This mash-up of our list of 159 robotic start-up companies onto Google’s global map graphically displays how widespread robotic inventions and inventors are dispersed around the world and particularly around major robotic research centers.
It’s our turn for a Grand Challenge! The prize will be a successful million dollar business. The catch is you build it yourself. The rules? Well, you don’t need to be a robot scientist to do it. You just need to build a robot business!
Take an existing robot platform – EITHER an autonomous mobile robot (like Adept’s) OR a semi-autonomous drone (like Parrot’s) – and create a successful business. MVP it. Find customers. Build software/website. Create a market. Distribute it, sell it, support it, grow it. Congratulations, you just won… NO, you just earned a million dollars!
It’s about turning your great idea into products for others to enjoy. That’s difficult. But we’re really excited by the opportunities that exist for great robot businesses built on existing robot platforms. The Joggobot is a great example.
The Joggobot is the creation of Floyd Mueller and Eberhard Gräther of the Exertion Games Lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
This is a great idea. I want one. Who else does? And out of everyone who wants it, who has the money to pay for drone plus software plus marketing plus… Well, probably a lot of people do! Do the research and find your product/market fit.
Maybe crossing the chasm isn’t exciting for robot researchers but by now robotics is very ready for a service industry ecosystem. A relatively small pool of robotics researchers have other things to do than create ‘killer robot apps’! One way to kickstart the robot business model process is to involve select domain experts to better explore need. Another is to have diversity in your design team. At Robot Launchpad HQ we have a heap of ideas for great robot businesses, but ideas are worthless unless someone executes.
Here’s an example: What about ‘lost child finding’ quadrocopters? The average toddler is remarkably adept at slipping away, avoiding restraints, unlocking doors and disappearing into crowds. There’s no replacing parental care though. The average parent wouldn’t be the market, but the average parent would appreciate shopping malls, playgroups, playgrounds, restaurants, sports events etc. that offered simple additional safety services. Put the mall app on your phone and send a photo of your toddler to the mall drones, as a supplement to the existing lost child services.
I personally think that involving the mothers of toddlers into a discussion about robots will unlock a heap of other pain points that might have robot answers. It’s the first steps in the oncoming consumer robot revolution, starting with controllable semiprivate indoor spaces that are halfway between the factory or warehouse and the home. I’m thinking shopping malls, hospitals, airports, sports stadiums, prisons etc.
So the Robot Launchpad Grand Challenge is to create a viable robot business using an existing autonomous aerial or mobile robot. Keeping it simple, think of controllable indoor spaces and easily programmed GUIs using a smartphone and/or a cloud service. You are putting the value in the sandwich between the robot hardware and the internet/phone. Find the customers, create the market. Ship the robot. Support the business. Earn a million dollars and our undying respect in the Robot Startup Hall of Fame!
A positive indicator for robotics startups is the improving financial climate. There are signs that the US housing market is stabilizing. Fannie Mae, the government backed mortgage company, has posted a profit for the first time since 2007 without needing a government bailout. The decline in home prices is slowing, as are mortgage delinquency rates and the rate of American home purchasing is on the rise again.
“We expect our financial results for 2012 to be significantly better than 2011,” Susan R. McFarland, Fannie Mae’s chief financial officer, said in a statement. “As our serious delinquency rate declines and home prices stabilize, we expect to reduce our reserves, which combined with revenue from our high-quality new book of business will drive our future results.” 
While not everyone is getting rich yet, the overall financial indicators show that the U.S. economy has rebounded faster than predicted. The stock market has doubled since 2009, corporate profits are surging and the U.S. economy is growing at 3% pa. As financial journalist Daniel Gross puts it:
“Like the world’s first bionic man, the U.S. economy has come back—better, stronger, and faster than most analysts expected, and than most of its peers.” 
While this is a U.S. centric view and some of Europe is still in financial crisis, nonetheless China and S.E.Asia are surging and many African economies are showing very promising proportional growth rates. There are other sources that describe the current world economic status but it’s no longer a bad time for a capital intensive industry like robotics to grow. Particularly if business models lower the risk by utilizing lease models or the rapid cheap trial and error methods of startups.
