Robotic telepresence grows up
iRobot is the HP of robotics companies, having spawned multiple startups that use robotics to solve real world problems. VGo is yet another startup offspring from the iRobot mothership. Founded by Tom Ryden, who was with iRobot for 7 years ending up as Director of Government & Industrial Sales & Marketing, and Grinnell More, who has spent his entire life since high school in robotics, merging his Real World Interface company with MIT spin-off IS-Robotics to form iRobot, and who invented the military PackBot®.
For VGo, Tom and Grinnell took what they learned at iRobot to develop a mobile communications robot focused on business applications. They found an opportunity to take video conferencing out of the conference room and put it anywhere. Tom tells me the story:
“It took us about three years to develop the product. We went through a number of iterations to get the right look and feel of the robot. Then it took another one and a half years to really start selling the robot. As we started selling, two niche markets emerged: education and healthcare. We found valuable applications within those markets. In education, we can help children who are too ill to go to school. The school buys the robot and puts it into the classroom. VGo is a physical robot that represents them. The interaction is different than anything else. The kids love it and we have great stories of kids experiencing high school as if they are there. I remember for one girl, it was the first time she was able to go to the cafeteria because she has such a severe dairy allergy…”
The robot. VGo is pioneering a new category of innovative visual communications solutions for the workplace. The product is innovative. The team is top notch. The company gained a lot of attention and was able to grow to 17 people after seed, Series A and B rounds of funding led by Castile Ventures. They have deployed several hundred robots to date.
VGo is the leader in robotic telepresence. VGo allows me to replicate myself in a distant location like a personal avatar. Because it’s a robot, I can move around the remote location as if I am physically there. Unlike traditional video conferencing, with VGo, I am completely independent of the people in the distant location – I control it 100% through remote control.
Why robotics? Tom believes that robotics’ time has come for successful commercial applications because the technology, especially the processor power, has developed to the point where things are feasible today that weren’t 5 to 10 years ago: “Today you can make robots a lot more intelligent, a lot more powerful. That has opened up applications that were not viable in the past.
Tom is biased towards robotics, an attitude that stems from his background as an engineer and his legacy from iRobot. Tom sees much need in the market for robotic solutions. Citing opportunities ranging from the aging population to the need for better and more effective healthcare, Tom believes that robotic solutions will become the norm in the near future. He is banking on that with his company and his position as chairman of the Massachusetts robotics cluster.
Tom pays homage to the origins in the military of robotics technology that is now migrating to the commercial sector: “The US government, specifically defense, funded a lot of the core technology development in robotics. There are still many viable applications in defense for robotics, but we have seen a change now that robotics technologies are coming of age, they can solve real world problems.” Tom believes that because of the funding challenges in commercializing robotics technologies the government should support this migration with more seed funding such as the Small Business innovative Research (SBIR) program.
- Raising money for robotics startups is the #1 challenge: “When we raised money there was no funding sector focused on robotics. When you pitched to a VC, you were in a void because nobody was following the space. VCs were not comfortable with it. In the last couple of years a few firms are looking at the space. They are researching it, and maybe have some interns looking. A few firms have gotten VC funding. That’s good for the sector as a whole.”
- Robotics integrates hardware and software; “That is scary. Investors and even team members fear the long development time and time to market. In this space, there is no such thing as a rapid development timeline.”
- Robotics is risky: “It’s hard for investors to take the risk and the market has yet to prove the risk-reward scenario in this sector. But, while robotics takes higher investment, it also produces higher barriers to competition. It’s a complex integrated product; competitors can’t come up with that tomorrow. So, you have some lead time before you have competitors. That can provide you with advantages.”
Challenges aside, Tom and many others believe that robotic technologies can be used as a solid basis for a viable commercial entity. They are proving that we (the US) should pay attention to these types of deeper innovations and companies because they stimulate the economy, provide jobs, and ensure that the US remains a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.
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.