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Raffaello D’Andrea on “What funding scheme is the most conducive to creating a robotics industry?”

February 15, 2013

The best way to commercialize robotics research is to make better connections between academics and entrepreneurs.  Academics venturing out into the business world tend to have a “hammer looking for a nail” mentality, and often lack an appreciation of the skills and real-world experience that entrepreneurs and business-minded folks bring to the table. Likewise, most entrepreneurs cannot accurately estimate the complexity of the underlying technology … they do not know what is hard to do and what is not. Nor should they be blamed for this: speaking as an academic, I must admit that distinguishing between what is easy and what is difficult to achieve is not usually the focus of our publications, web pages or videos. So how do we bridge this gap?  Two ideas:

  1. Continue to fund robotics competitions.  Not only is this a great way to educate researchers on how to build real systems, but the approaches adopted by the winning teams are highly correlated to what is feasible with today’s technology. Also, the challenges these teams encounter in a one-year competition cycle are similar to those faced by a young startup in its first year of existence. This funding approach could be expanded to include team projects that create large-scale public installations because, like startups, they too must be reliable and robust to succeed in a public, real-world context.  Finally, one must also make sure that entrepreneurs know about these competitions and team projects, and that they have the right incentives to attend.
  2. Provide funding that allows freshly-minted PhDs to transition from fundamental research to applied research with a specific business focus, and at the same time provide support from business mentors and entrepreneurs.  A pre-startup phase, if you will. This not only brings the research closer to application, but it also gives individuals an appreciation of what it takes to commercialize their research, without the immediacy and constraints of being a startup.  A good example of this kind of funding scheme is the Pioneer Fellowships program established at ETH Zurich.

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