Let’s get practical

·12 min read

The devs tell me there were so many of you tuning in to the beginning of our robotics event that we knocked the site offline for a bit. I’m extremely grateful for that — not for getting knocked off our axis for a bit, but rather for the interest that got us there. TechCrunch’s social team did a terrific job talking the show up in the home stretch, and frankly, there’s never been a more crucial time for an event like this.

Robotics itself is at a vital crossroads, and the way we discuss it now will help to define the category in the future. We need to strike the right balance between the romantic and the pragmatic. Tasked with reflecting on the pivotal year of 2020, I wrote that, as a broad category, robotics can be defined as “cool technology employed for uncool tasks.”

That’s one of the things that makes this such a strange — and fascinating — subject to cover this closely. Boston Dynamics’ work has become shorthand for this. Decades of viral videos and regurgitated headlines about “robot overlords” culminate in a $17,000 robot dog designed to perform routine inspections at an oil refinery. It’s an important task, and there’s a reason we’d rather send a robot than a human to perform it, but that’s quite the comedown.

It's something I think about a lot when mapping out TechCrunch’s coverage of the space — how do we juggle the excitement of the early research and viral videos with the important work of actually bringing this technology into the real world? The last two and a half years catapulted out of the standard theoretical framework of “five or ten years from now, this technology will be an important part of our lives” to really seeing it enter the workforce in a meaningful way.

Nothing happens overnight, of course. That’s an important piece of the conversation, as well. There’s a lot of testing, regulation, setbacks — these are important things to cover too. It’s an extremely hot category right now, but it’s certainly not immune from the broader economic realities of investment slowdowns, layoffs and shutdowns. No one is expecting to wake up to a fully automated society tomorrow, but at the very least, it feels a lot closer than it did when we took the stage for our last robotics event in March 2020.

There were two key pieces I was thinking about when putting the programming together for the event. First was the process of commercializing robotics technology. Second was the eventual impact that technology will have on humans — specifically laborers. A trickle-down philosophy suggests that market forces will positively impact workers eventually, while conversations with technologists note that automation will bring more and better jobs in the long run. Perhaps I’m being a touch idealistic (but what else is new?) when I ask, Why can’t we center the conversation around those people now?

Johnson Rus
Johnson Rus

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the research side. It was an absolute honor to share a Zoom screen with MIT CSAIL director Daniela Rus and director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Matthew Johnson-Roberson. We covered a lot of ground on the panel, but for the sake of this conversation, I want to focus on that oft-overlooked space between research and commercialization. Namely, are universities doing enough to foster their students’ startup ambitions? Short answer is: not yet. The slightly longer answer is: not yet, but things are heading in the right direction.

“I think it’s an ongoing challenge,” Johnson-Roberson, who also co-founded and serves as CTO of last-mile robotic delivery service Refraction AI, told me. “Universities want to facilitate students pursuing whatever their dreams may be. I think one of the things that is happening more is that more students are aware of the startup ecosystem. They’re more aware that that’s a possible path for them. Practically, we’re catching up at the same time the rest of the community is catching up. I don’t think venture was there, I don’t think lots of the supporting infrastructure that you would need was there. In some ways, I think we’re all going to get there at the same time.”

Rus notes that accelerators and incubators at places like MIT are doing well, but more can be done:

I would say that there is still a significant gap. The gap is between developing the research prototype — something that is good enough to present in the scientific community that shows the possibility for a new type of machine or capability — and turning it into a minimal viable product. It takes time, takes resources, takes energy. What I think is needed more in this area is providing bridge funding for the students who are interested in taking their thesis work and making it relevant.

TC sessions robotics speakers
TC sessions robotics speakers

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Devin’s panel — fittingly titled From the Cage to the Stage — offers a lot of practical advice on that front. Here’s MassRobotics’ Joyce Sidopoulos:

We get a lot of startups that have an awesome technology that can really solve a lot of problems… If you’re not focused on one solution, for one industry, you’re spreading yourself too thin. You have to really know your customer, what their challenge is, what they want solved, and what they’re willing to pay for. Get that focus on one, get it accomplished — then you have a story; then you have someone who’s using your technology. Then pivot to another case. It really, really helps with investment as well.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Natasha’s VC panel — rightfully, I think — put some emphasis on some of the harsher realties facing down an industry that has largely been able to buck broader investment trends. But there’s still some useful guidance here with regard to how a company ought to be positioned when the time comes to really pitch a fund on your product in earnest.

“We used to see companies will just pitch one robotic arm for a certain probe, like, automating a biology lab sample or food processing,” FoundersX Ventures’ Helen Liang says. “Now we will see more vertical plays…where you focus on value creation, and focus on scale on day one.” Instead of building a robot and finding ways to apply it to problems, startup founders may move in the reverse direction: Find a problem and see if it can be answered using robotics and artificial intelligence.

Sarcos Guardian XT
Sarcos Guardian XT

Image Credits: Sarcos (opens in a new window)

Haje’s panel centered around what growth looks like once a company is well established. He spoke to the CEOs of Boston Dynamics and Sarcos Robotics, who have taken different approaches recently — getting acquired for the former and going public via SPAC for the latter. Here’s their answer to the question of how their businesses have evolved.

Robert Playter (Boston Dynamics): It started with service. We were building Spots in the lab, but we needed to service them, and that was a whole new function. Marketing is another example — we never really did a whole lot of outbound marketing. We posted some videos on YouTube, but now we’re trying to systematically go and target the right customers. We actually stood up our own manufacturing facility here in Waltham so now we’re going to be able to produce thousands of robots per year in this facility. That’s a whole new skill set.

