I’m going to program a robot to do my laundry and dishes for me, and be my personal butler. Unless some enterprising entrepreneur builds one and sells it to me first.
May 29’s VLAB on collaborative robots showcased robots that can work side by side- collaborate- with humans. The industrial robots of the past remain bolted to factory floors and cordoned off to prevent their massive steel appendages from breaking fragile human beings. But these mechanized assistants can navigate crowded rooms, respond, and react to human physical interaction. They’re safe, reliable, and they don’t need to sleep.
Collaborative robots, machines without much public awareness, promise to dominate industry and possibly consumer life in the near future. For example, Foxconn plans to deploy so many robots in the short-term that the company will in effect double the number of industrial robots used worldwide. Not to mention, securities markets are so hopeful that leaders have created an exchange specifically for robotics companies, ROBO-STOX.
Future automatons, however, won’t take the humanoid forms popularized in fiction; Andra Keay points out that, to date, the most widely deployed robot in the world is iRobot’s Roomba. She predicts that the next ubiquitous household robot won’t be an R2D2, but your house itself.
What companies and entrepreneurs will lead us into the robotic future? How will they do it?
When posed with the question and asked how would-be founders can enter the space, our panelists painted a picture of a long-term career choice fraught with challenges. Melonee Wise of Unbound Robotics said, “With robotics, it’s a very in-depth career path… it’s a challenging career. You need to have a lot of engineering knowledge. You need to have a lot of deep background knowledge.”
To make matters more complicated, Valley VC’s aren’t particularly keen to fund robot manufacturing. John Dulchinos of Jabil stated, “It’s a long, long cycle to get to a value. A lot of investment companies don’t have the staying power.” Hardware companies, particularly robotics companies, tie up capital for a long time. What’s more, such companies don’t enjoy the copy-paste scalability of a hit iPhone application. They therefore don’t enjoy the low variable costs with high margins that software companies can.
Peter Herbert suggested that the likely drivers of robotic innovation with be passionate, high-net-worth individuals. What Howard Hughes did for aviation and film, or Elon Musk for electric cars and space cargo, someone needs to do for robotics- someone with passion, someone with vision, someone who’s willing to risk a fortune and doesn’t answer to a board. Such a person might inspire others to take the leap: “Something that’s absolutely needed in this space is the inspiration that you can create an iconic, lasting company,” Herbert said.
And yet hope remains for the non-billionaires among us. Wise herself sets an inspiring example. She and her team not only developed a robot safe for human collaboration- the UBR 1-, but can sell it for the relatively inexpensive price of $50,000. UBR 1 also runs on ROS, a standard robotics programming language, making it more accessible to developers. And for those without the $50k to buy a UBR 1 for themselves, team members discussed a coming virtual environment for testing UBR 1 apps.
So there you have it. Hopefully someone will program a UBR 1 to help around the house so I don’t have to. But if you plan to get rich with a robotics company, remember Milan Shah’s words: “How to become a millionaire? You start with a billion dollars, and…”
Andra Keay, Managing Director, Silicon Valley Robotics
Melonee Wise, CEO & Founder, Unbounded Robotics
Milan Shah, VP of Software Engineering, Rethink Robotics
John Dulchinos, Vice President of Automation, Jabil Circuits
Peter Hebert, Co-Founder, Lux Capital
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Written by Eric McClellan, VLAB Marketing Co-Chair.