After leaving Willow Garage, Willow's CEO Steve Cousins founded a new robotics company called Savioke. It's been very much in stealth mode; in fact, even the exact pronunciation of the name is a closely-guarded secret.* Today, Savioke is announcing a substantial amount of seed funding from the likes of Google Ventures to develop a robot focused on the service industry, which leads us into some serious speculation about what Savioke might be up to.
Here's the meaty part of the press release:
"Savioke today announced that it has raised $2 million in seed financing from lead investor Morado Venture Partners, along with AME Cloud Ventures, Google Ventures, and individual investors. Savioke will use the funding to further develop its inaugural robot, focusing on the services industry. "
And here are a bunch of press-release-type quotes:
"We are passionate about delivering easy-to-use yet sophisticated robots that can help people. Our goal is to improve the lives of people by developing and deploying robotic technology in service environments."—Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke"There's a unique entrepreneurial excitement surrounding Silicon Valley's robotics industry today, and much of that is due to the efforts of the team at Savioke. As the market for service robots continues to grow, AME is pleased to offer our support to Savioke."—Jerry Yang, Founding Partner at AME Cloud Ventures"As the lines continue to blur between industrial and personal robotics industries, Google Ventures is thrilled to be working with an exceptional group of people at Savioke. Steve and his team already have had a lot to do with moving the robotics industry forward. The next act promises to be even more revolutionary."—Andy Wheeler, General Partner at Google Ventures"In Savioke, we see an exceptional team focused on a substantial problem. They have a unique vision for bringing autonomous service robots to market, and the technology chops and proven track record to build an outstanding robot."—Ash Patel, Managing Director at Morado Venture Partners
The last time we heard much in the way of tangible information about Savioke was last October, at the Stanford-Berkeley Robotics Symposium, where Cousins talked about a hypothetical $20,000 to $30,000 service robot that might be competitive with a human, but didn't specify whether Savioke was going to try to build that robot, or focus on developing software for one, or what.
With today's announcement, the bit that really stands out for us (besides the $2 million in funding, of course) is that Savioke is building a physical platform of their own. And not just "creating," but "further develop[ing]," implying that they've got something up and running already, which makes sense, since it's a lot easier to convince people to fund your robotics company if you have an actual working robot that you can show them.
We don't have any real information on what this robot that Savioke is working on looks like or does, but we can speculate wildly about it anyway. If we assume that nothing has fundamentally changed since last October (probably an unsafe thing to assume, but it's all we've got), we have a few pieces of information to go on. A $20,000 to $30,000 price range to be competitive with humans is a place to start, but to break into the area of service environments, where humans are pros, it's probably going to err on the side of more cost-competitive rather than less.
If we had to guess, we'd picture something in between a Turtlebot with an arm on it and an UBR-1: in other words, some kind of (hopefully) robust and (even more hopefully) capable mobile manipulator. As for where the robot is designed to be used, Cousins himself offered some hints in a February post on Savioke's blog, where he wrote:
There is a whole service industry in the middle, with hospitals, restaurants, hotels, elder care facilities, offices, that is virtually untouched by robotic hands - hundreds of billions of dollars of market opportunity, virtually untapped.
So "hospitals, restaurants, hotels, elder care facilities, offices" are some of the environments they're possibly considering. In fact, Savioke consistently mentions being inspired by helping people with disabilities (through the Robots for Humanity project), at a price point that's low enough that people might actually consider giving it a try. So this could mean they would be targeting human care environments in particular.
Or we could be totally wrong. Strictly speaking, all we know is that Savioke is building an "easy-to-use yet sophisticated" service robot for "human environments" (places people live and work), that it'll be running ROS, and that there will be user trials with it later this year. We can't wait to learn more!
[ Savioke ]
* It's not really a secret, just a little bit confusing: it's "savvy oak," like a clever tree.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.