Kiva Allgood (Sarcos Robotics): There has definitely been a transformation of the leadership team, and that also comes with its own challenges. People taking on slightly different roles, specializing more, whereas they used to wear five or six different hats. These days, supply chain and manufacturing are critical parts of the leadership team. As you mature a product, the questions you ask evolve. How do you hold the team accountable? What are the key results? You have to be mindful of that. I have empathy for the people who’ve been on the journey with us the whole time. Some of them can go through that transition, and some of them can’t. There are some folks who just love doing R&D, and that’s all they ever want to do, and you’ll want to embrace that.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh tours Lehigh Heavy Forge while visiting area businesses to discuss the American Jobs Plan in Bethlehem, Pa., on Wednesday, June 2, 2021
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh tours Lehigh Heavy Forge while visiting area businesses to discuss the American Jobs Plan in Bethlehem, Pa., on Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh tours Lehigh Heavy Forge while visiting area businesses to discuss the American Jobs Plan in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., also attended the tour. Image Credits: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

We kicked things off with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who also happens to be Boston’s former mayor. As I noted during the conversation, focusing solely on job creation in the long run can leave a lot of people hurting in the short-term. I asked the secretary who needs to shoulder retraining workers to learn new skills.

“Government needs to look at the way we invest in workforce development and make sure we put the money into good training programs, community college programs, Job Corps centers and places like that,” he told me. “I think companies need to invest more in their workforces and potential workforces,” he says. “This is their opportunity to create a workforce that works for them. This public-private partnership is important, but I think companies are going to start investing more in human capital, because what they want is that loyalty to the company.”

warehouse robots
warehouse robots

Image Credits: Amazon

I put a similar question about upskilling to Amazon’s VP of Global Robotics, Joseph Quinlivan:

I think everyone has a role in making sure the people in our community have an opportunity. The government has a role. We have a culture where, if you have a don’t college education, potentially you’re not valued in terms of the workforce. I think that’s completely wrong. There’s a lot of opportunity in skill training that the government can play a role in in offering hard, tangible skill sets that are valued today. I think companies also have a role in that. We have taken a role in that.

After my recent Twitter conversation with Ayanna Howard and Ayah Bdeir, I also wanted to broach the subject of early education with a few panelists. Specifically: How do we help underrepresented communities gain access to STEM learnings when it’s most vital?

Image Credits: FIRST Robotics

Dean Kamen’s approach with FIRST is simple: Treat math and science like sports.

“Kids won’t go to class, or they’ll take math for 45 minutes between phonics and spelling, one day a week,” he told me. “But they’ll go after school for three hours, every single day to get better at football or get better at basketball. So I said, ‘Look, we’re not competing for the hearts and minds of kids with the science fair and the spelling bee; we’re competing with the things that they invest all of their time, energy and passion in. So let’s use that model — make it aspirational, make it after school. Don’t give them quizzes and tests; give them letters and trophies. Bring the school band and the mascots.”

The labor secretary told me, “I think we have to do a lot better job” when it comes to bringing STEM to underrepresented communities. He added, “A lot of folks today are talking about diversity. They're talking about creating equal pathways. That’s great. I commend you for that. But it's more than talking now. Investments have to be made, both by companies and by innovators into the space, and also, not just having a program where you're exposing somebody to a summer camp with technology. It's about how do you make sure they have a year-round experience.”

We’re really just scratching the surface of some really important topics here, but once you’re pushing against the 2,000 word mark in your newsletter and you haven’t even started the link roundup, it’s probably time to keep things moving. You can watch the full event here, and I hope some of these conversations will serve as an important jumping off point.

Image Credits: Medical Microinstruments

Italian robotics firm Medical Microinstruments raised a $75 million Series B led by Deerfield Management. The company, which develops robots for microsurgery, is working to expand into the U.S.

“This financing round, coupled with our commitment to access the U.S. market and the addition of visionary leaders to our board, is an exciting moment for the surgical robotics space,” says CEO Mark Toland. “We’re pleased to have bridged the Atlantic with premier U.S. life science investors, and existing European investors, who share our same vision of bringing microsurgical robotics to the world.”

Image Credits: Jaka's cobots working with Danish automation solution provider OnRobot (opens in a new window)

Rita, meanwhile, has the story about Chinese collaborative robotics firm Jaka Robotics, which recently pulled in a $150 million Series D (for more on collaborative robotics, check out our great panel with Rodney Brooks and Clara Vu). The firm has already partnered with Toyota and has plans to expand both its R&D investment and global scale.

“Nowadays, Middle East is one of the major developed markets which also hold a very good relationship with China and many Chinese entrepreneurs trying to set their first foothold in the Middle East,” investor Scott Cai told TechCrunch. “We can help bring those tech companies into those markets.”

Image Credits: Rice University

Lastly, researchers at Rice University recently discovered that dead wolf spiders double quite well as robotic grippers, once you hook them up to an air-filled syringe. The small “necrobotic” hand relies on the spider’s use of blood pressure to move its legs — that’s why they curl into a little ball when they die.

“This area of soft robotics is a lot of fun because we get to use previously untapped types of actuation and materials,” assistant professor of engineering Daniel Preston says in a release. “The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.”

Remember that earlier conversation about bringing robotics research to market? This will be a fun one to watch.

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