Dmitry Grishin Talks Ugly Robots and Mistakes Hardware Startups Make

Robots may be tiptoeing closer to the mainstream, but they have some ways to go before they are in every household.

Dmitry Grishin, a prominent tech investor, sees big potential in startups building robots for the consumer market—if they come up with appealing designs and clear other hurdles. “Nobody will buy ugly robots,” he says.

Grishin knows a little something about getting the public connected with technology. He is CEO and chairman of Mail.ru, one of Russia’s largest Internet companies, which is a portal for social networking, blogs, e-mail, and file hosting. Two years ago, he set up Grishin Robotics, a New York-based investment fund that focuses on consumer robots.

While he was in New York this week, I chatted with Grishin about the direction the robot movement is taking. “A lot of people were very skeptical, now everybody believes in it,” he says. He cited moves Google and Amazon are making on this front, investing in and developing robotics technology, but says the field is still at an early stage. “Much more money needs to go in this direction,” he says.

Over the last two years, Grishin Robotics has invested in Double Robotics, Swivl, Orbotix, Spire (formerly NanoSatisfi), Petnet, RobotsLAB, and the Bolt accelerator for hardware startups.

Grishin says Bolt, based in Boston, fills a vital role helping startups in a challenging sector. “With software, you have many, many incubators,” he says. “With hardware, there’s not too many of them.” He believes the ecosystem for robotics and other hardware startups needs to mature and see more veterans tinkering in the trenches.

Using robots to help care for pets could be big with consumers, Grishin says. Petnet in Pasadena, CA, for example, is developing a food dispenser called SmartFeeder that pet owners can control and monitor from a smartphone app. SmartFeeder is one of several rival devices coming to market.

“It can measure how much your pet is eating,” Grishin says, which can offer insight on pets’ health. “Usually if pets eat 10 percent less food, something is wrong.” In addition to gathering data on food consumption, app users can also talk to their pets through a speaker on the dispenser.

That sounds pretty niche-y, but other sectors where Grishin believes robots can have impact include education and outer space. RobotsLAB, in San Francisco, creates robots to help teach physics and mathematics, such as by demonstrating what a parabola looks like for students. Spire, also in San Francisco, is literally aiming for the stars. “They want to disrupt the [satellite] industry by building small and cheap satellites and sending them into space,” Grishin says.

Regardless of such grand ambitions, creating robots is no easy task, Grishin says, and he sees many startups in hardware make the same mistakes. “The big problem is production,” he says. “They usually overestimate how easy it is to do. It’s really hard.”

Grishin says he only backs startups that already have a prototype ready or are starting to deliver the product. He also pays close attention to the makeup of the teams, because creating robots for the public takes certain types of expertise. “If the team doesn’t understand design, it’s a red flag,” he says. “It’s also important to have someone with mass-production experience.”

He does believe, though, that this sector can evolve much the way personal computers became part of everyday life. “We are now in the process for robotics to change from concept and science fiction to real business,” Grishin says.

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