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.