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The world needs robots

Posted on June 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

Rodney Brooks knows about robots. He should – he co-founded the most well-known robotics company, iRobot Corp (Nasdaq: IRBT), which had revenues of almost $466M in 2011. Rodney is a leader in the field of robotics entrepreneurship. He understands the potential…and he understands the challenges of bringing robotics technologies into broad human use to increase productivity and create value. He also knows that the time is ripe for robotics to enter the commercial world, en masse, as essential tools – because the world needs robots.

Rodney BrooksRodney was CTO of iRobot until 2008 and only left the Board last year, in May 2011. He was involved in the Roomba®, the vacuum cleaning robot, having developed the software architectural framework for it and having sourced the low cost chips that would help them achieve their cost targets. Rodney is a hard corps geek, having learned to build computers in Australia, where he grew up, at age 7. Rodney’s technical (and business) credentials are impressive. With a background from CMU, MITand Stanford, Rodney is an expert in computer vision, artificial intelligence, robotics, and artificial life – ok, let’s lump all that into robotics.

His new startup, Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics), is developing the next generation of robots to improve productivity in manufacturing environments. Says Rodney, “The Rethink robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible. They’ll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive.”

In today’s press release, the company cites a mandate to redefine manufacturing automation while remaining committed to the promise of keeping factories in America. The robot that Rethink will announce later this year will be sourced and manufactured almost entirely in the USA. Rodney states, “With our robots, businesses will have the opportunity to rethink manufacturing, rethink automation, and rethink outsourcing.”

To accomplish this, the Rethink team just closed its Series C round of $30M today, making the total raised to date $62M. Rodney is successful in raising money because he can trade on his name – he admits that he gets preferential treatment from potential funders. And Rethink has attracted world-class investors: Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment company of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon), Charles River Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Highland Capital Partners, and Sigma Partners.

A robotics company needs a name like Rodney’s because funding for robotics is incredibly hard to find. It takes a lot of cash to build mechanical systems and software that makes the mechanics work. VCs shy away from robotics companies because they are capital intensive and their products and technologies take a long time to get to market.

Rodney tells me the story of iRobot: “We started iRobot in 1990. Actually, this was my second entrepreneurial venture. I had started a software company at Stanford, and we tried for years, but it was not successful. In iRobot, I had strong co-founders, including Colin Angle who is still CEO, and Helen Greiner who has since founded a new robotics company, CyPhyWorks. We went through 14 business models before success. We did things the wrong way. Our attitude at time was like many entrepreneurs: we had a great technology and by God the world was going to like it! It took a long time before we figured it out. We bootstrapped the company for 8 years. It was hard going making payroll each month. And then we finally raised money in 1998.”

iRobot chased the market to find success. The company had to develop all kinds of robots for diverse applications: oil robots (that can go 10,000 feet under the ground), space robots, and toys with customers spanning the military to the consumer. Rodney tells me that learning how to make toys cheaply was key for the Roomba. It was an awakening for Rodney because, if he could make a cleaning robot for the average consumer (that did a job, did it well, and was affordable), it would launch robotics to a whole new level of acceptance and popularity. “We realized that if the Roomba was priced at $200 it didn’t have to be a family decision. Our first design priced it at $199.99.” But the process of enlightenment took a long time. It had taken 10 years to get to the Roomba; it took another 8 years to get to a stable product. Today, iRobot sells about a million Roombas per year.

Rodney is a thought leader about how robotics and entrepreneurship intersect and why this is important. In March 2012 the Swedish robotics cluster Robotdalen arranged a Robotics Innovation Challenge with Rodney as key note speaker. His talk outlined his vision for why robotics’ time has come – because today you can replace mechanical precision with computation – cheap sensors and actuators. He proves his point with the fact that, since 2002, the military has gone from 0 to >12K ground robots, and during the same time robots in people’s homes has gone from 0 to 7M.

Rodney evangelizes his view that the world needs robots; that the need is driven by demographics and the increasing ratio of older to younger people. He states that the “productivity of younger people HAS to improve to take care of the old guys.” Because robots have new capabilities, they now have the potential to change the world. He believes that robotics today is a crucible for new solutions that solve real problems.

Rodney started Rethink because he saw a lot of manufacturing in China and he wanted to change the game and bring manufacturing back to the US. He saw an opportunity in the market and knew that he could make the products (robots) to solve the problem. As reported in The Robot Report, the Rethink robot, or co-robot, will be a “lightweight robotic assistant” which will launch at next January’s Automate 2013 in Chicago.

Rodney gets the funding support that he needs because his investors know that he can deliver. Rodney laughs and says, “In the past I was beaten up in the market; now I get beat up by VCs.” But with his vision, acumen, team (including stellar president and CEO, Scott Eckert), and funding, Rodney is shooting to the starting gate for the beginning of the race. The world needs robots and Rethink is betting on that!

This post is sponsored by Innovation Accelerator, the private side of a public-private partnership with the National Science Foundation to make America more competitive through innovation. This post is part of a series on robotics and entrepreneurship being published in New Venturist Summer, 2012.