focus is on what’s coming up down the road.

"The long-term vision is to create a shared workspace that’s focused around robotics," Ryden said. "The idea behind shared workspaces is that you rent a desk or office in a big facility and you share the conference rooms, the kitchen, and so forth. As a small startup you don’t have to pay for all that overhead. You don’t have to rent more space than you need and there’s lots of flexibility. Places usually rent by the month and if you add more employees, you simply rent more desks and offices. They’ve become very popular and are popping up all over the place in the last couple of years. But they typically don’t have any lab space, demonstration space, or prototyping space."

MassRobotics’ shared workspace will be located in the Cambridge/Boston area and will include R&D and prototyping areas equipped with tools for ready access by resident startups. MassRobotics is a nonprofit, but it’s not member-driven.

"We’re also looking for state funding to help us open this center," said Ryden. "A lot of states recognize that there is value in creating these types of clusters. Massachusetts is strong in biotechnology and other areas. They believe that robotics can also be a key area and want to support it. We want to attract startups (to the area), but also encourage startups to remain here and grow here."

Robots on the move and collaborating with humans

Robotic assistive walking device augments and assists a person’s movements, providing greater walking endurance and mobility. Courtesy: B-TEMIA USA Inc., RIAOne of those startups is B-TEMIA, a private medical technology company based in Quebec, Canada, which is in the process of opening a U.S. subsidiary. Last year, B-TEMIA unveiled the Keeogo motorized assistive walking device (pictured). 

Powered by a lithium-polymer battery, the Keeogo device incorporates Dermoskeleton technology, which is a powered orthosis, or leg brace, that assists user’s movements. Unlike an exoskeleton that essentially does the walking for the user, who is often paralyzed, the Dermoskeleton contains sensors that detect body position and movements in order to interpret the user’s intended activity and provide the appropriate assistance. The user must be able to initiate the movement and then the device gives them the added power and support they need. Keeogo is designed for individuals who have limited walking endurance or mobility issues, such as difficulty walking more than a few steps, climbing stairs, carrying an object for a short distance, or standing in line for a long period of time.

"Our definition of robotics is very broad," Ryden said. "We look for companies involved with mobility, actuation and also onboard intelligence, some level of autonomy or AI. We work with marine-based robots, drones, and a lot of land-based robots. We’ll work with any robotics company. But we do have a couple areas that we focus on."

One is autonomous vehicles. MassRobotics is currently working with around 30 startups and the fastest growing category is automated vehicles, fueled by large investments from big automakers. In January 2016, Toyota announced a partnership with MIT and a new lab in Cambridge. Ford and MIT, along with Stanford, teamed up on driverless car technology in 2014.

Ryden said their group is working to support the testing of self-driving cars on the roads of Massachusetts. Some of those efforts involve helping shape local policy.

"We leave federal policy to RIA. We’re focused on local, both our city and state, to allow testing of robots in different areas and making sure that local regulations support that."

In collaborative robotics, Ryden said there’s interest in not just manipulation, but all aspects of the technology.

"End effectors, vision and mobility, artificial intelligence to do bin picking. There’s a number of startups in that particular area. That also happens to be an area that Massachusetts is strong in. With Amazon Robotics being located right here, but pretty much focused on supplying Amazon, there’s now a huge number of startups focused on similar technology for Walmart or other Amazon competitors.

Ryden said they also have strong relationships with universities, which provides its own advantages. "We work with MIT, with Harvard, and Northeastern," he said. "When you’re in a university, you have access to all this equipment, to great labs, and prototyping and 3-D printers. And then all of the sudden, you graduate and you have limited access to all that. So some students leave the lab and the idea stays in the lab. Hopefully, we can get them to take some of those ideas and continue to grow them." He said the community MassRobotics has envisioned will nurture the business side as well as the technical side of launching a successful startup.

"We’ll help put them in touch with manufacturers that do prototypes, that do transitions to large production runs, get them exposed to all of that, and also the basics of business. When you have a number of companies together, you get suppliers that want to come because they can get 30 robotics companies at once instead of just one. And then you get suppliers and vendors, and service providers, lawyers, accountants, and all that. All of those things that can support a business as they grow."

Inspiring next-gen entrepreneurs

Ryden said part of MassRobotics’ mission will include support for STEM education.

"Kids love robots. But it’s a real challenge for educators to keep current and teach courses on robotics. We find that a lot of entrepreneurs want to give back," he said. "They just don’t have the time or the resources. But if I say to them, I need you Thursday night from 6 to 8 to help these kids learn how to program LEGO Mindstorms, they say ‘Oh, I can do that.’ We’ll be targeting middle school to high school kids, getting them exposed to the latest robotics technology and getting them engaged in using some of that technology."

The robotics clusters realize that inspiring the next generation of roboticists and entrepreneurs is just as important as nurturing the current startup community. Their efforts have a lasting effect.

Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Robotics Online. RIA is a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to improving the regional, national and global competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors through robotics and related automation. This article originally appeared on the RIA website. The RIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). A3 is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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