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 released the 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.