Are Robotics Startups Gaining Traction Affirmative

VC Funding For Robotics Grew 36% in 2014

Like everyone else today, robots are following the VC dollars. And while many funding rounds are aimed at the usual industrial automation, money is also flowing to startups developing more human-friendly robots.

In 2014, VCs invested $341.3 million in robotics startups, up 36 percent from 2013, according to Silicon Valley-based robotics blogger Travis Deyle, who compiles an annual list of robotics funding rounds. (And the pace seems to be keeping up in 2015 as well, with 3D Robotics' $50 million funding round announced just last week and Rethink Robotics raising $26.6 million in January).

Where is all this money going Let's break it down. Last year, medical robotics startups--at $77 million--and drone companies--at $73.3 million--topped Deyle's list. Examples include Restoration Robotics, which develops "the first and only robotic hair transplant system" (receiving $45 million in a funding round), and Skycatch ($16.4 million), which makes data-gathering drones.

More recently, VCs have funded industrial automation startups such as Fetch Robotics ($3 million), currently testing "human-sized ambulatory robots in industrial warehouses" that Amazon and Alibaba operate, according to The Wall Street Journal. The leader in this space is Rethink Robotics, whose robots work "side by side with skilled labor" and has raised a total of $127 million (including the $26.6 million round this January).

While the idea of robots working with humans, instead of replacing them, is catching on, VCs are also enamored with the concept of 'friendly' robots for consumers.

Guests at the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif., may find a robotic butler, nicknamed Botlr, at their door. Botlr's developer, Savioke, raised $2.6 million last year (WSJ). OSHbot robots greet Orchard Hardware shoppers in San Jose, Calif. Fellow Robots (funding not disclosed) developed the retail robot in partnership with Lowe's Innovation Labs and Singularity University.

Jibo, "the world's first family robot," raised nearly $2.3 million last year on Indiegogo, followed by $25.3 million in Series A funding this January. The diminutive 'bot is expected to be available this year. Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp. (which owns Sprint) hopes to sell its humanoid Pepper robot to consumers beginning this summer.

And analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald believe Apple, perhaps inevitably, is working on robots for consumers, Business Insider reports. Heads up, Tim Cook: the nameiRobot is already taken. In fact, iRobot, known for its 'robot' vacuum cleaner Roomba, recently announced it is launching its own VC firm.

So what's changed from the robots of yesterday, confined to factory floors behind locked gates A combination of low- and high-technologies are behind the new generation of automatons.

On the low end, inexpensive sensors, memory storage and ubiquitous wireless connectivity, along with ever-increasing processing power, are enabling robots to navigate hotel corridors and other public spaces and perform a wider variety of tasks.

At the high-end, machines are gaining more human skills, such as the ability to learn. For example, DeepMind Technologies (which Google acquired for a reported $500 million last year, after a huge robotics buying spree in 2013) has developed artificial intelligence that can figure out how to play video games with little training. And researchers in Maryland and Australia have developed robots that can learn to do things, like cook, just as humans do: from YouTube videos.

It's anyone's guess where all this will lead. For the short-term, expect more money to fund robotics startups. Longer term There's already an organization, the Future of Life Institute, designed to "mitigate existential risks facing humanity," (such as a possible robot uprising). Among the institute's donors: Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, to the tune of $10 million.


James A. Martin

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