Ten Startups at Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator Make Their Big Debut

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) staged a pretty good sendoff in San Diego yesterday for the 10 startups that began the company’s robotics accelerator program 16 weeks ago. Techstars manages the startup-mentoring program in San Diego under a corporate partnership with Qualcomm.

The wireless technology giant held its inaugural “Demo Day” for the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator in the opulent Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort hotel. More than 400 people attended, including about 100 investors, Qualcomm officials said.

Demo days may be nothing new in the Bay Area, where Y Combinator has been operating since 2005, or in tech hubs like Seattle, Boston, and Boulder, CO, where Techstars began in 2006. But in the California cul de sac that is San Diego, the idea of holding a big event for robotics startups to make their entrée into the real world is still pretty exciting.

As the world’s biggest wireless chipmaker, Qualcomm used the occasion to showcase its expertise in technologies considered crucial to robotics, such as computer vision, machine learning, and sensing.

“Our biggest goal here is to foster innovation, and to support these companies,” said Houman Haghighi, a Qualcomm Ventures staff manager overseeing the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator.

Other executives offered similar comments, saying the mentoring program represents an opportunity for Qualcomm to kickstart the robotics ecosystem.

Techstars' Ryan Kuder, center, huddles with startup teams before the show.

Techstars’ Ryan Kuder, center, huddles with startup teams before the show.

For example, before the demos began, Qualcomm announced the introduction of “Snapdragon Flight,” a new integrated circuit board designed to help manufacturing partners quickly go to market with drones used chiefly as “flying cameras.” The chipset, along with an integrated reference platform and advanced software, is intended to enable drone makers to sell “consumer-friendly flying cameras” for less than $300, said Hugo Swart, a product management executive with Qualcomm Technologies.

“No one else has the scale, breadth, and technology expertise to lead in robotics” the way Qualcomm does, Swart told the crowd.

That sounds a lot like the business model for Qualcomm’s smartphone business. But it’s still unclear whether the wireless giant can build the same kind of protective ecosystem in robotics that it has in the wireless communications business.

To some robotics experts in the audience, a preferred model for the industry is the kind of open source software operating system and robotics development platform that was introduced years ago by Willow Garage, the renowned Silicon Valley robotics lab that’s no longer in business.

Swart later said that the company intends to support both approaches. Still, it’s worth noting that Qualcomm has traditionally made most of its money from technology licensing, so it will be interesting to see how this issue shakes out as the robotics industry matures.

In the meantime, here’s a rundown on … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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