Unbounded Robotics to Shut Down Due to Issues With Willow Garage Spin-Off Agreement

The robotics community loses a promising startup

2 min read
Unbounded Robotics to Shut Down Due to Issues With Willow Garage Spin-Off Agreement

IEEE Spectrum has learned that Unbounded Robotics, a spin-off of Willow Garage that developed the UBR-1 mobile manipulator, is currently "in the process of shutting down." The UBR-1 is no longer for sale.

Recently, a source (who asked not to be named) forwarded us an email from Unbounded Robotics CEO Melonee Wise. Our source received the message after requesting a quote for a UBR-1 robot:

"Unfortunately Unbounded Robotics is in the process of shutting down due to issues with our Willow Garage spin off agreement that prevents us from raising series A investment. Unbounded Robotics is no longer selling the UBR-1."

This is startling, and more than a little bit confusing. Spin-offs can have contentious relationships with their parent organizations, but it's not often that we see an abrupt shut down like it appears to be the case here. Unbounded launched to great acclaim by the robotics community, and it was ready to produce a capable, affordable, and highly desirable robot. The statement above says Willow Garage (whatever Willow currently is) supposedly prevented Unbounded—a company that it helped to birth—from raising funds, and that means that a serious and unforeseen disagreement must have happened virtually overnight. What we know is that we saw a lot of interest from investors in Unbounded when it won a start-up competition at RoboBusiness 2013, but apparently something in the agreement between the two companies has kept investors away.

We contacted Unbounded, and while they confirmed that the email is real, they weren't able to comment on the current state of the company or the cause of the shut down. An email sent to Willow Garage was not answered. Willow Garage's website has been offline [update: it's now online again], and its office at 68 Willow Road has another startup occupying it, so it's unclear what the current state of Willow as a company is.

Without hearing from both sides we won't know for sure what the disagreement was all about. My guess is that Willow thinks that Unbounded shutting down must somehow be better for its existing group of spin-off companies than letting Unbounded take on investment to become independently successful. In other words, Unbounded succeeding might somehow threaten some or all of the other Willow spin-offs, although we're not sure how that would happen.

But if that's the case, a particularly puzzling question is why Unbounded made it this far before shutting down, since it seems like something as fundamental as the ability to take on investment should have been an issue that needed to be resolved at the very beginning of the company.

We're hoping that the full story will eventually come out, but it may take a while. The only thing that we know for certain is that this development might have devastating effects for the robotics research community. An affordable mobile manipulator like the UBR-1 is something that is desperately needed to help solve problems relating to getting robots doing useful things in human environments.

Just over four years ago, Willow Garage releasedthe PR2, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it revolutionized what was possible in mobile manipulation. The UBR-1 promised to bring similar capabilities to everyone with even a modest research budget, which could have meant another huge wave of progress towards practical robotics.

And now? Without Unbounded, we haven't just lost a robotics startup; we've lost an entire platform, and it could set mobile manipulation research back for years.

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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
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

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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