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Robotics Clusters the Epicenter for Startups

POSTED 06/20/2016  | By: Tanya M. Anandan, Contributing Editor

It starts innocent 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.

Whether you’re the hacker, investor, or early adopter, you feel compelled to propagate and proliferate. Groups attract bigger crowds, and affiliations spawn more amalgamations. It’s what’s known as The Cluster Effect, and 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,” says 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,” says Ryden. “The talks on collaborative robotics were packed, standing-room only. I learned a lot.”

Missed the spring workshop? Watch for ICRW in Cincinnati this October.Also in attendance was Andra Keay, Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics in Pleasanton, California. She says they’ve always had communications, but this was only the second time the different clusters have met formally to discuss a common mission.

“What are the points that we’re all unified on, and then how can we amplify our message?” Keay says was the main concern. 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,” says Chris Moehle, Partner at The Robotics Hub in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “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 says 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. 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,” continues Moehle. “You’re looking at $200K to $500K initial investment to get companies off the ground.”

He says 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.

“Several individuals at different institutions, academic and corporate, and other venture firms and startups in Pittsburgh, came into the system early on,” says Moehle. “GE Ventures was one of the most vocal and collaborative among them. When it came time to start building this as an independent entity, they threw in a sponsorship gift to help get us launched.”

“Henry Thorne was one of the local entrepreneurs who helped us define the original need the Hub fills. Carnegie Robotics will be a helpful infrastructure partner for a lot of our companies. Blue Belt’s COO Craig Markovitz has been and is still an advisor to us. Same story with 4moms. Their senior management team is very helpful to us.”

4moms? What does that have to do with robotics? Moehle says by enterprise value, 4moms is the largest robotics firm in Pittsburgh. (More on this later.)

The Robotics Hub has a website in the works and 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,” says Moehle. “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.”

Transformational Innovation
One of the startups that caught Moehle’s eye is Agility Robotics, a new entrant to the Pittsburgh robotics market. Emerging from academic research in animal locomotion at Oregon State University with the bipedal robot ATRIAS, Agility Robotics is building robotic mobility platforms for the practical world.

Bipedal robot designed to walk across unpredictable, uneven terrain is expanding the mobility potential for robots in real-world scenarios. (Courtesy of Agility Robotics)“It’s what Boston Dynamics has been trying to do (with Atlas), but Agility does it with less weight and lower power requirements,” says Moehle.

Based in Corvallis, Oregon, with plans to establish an office in Pittsburgh, Agility Robotics is led by CEO Damion Shelton, Cofounder and Chief Engineer Mikhail Jones, and Cofounder and CTO Jonathan Hurst, who is also an associate professor of robotics at Oregon State. In this TEDx talk, Hurst demonstrates the potential impact of bipedal robots. Now imagine a robot that can go anywhere a human can go (sans arms, for now anyway).

Moehle says their 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 percent of the current water requirements. That’s what we’re looking for.”

“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.”

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.

“It’s a little more involved to get a robotics company started,” says Moehle. “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,” says Moehle. “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 says 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,” says Moehle. “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
As predicted in Robotics 2015 and Beyond, 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,” says Moehle. “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. This video interview with Thorne shows the company’s origami® stroller in action, and provides good insight for what it’s like to be a high-tech startup in Pittsburgh.

“4moms has a playpen you can set up and take down with one hand,” says Moehle. “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 helping 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.

“Our first report had over 500 downloads and more than 5,000 views,” says SVR Managing Director Keay. “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 says many of these new service robotics startups are exploring non-capital purchase business models.

“The companies we’re featuring at the moment are Simbe Robotics, Catalia Health, RobotLAB, and CleverPet, with additional analysis from Cyril Ebersweiler from HAX, Jeremy Conrad from Lemnos Labs, and JR Alaoui from Eyeris Technologies, and the forward by Silicon Valley Robotics President John Dulchinos, Vice President Global Automation at Jabil.”

