SVR investor forum: Don’t ignore industrial robotics

Investor Forum clip

Another successful investor forum event on May 30 at WilmerHale Palo Alto. The event is quarterly now and we’ve finetuned the format. Yoky Matsuoka from Nest and Google X was our invited guest speaker in February and May’s speaker was Sven Strohband from Khosla Ventures and also team leader of the DARPA grand challenge winning vehicle “Stanley”.

With the fireside chat format, there is plenty of audience q&a and then we introduce several startups, some with short pitches, some with demos and some with simply a short introduction. Plenty of networking time over the continental breakfast. We are seeing many more VCs and strategics attending the event for the first time, expressing their serious interest in the robotics space.

Sven Strohband’s talk was a real master class in what robotics startups are interesting from a VC’s perspective and he shared many of the things he’d personally like to see. One big takeaway from the event is not to discount the industrial robotics space simply by comparing the small forecast growth rate in industrial robotics (5%) to the much greater projected growth rate in professional service robotics (17%). The scale of industrial is still 15x greater than that of professional service robotics.

There is also the potential for new technologies to shift the goal posts, something echoed by John Dulchinos, from Jabil Circuits, at the VLAB panel on collaborative robotics on Thursday May 29th. Projected industrial robotics growth rates don’t reflect the demand for better robotics. If better robots are built then demand will increase. As Sven put it, “What we need is better perception on industrial robots, not weaker compliant arms.” Although there is certainly also space for collaborative robots, it appears that there are swathes of manufacturing that could be better automated.

Sven also stressed the importance of getting out of the building and talking to the customer, as early and as often as possible to validate the market need and understand what features are important before you commit too much time and money to your prototype.

The startups who gave short pitches included Tandemech Engineering, Gepetto Avatars, Modbots, Kugar and RoboTar. The breakdown reflects similar trends in our recent Robot Launch startup competition. The startups are mainly focussed on manufacturing, industry, logistics and health, more than on the consumer market. RoboTar was our sole consumer facing robotics startup with a guitar playing robot assistant.

Gepetto Avatars was also unique in that Mark Stephen Meadows is building a purely virtual product at the moment, creating the brain for future robots. Gepetto Avatars is working with Watson to build emotionally intelligent agents who can, in the initial application space, facilitate chronic disease management in parallel with health professionals.

Tandemech Engineering, Modbots and Kugar are all building robots for manufacturing or industry. Tandemech have built a wall climbing robot that is better than anything currently available and are looking at applications on any sort of vertical or inaccessible surface from skyscrapers to wind turbines.

Kugar are still keeping things fairly quiet atm but founder Gary Kurek was also a Thiel Fellowship recipient, so we all expect great things. Modbots (pictured below) have reimagined robotics with an integrated servo joint. Their modular components can be reconfigured with a range of DOF and provide high quality motion control at a consumer price.