Where Defense budgets are tightening on traditional robotics, like unmanned systems, the Whitehouse is committing spending towards other newer robotics growth areas. All this indicates that robotics is ready to support itself as an industry, rather than be supported as a research project. Legislation is being passed allowing the introduction of driverless cars and by 2015 we may see changes permitting the commercial use of small drones in U.S. airspace.
3. Maturity of Robotics Technology
Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and current CEO of Heartland Robotics, is one of many expressing the view that robotics has progressed beyond a cool new research area and into the world of robot products. While making new discoveries is exciting, there isn’t enough effort going in to using those same exciting new technologies in everyday applications.
”Users just want to get a task done. They don’t care if it’s a cool robot. You may, but they may not care if it’s a robot at all,” 
So, the question now isn’t what robots can we build, it’s what can we do with the ones we’ve built already. The robots that are successful products seem simple and boring, eg. industrial arms, vacuum cleaners, cars. But when applied to the right problem, even simple robots are transformative. The first successful consumer robot was of course iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner with more than 7 million sold worldwide. But the biggest acquisition of a robotics company was Amazon buying Kiva in March 2012 for $775 million.
Kiva’s system relies on small orange turtle like robots that move shelves around in warehouses. The brains are largely on servers. The robots aren’t ‘cool or exciting’. They are barely even robots. But they solve the problem that sank WebVan, one of the most spectacular e-commerce failures. You can only do half your e-commerce in the cloud. Somewhere real products have to be shipped to real places.
Kiva founder Mick Mountz is an MIT engineer who worked at WebVan. “We decided products that could walk and talk on their own would be the best way to solve the problem,” he laughs. 
Think of Kiva bots as the hands and feet of the Cloud. They are not autonomous Star-Trek-like agents, but are wirelessly connected to and controlled by the Cloud in real-time. 
Amazon, like WebVan, has to ship product. Reportedly, phsyical order fulfilment cost nearly 9 percent of Amazon’s $40 billion global revenues. This is a big enough pain point for some companies to be willing to trial the Kiva System in a few locations, especially smaller retailers, like Staples in 2004, who faced increasing competition in cloud commerce.
Kiva’s robots today are processing millions of orders a year in retailers’ warehouses across the United States, the UK, and Europe, quietly driving Kiva’s startling 80 percent annual growth. On the distant horizon is a plan to bring Kiva’s approach to the manufacturing sector. 
Jeff Bezos from Amazon is also investing heavily in Heartland Robotics. Brooks has a vision of transforming the workplace by making robots that can be safely worked with, shifting robots out of sterile, safe factory environments and bringing them alongside people. His analogy is with mainframe computer systems in the 1960s to the personal computer of the 1980s.
“Originally ordinary people couldn’t touch computers. Now they can. What if ordinary people could touch robots?” 
The future of robotics is exciting, but we’ve barely begun to fully explore the potential of the simple robots we already have.
next post: Increasing modularity & commonality plus decreasing component costs
Now is the right time for robot startups. Why? The reasons range from changes within robotics to changes in the broader financial and technological environment. There is a critical mass which we believe has been reached. This list attempts to capture the zeitgeist and define all the reasons why we’ve hit the tipping point. I started out with 4 or 5 reasons. I’ve got 10 or more now.
1. Disruptions to funding models
2. Broader financial climate
3. Maturity of robotics technology (backlog of product)
4. Increasing modularity vs commonality
5. Decreasing cost of sensors (and other components – via democratizing/sanguine)
6. Object recognition no longer robotics problem (same as next?)
7. Internet of Things
8. Changing manufacturing/prototyping environment
9. Overall internet/software eats the world (or is this also object recognition?)
10. Lean Startup Methodology
11. Popular discussion = zeitgeist
this list is subject to change
1. Disruption to Funding Models
The Kauffman Foundation’s recent report on 20 years of investment in VC funding called it ‘a triumph of hope over experience’.
