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Frank Tobe

by   -   October 23, 2013

Throughout my 35-year career in the computer business, I always read and thought about what disruptive technology was ahead. When I had an IBM mainframe, I was looking at the DEC mini-computers and even the stand-alone word-processors to see if they could do my work without the humongous monthly lease rates and $250,000 computer room (with its special flooring, power supply and air conditioners) that I was paying for at the time.

by   -   October 9, 2013

Open source vs. proprietary software is an age old question. Since the advent of robotics, we also have the question of open source hardware.

In academia, where robotics researchers look to open source as a means of advancing community knowledge, the answer is perhaps more obvious. But in business, it’s clearly a balancing act. And so, ‘To be open, or not to be open?’ — that is the question for our panelists this month.

We asked Frank Tobe, Robert Morris and Brian Gerkey to weigh in. Here’s what they have to say …


Gerkey BrianBrian Gerkey on “Is open source a good business model for robotics?”

The IT economy has powerfully demonstrated what happens when companies can leverage open source infrastructure when they build new products and services.  A company like Google would never have come into existence had they not been able to rely from the beginning on solid open source tools like Python and GCC.  IBM would arguably have not been able to make its immensely successful pivot from products to services without Linux.  How many startups these days begin as a cloud-hosted machine running some derivative of the venerable LAMP stack? …

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robert-morrisRobert Morris on “Is open source a good business model for robotics?”

The premise of this question is that robotics companies are manufacturers and that there is choice between an open source and closed source business model.  Robotics companies are best thought of as service companies (even manufacturers, especially when moving beyond early adopters) and openness is not an ‘either/or’ choice, but rather a continuum.  In this day and age the question is, ‘What do you need to keep open create value for your customers?’ …

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Frank Tobe on “Is open source a good business model for robotics?”

Certainly robotics has its share of proprietary software and control systems. Each robot manufacturer markets their products based on the need for secure, proprietary and un-shared systems so that they can ensure stability and control. Whole industries have been set up to bridge those proprietary barriers so that multi-vendor solutions can happen …

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by   -   July 16, 2013

Policy is really about long-term thinking — a process we should do but don’t do for various reasons. Though China is a notable exception, very few governments make long-term planning a priority.

Corporations are more disciplined and less prevailed upon by conflicting interests than governments; hence long-term planning is a regular part of their management practice. But corporations have neither ethics nor loyalties, and often do marginally (if not outright) immoral things to preserve the profitability of the company over the welfare of the community and workforce.

by   -   July 15, 2013

Economic policy may not jump to mind as a hot topic for roboticists, but it is a fundamental and influential driver behind the failure or success of the robotics community as a whole. After all, economic policy is what’s behind how governments set their interest rates, determine their budgets, enforce their rules for the labour market and deal with questions of national ownership.

This month we asked Robotics by Invitation panel members Rich Mahoney and Frank Tobe for their take on what policy-makers need to do to keep economic development apace with important developments in robotics. Here’s what they have to say …

Illah Nourbakhsh

Rich Mahoney on “What do policy-makers need to do to keep pace with economic development?”


I am not sure how to describe the specifics of what policy makers should do, but I think there are two gaps that policy makers should think about that are associated with the economic development impact of robotics: sufficient funding to support an emerging robotics marketplace; and  detailed descriptions of the innovations needed to solve specific problems …

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Frank Tobe on “What do policy-makers need to do to keep pace with economic development?”

I think the biggest thing happening today is the acceptance of the low-cost Baxter and Universal robots into SMEs and small factories everywhere.  Sales will likely be 2% of the total; 5% in 2014 and possibly 15% in 2015. That’s growth! And that’s before the might of the big four robot makers start selling their low-cost entry robots for SMEs …


by ,   -   July 15, 2013

[RBI Editors]
As an active robotics investor, a leading authority on the business of robotics, and the author of The Robot Report and Everything Roboticyou are at the pulse of the field’s economic development. In a nutshell, what’s happening in robotics today?

[Frank Tobe]
I think the biggest thing happening today is the acceptance of the low-cost Baxter and Universal robots into SMEs and small factories everywhere.  Sales will likely be 2% of the total; 5% in 2014, and possibly 15% in 2015. That’s growth! And that’s before the big four robot makers start selling their low-cost entry robots for SMEs. This has more near-term promise than unmanned aerial or ground vehicles in agriculture and elsewhere. These co-robots are proving that we need more high-tech people and fewer low-skilled people in this globally competitive economy.

by   -   February 15, 2013

Funding new robotic projects in America is mostly done two different ways:

(1) strategic funding from NASA, DARPA, DoD, NSF and other government organizations to do the pure science involved in solving stumbling blocks in robotics, and

(2) entrepreneurial-initiated funding from friends and family, angel investors, VCs and “special people” like Scott Hassan, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

In addition, some funding is available via macro programs such as the Roadmap for US Robotics, which don’t move at the same speed as the entrepreneur-initiated projects.

Finally, surrounding each of the major universities involved in robotics research and education are clusters of support networks working with and supplementing the universities’ own commercialization activities. Stanford and UC Berkeley in the Bay Area of California; Georgia Tech in Atlanta; CMU in Pittsburgh; and MIT and Harvard in Boston. All of these clusters and commercialization activities are without government stimulus or direction.

Willow Garage is a perfect example of the benefits of special people: Scott Hassan had a vision to jump-start robotics – particularly the open source software side – and he invested hundreds of millions of dollars in that pursuit. From Willow Garage came seven notable spin-offs including an ongoing non-profit to perpetuate ROS.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google established Google X-Labs, invested in Tesla Motors, and many more.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has set up a fund that has invested in all sorts of start-ups: from Uber to Behance to Linden Labs.

The real excitement comes from the special people: They not only enthusiastically give back with profits from their own experiences, but also bring the same level of energy that made them successful to funding of new robotics projects.

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by   -   January 15, 2013

As the robotics industry continues to grow, enters new industries, and provides new applications, strategic focus is necessary or the overall industry will develop haphazardly and spread out around the world. It is important to remember that the first industrial robot was designed and developed in America but almost all industrial robots today are manufactured offshore and the profits from their sale go to offshore companies.

by   -   July 7, 2012

Frank Tobe’s ‘The Robot Report’ has just launched a great map of global robot startups and he’d like your robot startup information…

Please add to our list of global robotic start-up companies by sending information to Thank you.
Click to see the 104 global robotic start-up companies in detail.
… PS: There are 800+ industrial and service robot vendors in our database in addition to the start-ups – see below (left column) – plus 250 research labs and 650 ancillary businesses.