Mobile robot scans store shelves to aid with inventory control, misplaced items, and pricing errors. (Courtesy of Simbe Robotics, Inc.)Simbe Robotics is the creator of Tally (pictured), an autonomous mobile robot that audits store shelves for out-of-stock, low stock and misplaced items, among other tasks. Check out the full story and watch Tally in action.

“For some time to come, the most interesting range of cases in robotics are going to be enterprise robots that are consumer-facing,” says Keay. “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 RobotLAB and their model working with Pepper as a fashion retail robot, 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 a Global Stage
Silicon Valley Robotics 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,” says Keay. “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,” she adds. “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. The registration process is already underway for 2016.

“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.”

CleverPet was one of the finalists in last year’s startup competition and the grand prize winner. The first runner-up, Preemadonna’s Nailbot, progressed to the finals of the TechCrunch competition. Check out this video for CleverPet, the bot designed to keep man’s best friend occupied.

“This is one of the big strengths of Silicon Valley Robotics. We see a lot of really cool startups first, before anybody else,” says Keay. “But they are accelerating quickly onto the main stage. That’s fantastic validation for service robotics as an industry. As an investible industry it’s really maturing.”

“One of the things we started to do this year is more job fairs. As companies start to hit the A round and start deployments, they suddenly need to ramp up operations and go from 12 people to 40 or 60 people. We’re looking at job fairs and job boards, networking events, and mixers to support the companies as they go through their growth stages.”

“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,” says Keay. “In 2015, there was $1 billion invested in robotics in 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. Executive Director Ryden says the idea germinated much earlier.

“It came about through a number of folks in the industry realizing that there really is this challenge for robotics startups and it would be helpful to have a community. It took a couple of them to get together and formalize it.”

He says the trade association MassTLC was a big driver. Founders from Vecna, Amazon Robotics, and Draper were also instrumental.

“The long-term vision is to create a shared workspace that’s focused around robotics,” says Ryden. “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 very close to renting our first space,” says Ryden. “We have some great sponsors and are looking for more. iRobot and Amazon Robotics are two of our lead sponsors. Arrow Electronics and Harmonic Drive just came on board.”

MassRobotics’ board of directors reads like a Who’s Who in tech.

“We have a great mix on our board. Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, Daniel Theobald, CTO at Vecna, and CEO Ken Gabriel from Draper represent industry, but we also have a VC on the board. We have Tim Rowe (Cambridge Innovation Center and LabCentral), who has started one of the other shared co-working spaces and has a great vision into how these centers work and why they’re successful. Then we have Tom Hopcroft (President and CEO of MassTLC), and from academia we have Daniella Rus, who heads up MIT’s robotics lab (CSAIL).”

The group is also very active with local government and policymakers.

“We’re also looking for state funding to help us open this center,” says 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,” he adds.

Robots on the Move, Collaborating with Humans
One 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).

Robotic assistive walking device augments and assists a person’s movements, providing greater walking endurance and mobility. (Courtesy of B-TEMIA USA Inc.)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. Watch how Keeogo helps this gentleman living with Parkinson’s feel 40 years younger. The device is in clinical trials at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

“Our definition of robotics is very broad,” says MassRobotics’ Ryden. “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, 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 says 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.”

The other primary focus of the Massachusetts cluster is collaborative robotics. No surprise. Rethink Robotics, the brains behind the Baxter and Sawyer cobots, and Teradyne that acquired cobot maker Universal Robots in 2015, are both headquartered in Boston.

In collaborative robotics, Ryden says 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.”

“We have a lot of marine robotics companies,” he continues. “We’re known for our underwater robots. That’s because New England, especially Massachusetts, is known for its oceanographic research and a number of other facilities. There are a number of startups that have come up with clever, more efficient, or cheaper ways of deploying sensors under water.”

“We work with MIT, with Harvard, and Northeastern. When you’re in a university, you have access to all this equipment, to great labs, and prototyping and 3D 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 says 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
Start Up Robotic Companies, Funding and Innovation Clusters WebinarRyden says 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,” says Ryden. “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.