Venture capital (VC) has delivered poor returns for more than a decade. VC returns haven’t significantly outperformed the public market since the late 1990s, and, since 1997, less cash has been returned to investors than has been invested in VC. Speculation among industry insiders is that the VC model is broken, despite occasional high-profile successes like Groupon, Zynga, LinkedIn, and Facebook in recent years. 
Dave McClure from 500 Startups is (in)famous for promoting a ‘spray and pray’ funding style which focusses on making many small early investments, testing often and only keeping the best. However he recently declared that VC’s should be ashamed.
“Because we SUCK at EXACTLY the thing we’re supposed to help entrepreneurs do — build BIG, SCALABLE companies.” 
The lean startup mantra of ‘fail fast and cheap, challenge all assumptions’ is shaking up the orthodox investment models. This goes hand in hand with the crowdfunding movement which connects product ideas directly to customers, outsourcing the early stage production funding eg. KickStarter, IndieGoGo, Wefunder, CircleUp, etc.
Crowdfunding sites are springing up like mushrooms since the JOBS (Jumpstart our Business Startup) Act was signed by President Obama on April 5, 2012. Although the details still need some work before the process starts in earnest.
As the President said at today’s signing, “this bill is a potential gamechanger” for America’s entrepreneurs. For the first time, Americans will be able to go online and invest in small businesses and entrepreneurs. Not only will this help small businesses and high-growth enterprises raise capital more efficiently, but it will also allow small and young firms to expand and hire faster. 
This guest post at Women 2.0 helped us have 1:3 ratio of women:men in robotics track at MEGA startup weekend.
Women hackers wanted for robots at the Mountain View MEGA Startup Weekend!
By Andra Keay (Organizer, MEGA Startup Weekend)
Robots, startups and women – These are a few of my favorite things, but they usually don’t go hand in hand. There are exceptions of course, but in general, the numbers don’t lie. Women are under represented in tech startups and under represented in robotics. Under representation is a missed opportunity.
I’m not just being a cheerleader. It’s tempting to claim that robotics is the future and that we need to get more women involved. But if simply getting more women in the pipes fixed the under representation of women in technology, we’d have seen greater changes over the last 40 or 50 years.
The current focus on STEM is laudable, but the attrition rate for women working in STEM areas gets higher the older you get. What makes so many women leave after they’ve invested in a degree and started their career? There are probably many small factors but it adds up to STEM careers not offering a value proposition to women. I’d say that this goes for startups as well, from an informal sampling.
Startups, like robotics, are predominantly male fields. Unless you still believe that gender is purely historical and only inertia is holding us back, there must be some value in all-male groups. Well, it’s definitely easier to communicate. That goes for any homogenous group. Similarity between members, from appearance to shared references and values, also increases the comfort level.
There’s an assumption that ‘aping’, the practice of psychological flattery by imitation, is also an effective way to get advancement or investment. So cliques are potentially good for both the workings of the team and for the future of the startup, project or robot. If you put it that way, what value could women have, either for robotics or for a startup? A comfortable homogenous team might communicate easily but they will also find it difficult to avoid assumptions. Assumptions are the enemy of startups.
Steve Blank recommends leaving the building to check if the rest of the world really does think the same way you do about your product.
Robotics also needs to leave the building. Robotics needs customer development methodology and people-centered design. Solving technological problems is no longer the only way forward for robotics. Rodney Brooks says that the issue for robotics isn’t what CAN we build, it’s what SHOULD we build.
Clearly, robotics needs startup methodology. Does robotics need women? What is the value proposition for having more women in robotics and in startups generally?
Underrepresentation of any sector of the population in a team or field is a missed opportunity to leave the building. Having a homogenous culture is not conducive to lean startup methodology, customer development or people-centered design. More women will build better startups which will build more robots.
Get involved now! What better time to test this idea than during National Robotics Week. Try something like the MEGA Startup Weekend with robots and see how much difference your robot business models can make. You can be a hacker. A robot hacker is a culture changer.
Women 2.0 members save 30% on tickets when you register with discount code “W20bot”.
