Vecna Reorganizes, Pushes Logistics Robots in Hot Market

Vecna, a longtime developer of robotics and other technologies, has over the past year reorganized itself into three separate businesses as it seeks outside investment for the first time, says co-founder Daniel Theobald.

The company is starting to talk with potential investors about backing its logistics robots business, Theobald says. That business sells various types of autonomous robots that can handle materials in warehouses and factories. (More on Vecna’s other businesses in a minute.)

And today, Cambridge, MA-based Vecna unveiled a new offering aimed at helping manufacturers and warehouse operators map out their automation strategy and manage their operations more efficiently.

Vecna is trying to take advantage of growing interest in logistics automation, as retailers, manufacturers, and other companies contend with an explosion in online shopping and increasingly complicated supply chains—as well as pressure to deliver goods fast. Vecna isn’t the only player in this sector of robotics making moves lately.

Last week, 6 River Systems began selling its mobile robots that assist warehouse workers with picking operations. The Waltham, MA-based company’s co-founders include Jerome Dubois and Rylan Hamilton, former executives at Kiva Systems, the warehouse automation firm acquired by Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

Also last week, RightHand Robotics announced an $8 million funding round led by Playground Global. The Somerville, MA-based startup has developed a robotic gripper and machine learning software that makes sense of information from cameras and embedded sensors.

The announcements by the three companies play into some key themes emerging in this sector: efforts to make robots smarter by incorporating machine learning software, and finding ways for machines to collaborate effectively with human workers.

On the machine learning front, RightHand applies algorithms that it says help its robotic grippers adapt to new objects and situations in e-commerce and distribution.

Vecna, meanwhile, has software that uses artificial intelligence techniques to assign tasks so they get done more efficiently, whether that means delegating the job to a machine or a human. For example, sometimes an order requires picking up a variety of objects that would be too complicated for the robot. Or maybe a toting robot is programmed to move around at a slow speed for safety reasons, and a human could transport goods around the facility more quickly, Theobald says.

“We’ve got a big focus on collaborative robotics,” says Theobald, Vecna’s chief innovation officer.

6 River Systems emphasizes human-robot teamwork, too. (The company is marketing its product as the “Collaborative Fulfillment System.”) As TechCrunch reported, 6 River Systems’ load-carrying mobile robot (dubbed Chuck) has a screen that shows warehouse workers where items are located on the shelf, how much of something they need to pick, and where they need to go to complete the next task. The machine’s software and sensors also track worker performance so it can provide feedback and even celebrate accomplishments.

Daniel Theobald

To Vecna’s Theobald, “robots aren’t an end-all, be-all solution, robots are a part of a complete system.”

One of the challenges for manufacturers and warehouse operators is that as they invest in more robotic systems, it gets harder to manage them all—especially if they’re using robots made by different companies.

Vecna wants to help with that. The software brains behind Vecna’s robots can also be configured to direct and communicate with machines from other vendors, Theobald says. That could help the firm’s customers move beyond “a patchwork quilt of systems hacked together and poorly integrated.”

“I think having a system-wide view is the only way you’re going to get the results that you want,” Theobald says. “Our whole vision is if we’re going to move robotics forward, robots from other vendors need to be able to work together.”

Vecna, which was started in 1998 by a group of MIT engineers, has been going through some notable changes. Over the past year or so, it has split its various products and services into separate businesses operating as wholly owned subsidiaries of the parent Vecna company, Theobald says. Those new entities include a healthcare IT business; the logistics robotics business, whose formation was technically still being finalized as of Friday; and a business that sells VGo, the telepresence robots that Vecna acquired in 2015.

Theobald says Vecna is also planning to form robotics businesses around transportation and agriculture, but he declined to share more details.

One of the reasons for splitting up the businesses is the reorganization makes it easier to attract investment, Theobald says. Outside of grants, Vecna has been entirely self-funded, he says. But now, the plan is to raise at least $10 million for the logistics robots business, Theobald says.

“As we bring in the outside investors, it needs to be very clear what they’re investing in,” he says. “When somebody wants to come in and invest in logistics, they might not be as interested in healthcare.” (The other Vecna businesses aren’t currently seeking outside funding, a spokesman says.)

Theobald thinks separating the businesses—each with its own management team and employees—enables them to have greater focus on their respective markets. “It’s putting us into position to grow those businesses quickly and effectively,” he says.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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