Starting a Robotics Company? Sell a Service, Not a Robot

Robot company founders and investors make a case for “Robots as a Service” at HAX demo day

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Beetl's backyard robot identifies and cleans up dog poop
The Beetl robot will start out as an automated poop scooper, but may add lawn mowing to the services it provides.
Image: Beetl

If you want to start a robot company, plan to kick off by selling a service performed by robots, not the robots themselves.

That was the message of robot startup founders and investors speaking at HAX demo day this week. HAX is a five-year-old hardware accelerator based in Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco.

“I’m a big fan of going out and doing a service with a robot, competing with other businesses that provide that service, rather than trying to sell a $100,000 robot,” said Nathan Harding, co-founder of Ekso Bionics and now co-founder and CEO of Wink Robotics, a still-mostly-stealthy company intending to bring robotics technology into the beauty salon industry.

Panelists discuss the future of robotics startups at the September 2017 Hax demo daySpeaking at HAX Accelerator's September 2017 demo day about the future of robotics startups are (left to right): Duncan Turner, managing director, HAX Seed; Grant Allen, managing director, ABB; Travis Deyle, co-founder, Cobalt Robotics; and Nathan Harding, founder of Wink Robotics and Ekso Bionics.Photo: Tekla Perry

“So,” Harding continued, “if you design a bricklaying robot, go out and bid on projects that involve laying bricks…. Run like hell to be the best bricklaying company in the world, then eventually traditional companies will want to buy your robot or your company.”

Duncan Turner, managing director of HAX Seed, an investment fund, agreed. “Forget about fantastical robotic technologies,” he said. Show what business is there, then talk about the robots afterwards.

“We tell startups, don’t ever think that the hardware is going to make you money,” Turner said. “Think about the service.”

“The priority right now is to deliver a service,” said Travis Deyle, co-founder of security robot companyCobalt Robotics. “Too many people for too long have focused on building sexy robots.”

Harding even admitted to plans to adjust the name of his latest startup in order to emphasize the service provided instead of the technology. “’Wink Robotics’ is a good name for pitching investors,” he said, “but that will change before we go to market.” Right now, he later added, companies with “robots” in the name are easy to finance.

The Aida robot from unsupervised can walk as well as roll to deliver packagesThe Aida delivery robot can use its four appendages as legs or arms, when obstacles make rolling on wheels difficult.Gif: Unsupervised/IEEE Spectrum

Two companies unveiling their products at the event clearly are taking this advice to heart. Beetl intends to sell its product, a dog-poop-scooping robot that uses image analysis and cloud-based machine learning to keep yards clean at about the same price as traditional dog-poop-scooping services charge today, about $80 to $100 a month. And Unsupervised, maker of the Aida delivery robot that can walk on articulated legs as well as roll on wheels, plans to charge per delivery. The company hasn’t set that price yet; its robot is intended to be able to get around cities and into buildings more easily than the rolling delivery robots launched to date.

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