About the guest blogger: Andra Keay is a human-robot culture researcher, MEGA Startup Weekend organizer and founder of Robot Launch Pad – a community to grow robotics, one startup at a time. Also a mother of 4, not counting the robots.She been running science and robot workshops for children since 1995, including coaching competition teams in Moonbots, First Lego League and RoboCup Jnr.
What are the success strategies for robot startups? Hardware startups have specific issues to navigate, but the underlying question for innovative startups goes beyond the how-tos, how to build it in the first place and how to not lose money on manufacturing. Robot startups need to ask why this robot? And what is the market? At the HRI2012 conference in Boston, Rodney Brooks said that roboticists need to move beyond solving technical problems and start solving real world problems. “The question isn’t what CAN robots do? The question is what SHOULD robots do?”
This reminds me of a guest post “The Five Secret Laws of Startups” by Fake Grimlock on Extreme Startups. Fake Grimlock is an extremely smart giant robot dinosaur currently terrorizing the startup community. If you haven’t been eaten, then the First law is “Be Shoes”, which intersects with the Third law, “Build things people want” in a very relevant way for robotics. And for those too impatient to go to Extreme Startups right away, the other secret laws of startups were; be awesome at one thing, fight for the user and be contagious. [image below by Fake Grimlock]
“Be shoes” means that crazy new technology is just not useful and “build things people want” is about validating your assumptions in the marketplace, not just building a crazy knee sled because you want one. There’s a lot of amazing knee sled building in the robotics world. That’s not a bad thing for research. But if you want to build a successful robot startup, then amazing knee sleds have got a very very small market. It might change the world one day but only research labs and very early adopters are interested right now. And they are likely to be building their own.
To “be shoes” as a robot startup, you can use lean startup methodology to find out what robot shoes would look like, before investing everything in production. One of these weird shoes was built by a company who knew their market segment very well.
Robots might be new but people haven’t changed much. A successful robot startup is unlikely to be a solo endeavor. Lean startups can benefit from a team approach, to question assumptions and give scope for rapid prototyping, customer development and deep domain knowledge. Eric Ries describes a lean startups as being born out of;
the use of open source software and free platforms
agile development methodology
rapid customer-centric iteration
Successful startups are rarely new products in new markets. Robot shoes improve an existing product. Successful robot startups will resegment existing markets. To a certain extent the robot part of a successful robot startup will and ought to disappear. iRobot’s Roomba is the most successful consumer robot in the world but to most people it’s just a vacuum cleaner. Intuitive’s surgical system augments the doctor. Every toy aisle in the US has disconcertingly lively dolls and toys but very few are called robots.
At the recent Maker Startup Weekend, Dale Dougherty talked about the importance of creating physical products that people wanted. [article by Ahmed Siddiqui] Dougherty pointed out that people pay for physical products all the time, a point sometimes overlooked when cataloguing the difficulties of hardware startups. People pay a lot more for physical objects that are aesthetically satisfying as well. You can want things that you don’t really need.
Two other opportunities for robotics startups are robots as interfaces or translators; and robots as copiers or creators. Examples; robots that convert scientific or mechanical instrumentation or sensors into accessible easy to operate or understand forms, like humanoid robots do; or robots that reproduce something useful, like a 3d printer does.
However, the robot we love the most is the completely new product for a new market. The crazy amazing knee sled 4.0 that flies. There have been very few leaps into the big blue ocean. But the technology used to be a lot more expensive and a lot less common than it is becoming now. The democratization of technology is well demonstrated by the DIY drones movement.
As Chris Anderson from Wired and DIY Drones explains, a few years ago autonomous air vehicles cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and there were only a handful. As more are made, the technology gets cheaper. As the technology gets cheaper, more are made. This takes drones out of the rarified military and industrial air and into the hands of the hobbyist, small businesses and consumers.
Robot startups will flourish as stealth technologies, re segmenting markets and making better shoes. But as we become more familiar with new robotic capabilities, as robots cross the chasm under the guise of toys, hobbies and domestic appliances, robots will launch new markets as new products. We just don’t know what yet. Imagine what startups will happen when every second kid on the street has access to a drone!
