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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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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