Bezos Expeditions Contributes to $7 Million Round for Heartland Robotics

8/21/09Follow @wroush

Regulatory documents filed today show that Heartland Robotics, the Cambridge, MA, industrial robotics startup founded by MIT computer science legend Rod Brooks, has raised just over $7 million in an equity offering. The documents don’t reveal the identities of the funders, and Heartland has not announced the names, but Xconomy has learned that one of the investors is Bezos Expeditions, the Seattle-based venture investing operation of Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Reached this afternoon by phone, Heartland president Patrick Sobalvarro confirmed that the offering had taken place, but described the lead funder in the round only as a “top tier” investing firm. He says Heartland plans to make a formal announcement about the investment soon, but has not yet obtained clearance from the funders to release their names.

A bit of detective work shows that Bezos Expeditions is one of them. Heartland’s regulatory filing—a standard “Form D” that privately held companies must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission when selling stock—includes Melinda Lewison in the “related person” field, which is usually reserved for company founders, executives, and board members. Lewison is a principal at Bezos Expeditions.

Lewison did not immediately respond to Xconomy’s request for confirmation and comment about the investment. But we have confirmed through another source that Bezos is one of the participants in the round.

Heartland, founded last fall, is still in stealth mode, but Brooks said last year that the company’s robotic technology is designed to empower laborers in manufacturing facilities to be more productive. Brooks, who is chairman and chief technology officer at Heartland, has said in discussions with Xconomy that he is “trying to do for manual workers what PCs did for information workers, i.e., let ordinary manual workers become their own information engineer and increase their own productivity.”

Sobalvarro, an MIT-trained computer scientist who previously founded surveillance video analysis software company IntelliVid, said Heartland is not yet prepared to add detail to that story. “What I would say is that we’re at a stage where we’ve really got the business proposition clearly confirmed,” he says. “We’ve been working with a couple dozen manufacturers and we see that the value of what we’re doing is very clear to them. That has come back and told us a very clear story that it’s time to grow the company, and build a product and get it out there into the marketplace.”

Sobalvarro said Heartland’s new lead investor “is absolutely a top tier firm and understands [the company's value proposition] clearly. We’ve very excited about having them on board, because they are people who really know how to help us build a business, and we’re excited to be working together with them.”

Extrapolating from Sobalvarro’s comments, it might not be unwarranted to speculate that Heartland’s technology includes robotic devices that could help workers in facilities such as Amazon distribution centers. In that case, Heartland might be treading into territory partially staked out by Woburn, MA-based Kiva Systems, which makes fleets of small robots for automated fulfillment at large warehouses.

But for now, Sobalvarro says, the speculation will have to remain speculation: “We look forward to telling that story, but it’s a very big proposition and it’s going to be a big business, and we need to be careful that we protect our intellectual property and that we get the story out at the appropriate time.”

The $7 million funding round will come in handy, because Sobalvarro says the company is “about to increase the team size considerably. We’re going to be bringing in a bunch of experienced engineering talent.” He says the company has already hired Miki Rosenberg, a veteran product development executive from the medical devices industry, as its vice president of engineering.

Sobalvarro says early prototyping has demonstrated the feasibility of the company’s concept, “so we are growing the team to do the execution and product development. That’s what this round does: it lets us develop a product and get out there with our customers and design partners and continue to build value in the company.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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