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Robots are good but roboticists are better!

April 20, 2012

MEGA Startup Weekend proved that you can mix startups and robots together and build new robot businesses. Now we need to work out how to repeat the success. It’s clear now that having real robot platforms is very inspiring. So is providing soldering irons, arduinos, and other materials like moldable plastics. But most of the teams who hacked on a robot platform or built their own robot still had to make trips to the shops.

The real story of our success was the roboticists, our robot mentors or demo coaches. These amazing people came early and stayed till midnight, even when their robot platform wasn’t being used [Elad Inbar of The Robot App Store and Ted Larson of Oddwerx]. Then they went home and built more robots to bring in [Tully Foote – Willow Garage]. They pulled apart their own personal robots [Melonee Wise – Willow Garage] to provide parts for teams. They flew in from far away [Ross Ingram and Adam Wilson – Sphero, Harsha Kikkeri and Jay Beavers – Microsoft Robotics] bringing boxes of robots and giving them away as prizes to the winning teams. But mainly they gave away their time, smiling. We were all inspired by the robot track, but it was the roboticists that really did it.

MEGA Startup Weekend 2012
Harsha Kikkeri, robot mentor from Microsoft Robotics at MEGA Startup Weekend, April 13-15, 2012.
Photo/image credit: Erica Kawamoto Hsu

Rodney Brooks, from iRobot, recently said that the real question for robotics now isn’t “what CAN a robot do?”, it’s “what SHOULD a robot do?” Startup Weekend is a wonderful opportunity to test assumptions about what a robot should do, to do it rapidly, to iterate and to validate. While we had some very good robot businesses, the winning team, “Eyes on Demand” had an incredibly strong value proposition, achievable cheaply with available technology.

The team had a strong connection to a section of the community, people with impaired vision, and the team understood the real pain points, eg. reading mail or food labels. They started with a clear problem and then looked to available affordable technology and put things together in a new way. This democratization of robotics technology, as seen in the DIY drone community, is something we’ve all been waiting for.

Although world domination through robots and startups is definitely on our agenda, Robot Launch Pad is a small group in the Silicon Valley area just starting to grow. We were both touched and surprised to be contacted recently by Paul Doyle, Head of ACCESS, Research and Development at Hereward College, UK. Paul wanted us to hurry up and get people making real affordable robots for people with disabilities. He foresaw the possibilities of rapid prototyping and the startup movement.

“Hereward College in the UK supports many students with physical sensory and cognitive impairments. For years we have been awaiting the arrival of the practical assistive robot as many of our students could and should benefit from their availability.

What we have currently is a number of high cost ubiquitous machines, with little or no practical application in the real world.”

Paul wanted to know if there were any DIY robots coming in the future and to inspire us to build robot solutions based on affordable technology, easy for consumers and staff to work with and replace. Of course we still need sophisticated robots, but MEGA Startup Weekend proves that we can iterate around existing technologies, putting people centered design at the heart of robots. I was delighted to tell Paul about “Eyes on Demand”. He was thrilled too, and his whole college wants to be first customers. I think there’ll be quite a queue!

MEGA Startup Weekend was a MEGA success for robotics. And created a new hybrid event, a mashup of startup weekend and hackathon, with arguably the best of both worlds. I think I got Shacked Up this weekend.

Andra Keay robot startup strategist.. read more

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