Robotics Startups Getting Good News

Despite the challenging economy, the last year has seen millions in new funding go to early-stage robotics companies.

2 min read

Though the past year has not been great for venture funding and many companies -- including robotics companies -- have been faced with serious financial challenges, the robotics startup community seems to be a bright spot, with many millions of dollars being poured into early-stage companies. These are just the ones I know of:

Heartland Robotics - Heartland, one of the recent iRobot spinoffs that's focusing on collaborative industrial robots, had an early Series A round in 2008 and a supplementary $7M round in the fall of 2009. They're backed by Jeff Bezos's personal investment fund as well as Charles River Ventures.

Harvest Automation - Harvest, known for a long time as "Q Robotics," also includes some iRobot alumni. As you may recall, they're building small robots that help move potted plants around massive commercial nurseries. A few weeks ago they announced a successful $4M Series A round with funding both from Life Sciences Partners and MidPoint Food & Ag fund LP, which, in stark contrast to historical robotics investors, focuses primarily on agricultural companies. It's interesting to see venture funding for robotics start to move to these industry-specific investors.

iWalk -- We discussed iWalk, Hugh Herr's MIT Media Lab spinoff that's designing robotic prosthetic devices, in September when they received their $21M series B funding from General Catalyst Partners.

CyPhy Works -- the iRobot spinoff (previously The Droid Works) has continued in the proud tradition of most of Massachusett's robotics companies, relying on government SBIRs to build up their company. CyPhy Works got a piece of last year's economic stimulus package for some navigation system work and in December won a $2.4M grant to develop small tethered UAVs for bridge and building inspection.

CasePick Systems --  CasePick is an interesting one. Located just outside of Boston, they've been pretty quiet and stealthy, but through rumor mills and recruiters I've managed to put together some pieces. They're doing warehouse automation, in the realm of their neighbor to the north Kiva Systems, but rather than focus on delivering racks, they're moving around massive cases of product in distribution centers. Rather than venture funding they have a single investor -- who I don't know -- who has put a massive amount of money toward CasePick so that they can solve their warehouse logistic problems.

Cardiorobotics -- because the only thing scarier than open heart surgery is snakes, the Pittsburgh-based company has decided to combine the two, developing a snake-like robot called the CardioARM for minimally invasive heart surgery. This earned them an $11.6M Series A round, announced yesterday, from Eagle Ventures, The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, and the Slater Technology Fund.

I've heard from founders of the first generation of robotics companies that finding venture funding in the 90s for technology like this was next to impossible. It was too risky; no one had proven that robots, outside of industrial manufacturing environments, were viable technology. One founder even recalled being turned down by a VC firm's intern -- they weren't even deemed important enough to meet with an actual partner. To see so much activity among robotics companies in what was otherwise a down year is pretty exciting.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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