Robot Launch Pad is a community interested in exploring robot startups from a lean customer centric perspective. We’re involved in a lot of great events in Silicon Valley. This is just the start of the discussion about robot startups and it’s taking off!
So, be startup robot shoes – kind of like Go Go Gadget shoes, only MORE AWESOME.
For the 1st time in startup weekend history, teams are asked to build robot startups in a 54hr challenge. Using just a mockup OR an existing robot platform OR all the robot resources you possess, can you pitch and develop a fantastic robot business? Winning teams get a chance to pitch their business idea at the DEMO conference in front of crowds of VCs/angels/media/fans.
Mega Startup Weekend will be held on April 13-15 at Microsoft. Mega Startup Weekend is the largest Startup Weekend in the Bay Area and in the world, hosting over 300 attendees in 3 different verticals – robots, gaming and mobile. This is our annual Celebration of Entrepreneurship, hosted by Microsoft BizSpark, Startup America, and DEMO.
Please share this information with other roboticists and see you there! The mighty Robot LaunchPad team will be mentors and organizers at the Mega Startup Weekend event. (Use “robotlaunch” as promocode and get 25% discount.)
But how can I build a robot startup in just 54 hours?
The key is to build a robot business model. Anyone can use existing robot technologies to create a brilliant new robot business. That’s why we’ve put examples here for every level of robot skill – from technically minded robot noob, to skillful robot/software programmer, to uber DIY robot drone with duck tape types.
1. Technically minded robot noob – create a mockup. If you can identify a market need and robot products that exist or can be easily converted, then build the business model not the robot. Eg. Maybe supermarkets could use robot arms to help shoppers reach products on top shelves. Find a market need that robots could do, then build a business model and a mockup.
2. Skillful roboticist or coder – leverage existing robots with accessible APIs and create new apps and markets. Eg. Existing autonomous mobile platforms could deliver food/luggage/shopping at large airports/hotels/malls. Need ipad/iphone app connecting it up and a business plan.
3. You DIY robots for breakfast? – you can build anything in 54 hours. Go on, surprise us!
Rodney Brooks says that the next generation of robots will be more closely integrated with people in manufacturing and the workplace. Today’s challenge isn’t ‘what can a robot do?’, it’s ‘what should a robot be doing now’?
You might think we’re crazy, organizing robot startup events and doing it all as volunteers. But if you know us, then you know that we are passionate about creating new robot businesses, growing new technologies and new communities, and using startup techniques to influence human-robot culture. Tall words. But we’re taking small steps closer every day.
[‘Deserted Robot’ by Artists for Charity on deviantart]
And if you don’t know us, allow me to introduce the core robot launchpad people.
Andra Keay – Culture Hacker | Robot UX
After years of studying robotics from a human-robot interaction perspective, my hacker, maker, DIY genes have cursed me to tinker. Lean startup methodology is a great way to empower people centred design, so I want to grow robotics culture the lean way.
Ahmed Siddiqui – Startup Weekend Organiser and CEO GoGo Mongo.
Ahmed calls himself a startup junkie. After winning his first Startup Weekend, he now organizes Startup Weekends all over Silicon Valley. He also writes for Venture Beat and as an entrepreneur, is looking to shake up the robotics space.
Erin Rapacki – Product Marketing Manager @ Adept Mobile Robots
Also known as RobotDiva, Erin has worked or interned at a wide range of robot companies. She speaks and writes extensively about robotics as a business and robots as a product. [Don’t miss her as guest speaker at blackbox Cofounder dinner – thurs march 22]
Michael Harries – Chief Technologist @ Citrix Startup Accelerator
Michael left robotics for the ‘real’ world of business, as the technology futurist for global technology company Citrix. Now he’s running their Startup Accelerator and sees the convergence of robots, phones and cloud in his future.
We are a group of volunteers. And we’re growing as you join us. It’s clear there is a need for a robot startup community, one that bridges robotics with the startup world, the business world, the mobile & internet world, the design world and the creative communities. [If I left a world out, sorry, you are all invited.]
