Hey, Silicon Valley: Wake Up and Smell the Robots

4/27/12Follow @wroush

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taking hold in robotics. A few weeks ago I profiled Willow Garage in Menlo Park, where engineers are pouring much of their effort into a common platform for robotics innovation called the Robot Operating System (ROS). Willow Garage’s Brian Gerkey (who, like Mahoney and Duncheon, will be speaking at our event) calls ROS a “LAMP stack for robotics,” referring to Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl/Python, the basic underpinnings for most Web services today.

Certainly, there’s growing demand for better, faster, cheaper robots. Foxconn, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer now famous (or infamous) as one of Apple’s biggest manufacturing contractors, says it wants to install as many as 1 million robots on its assembly lines over the next three years, partly because human labor is getting too expensive. That’s the kind of scale that spurs innovators to discover new efficiencies. “I certainly see the economies of scale improving in robotics,” Duncheon says. “Not to the extent that they have on the Internet, but the economics are going in the right direction.”

Nirvana, for the robotics industry, would be reaching a plateau of standardization and interchangability like the one the PC business reached in the early 1990s. Mahoney thinks we’re getting there. “In the PC industry you didn’t just have a computer, you had the operating system and software that ran on it, and you had the hard drive and the motherboard and the peripherals,” he says. “You are starting to see the same thing with robotics. You may have a robot arm, but you can’t do anything with it unless you have a perception system and the right motors and the right software to operate it. All of these pieces are starting to fall into place, and what I’m hoping is that a development community with emerge, so that people who aren’t core roboticists can go out and buy a robot for $5,000 and build their own applications on top of that.”

Hardware? Check. Software? Check. People? Both Stanford and UC Berkeley boast outstanding robotics laboratories that are churning out new PhDs and engineers at a rapid clip. Added to that, Bay Area companies have never had much trouble stealing technical talent from other regions.

Which brings us back to the first ingredient: investment.

Charlie Duncheon says he started showing his Grabit presentation to Silicon Valley VCs since last summer. “It was pretty clear to me that I was not going to get Sand Hill Road interested,” he says. For Valley VCs, “it just appears that there’s a declining interest in hardware, manufacturing, and industrial technology,” Duncheon says. To win backing, Duncheon says he expects he’ll turn to strategic investors: big makers of manufacturing equipment whose products might be enhanced by Grabit’s novel electroadhesion technology.

None of which was a surprise. Duncheon says that even before starting his fundraising quest he consulted with Kiva Systems founder and CEO Mick Mountz, who made a similar trek to Sand Hill Road back in Kiva’s early days and came up dry. Mountz did ultimately win venture capital for his fleets of warehouse robots, but it came from two firms back East: Bain Capital Ventures in Boston and Meakem Becker Venture Capital outside Pittsburgh.

The two firms put about $18 million into Kiva all told. Now, of course, they’re whistling all the way to the bank: Amazon bought Kiva Systems last month for $775 million. Mahoney thinks that this sizable exit may finally begin to wake Silicon Valley up.

“I know just from the number of people who are reaching out to us and the reaction of the VC community that there is a buzz around robotics now,” Mahoney says. “The biggest thing is Kiva Systems [getting acquired]. At the same time, though, iRobot has lost around 30 percent of their market cap lately, so VCs are still going to be skeptical. But they will pay attention. They are seeing guys like Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Scott Hassan from Google [the founder and main backer of Willow Garage]—people that are first movers and have the cash to do interesting things—and are starting to feel like, ‘I better get involved here or I am going to be left behind.’”

Fear of missing out: for a VC, it may be one of the strongest motivations of all. So when it comes to the robot races, maybe there’s hope for Silicon Valley yet. To find out for sure, you’ll have to join us at SRI next week.

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

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