We’re bootstrapping and we’re iterating all the time. We’ll make mistakes but we’ll fix them. As we reach out to more people, we realized that you don’t know who we are, or why we’re doing this. It’s not for the money. One day we might grow into an organization or forum or business but not yet. It’s our community too, it’s platform agnostic, unaligned and open.
(Our CONGRATULATIONS to ALL especially Silicon Valley team OLogic !)
We are very happy to announce the results of the Cloud Robotics Hackathon 2012. We combined all the project evaluations from the judges and chose the top three projects which will be awarded awesome prices.
In third place we find an excellent project that uses a complex robot behaviours to encourage discipline and cleanliness in humans. We really enjoyed the humorous presentation, usage of the cloud and autonomous navigation.
Team No Pain, No Game from Montreal wins the third prices comprises of the following items:
The second place goes to a very impressive project involving autonomous navigation, path planning, communication via the robotic cloud, a crafty game board, and funky smiley faces on a smartphone. The complexity, the attention to detail, and the overall completeness of the projects were most impressive and showed the awesome hacking skills of the team.
Team Oddwerx from Santa Clara wins the second prices comprises of the following items:
The first place goes to the most cloudy of all projects. One that involves shiny lights, felt and lots of colours. This project uses a very interesting communication and collaboration system between robots that helps them fetch messages from the cloud even if they don’t have direct access to the web. This project also tackles the interesting area of education and regards though the use of a game. We really enjoyed the technical complexity, robot communication and human interaction featured in the project
Team LightingBots from Montreal wins the second prices comprises of the following items:
A GitHub one-year silver plan and a GitHub T-shirt for each team member
Unfortunately, we cannot give prices to everyone although we think every team did great and truly impressed us with what they could come up in a single weekend. We invite you to have a look at all their amazing project presentations.
More than 60 people showed up to the Hackathon, making us the largest event next to the Montreal Hackerspace which had 100 on opening night. We had 10 teams working over the weekend and have posted demos of working cloud enabled robots from the final session. There were events in 7 locations around the globe, so each location had a presentation and semifinal and the mothership in Montreal will be choosing the final winner today.
The two Santa Clara/Silicon Valley teams voted best and moving through to the finals are: Oddwerx (by OLogic) and HomeCast.
Oddwerx used their own robot(s) to play tic tac toe as your avatar or proxy, so that you and your friend can be located anywhere but control the robot moves via cloud. Hopefully the Oddwerx robot will be on kickstarter soon.
HomeCast used the DFRover and developed a ‘house sitter/home watchdog’ to roam the house while you are away, checking on temperature, humidity, videoing pets/intruders etc. The possibilities are limited only by the range of sensors.
Are you a Bay Area robotics hackathon team or just interested in robot startups?
Join us at the Citrix Startup Accelerator for the launch of the Robotics Hackathon. The Robotics Hackathon is sponsored by RobotShop.com and Google. While the main hackathon is taking place in Montreal, the event is open to teams from all over the world. Cloud robotics is the future! So, we thought that a great way to launch ROBOT LaunchPad events would be to invite local Bay Area Robotics Hackathon teams to an opening party in Santa Clara from 2 – 6 PT on Friday March 2nd to coincide with the hackathon launch in Montreal [6pm ET]. INVITE to Santa Clara Launch Party here.
The Robotics Hackathon is going to be heaps of fun and you don’t need to be a robot scientist to join us! See the main Robotics Hackathon site for all the rules and requirements. Register your team by February 18 to receive a free DFRobotshop Rover.
We also plan to host the closing event and pitch submissions at the Accelerator. If there’s enough interest the venue may be open all weekend, however Bay Area teams may prefer to work closer to their homes, use the Google Hackathon Hangout and simply join us for start and finish of the Hackathon.
ROBOT LaunchPad is a robotics startup community and events. We thought a fantastic first event would be to host a launch party in Santa Clara for Bay Area Robotics Hackathon teams. Sign up for our newsletter for more ROBOT LaunchPad events coming soon, including pitchfests and startup weekends.
Bay Area Robotics Hackathon Launch Party hosted by ROBOT LaunchPad and Citrix Startup Accelerator