Greetings from the casings from Moscone Center West. As I type this, Kevin Hart is just coming off stage and Serena Williams is in charge of a packed house. I’m not exaggerating: I tried to get a seat in the front few rows assigned to the londonbusinessblog.com staff, but I couldn’t physically get through the crowd. A solid one-two punch to kick off this Wednesday morning.
I’ve had some time wandering the halls here, mostly looking for hardware and robotics companies, as is my custom. It’s always fun to see the types of microcosms evolving during events like these, and identify groupings indicative of broader current and future trends in the startup world.
I am happy to say for my own foundation that robotics companies in particular were well represented. I’m not sure if I would have felt comfortable with that five years ago. Combined with all the different current market indicators, it really does feel like we’ve comfortably entered a new era for robotics and robot investing.
Yesterday I hosted what amounted to a two-hour marathon pitch-off involving 30 startups offering two-minute pitches. It was honestly a little tiring, but I’m looking forward to unwrapping some of those offers in the coming weeks. One definitely deserves a mention in this week’s Actuator, because I spoke to the CEO late last week and profiled the company: Touchlab.
Touchlab was the winner of our TC Sessions: Robotics event in July, so this should have happened a long time ago. What’s especially interesting to me is how the company’s external focus has shifted in that short time. The Edinburgh-based company originally threw us on its robotic skin. The uses are pretty obvious there – adding an extra layer of detection to complement existing vision systems and the like.
That’s still the core of the startup’s game, but Touchlab has also started implementing its own technology in a robotic system. It showed an elderly care robot that is essentially a standard TIAGo++ robot equipped with its sensor technology. Elderly care makes sense, as it takes a highly pressure-sensitive sensor to communicate with human patients, especially the elderly.
“We have a software layer that translates the pressure from the skin to the suit. We also use haptic gloves,” co-founder and CEO Zaki Hussein told me. “Currently, our skin collects a lot more data than we can currently send to the user through haptic interfaces. So there is a small bottleneck. We can exploit the full potential of the best haptic interface of the day, but there is a point where the robot feels more than the user can.”
The haptic sensations are translated into a wearable suit donned by a VR-wearing operator. I’m interested in exploring the state of teleoperation a bit more. There’s a strange kind of stigma surrounding this technology in a category where everyone seems to be constantly chasing complete autonomy.
RIF Robotics (pronounced “riff”), another entry in the Battlefield 200, operates in a similar space. Specifically, it builds systems designed to streamline the disinfection of medical equipment in hospitals. Co-founder Kevin DeMarco tells londonbusinessblog.com:
The main challenges facing the sterile manufacturing industry are a lack of experienced surgical technicians, instrument level tracking, traceability of infections and traceability of costs. Medical device manufacturers want to know how their equipment is used and broken down in the field. Instrument-level data also helps them decide where to send sellers. Hospitals are interested in instrument-level data because it will help them operate more efficiently by improving instrument-level tracking and instrument inspection. Currently, most hospitals are only tracking at the tray level, but the industry wants to be able to track at the instrument level.
I’m starting to feel a theme here: another healthcare robotics company from my time on the Showcase stage. Kyle’s headline really says it all here: “katakem is developing a robot to automate drug development.” The company has developed what it considers a “robot chief,” designed to create chemical reactions. It tells londonbusinessblog.com:
The production of a chemical product is strictly regulated and standardized. [But] the development phase between discovery and production is still done manually and no significant data is extracted. Through data, we can help companies develop new life-saving drugs faster and of course this means higher revenues and better margins for them… Data [from OnePot] is reliable, clean and immediately usable.
Montreal based Jasper takes a unique approach to a market controlled by companies like Seamless, DoorDash and Uber Eats. The company’s game revolves around deploying its own chain of automated haunted kitchens designed to dramatically speed up food delivery. The robotic aspect enters through the kitchen, leaving little or no staff for the food preparation process.
“Having good meals at home is expensive or time-consuming… Food delivery is very inefficient — restaurants or haunted kitchens prepare meals worth a few dollars and then pay someone to ship them around town,” CEO Gunnar Froh told londonbusinessblog.com. “While most customers are not aware of this, about half of their dollars are spent on platform fees and delivery charges. By running robotic kitchens in or adjacent to residential high-rises, Jasper eliminates labor and delivery inefficiencies to offer residents freshly prepared gourmet meals at the expense of home cooking. Jasper meals are plated on china, allowing customers to cut up to a third of their household waste.”
A few robotics-focused companies also took the stage for the Battlefield pitch-offs. Swap has developed an electric mower specially designed for mowing vegetation around solar parks.
“Right now there are some major challenges in cutting all vegetation in solar fields,” the company tells londonbusinessblog.com. “The way it is being done is untenable. It’s done by gasoline or diesel powered equipment, so obviously there’s a big carbon footprint. There is also a high cost of gasoline and diesel itself. The equipment also goes through rough terrain, so there are many equipment failures and associated costs. Because what we do is 100% electric, it is a lot more sustainable. There are also a lot fewer parts, so it doesn’t break as often.”
One of the more unique features here is the quick-swap attachments that give the company its name. In minutes you can equip the system with a plow and have it go to town on a pile of snow. The robotic system can also carry a load of up to 1,000 pounds. The robot debuted a few months ago, and the company claims it already has a committed $9 million in contracts to deploy the robots in solar-powered sites.
I spoke to Ally recently. The company is trying to solve a problem that many have tried to tackle before (and that we’ve talked about quite a bit in this column): creating robotic systems that can be deployed effectively without any robotics or programming expertise.
The company raised $4.7 million in crowdfunding, along with a $6.1 million Series A. Equally impressive, foodservice vending machine Miso Robotics signed a $30 million letter of intent to deploy Ally’s robotic arms in kitchens. The company develops both the software and hardware components of its system. It also has a nice little backstory.
“Both my father and mother had their own companies,” Mitch Tolson, founder and CEO of Ally Robotics, tells londonbusinessblog.com. “My mother had a sign business. Every weekend and during the week I was installing neon signs, welding frames, digging trenches, holes for electricity, everything.”
I think this is all the Disrupt-related content I have for you this week, but here are some short news stories from the week. To go!
I wrote (very squeamishly) about Cyberdontics’ $15 million raise. The idea of having a robot work in my mouth isn’t something I (world-renowned dentist who doesn’t love) particularly excited about, but I also don’t hate the idea of spending the hours it takes to get a procedure like a root canal or crown in a matter of minutes.
“If you’ve had something like a root canal, a crown, or any of these types of procedures, where you spend an hour or two in the dental chair and you take multiple trips to go back and get it fixed, CEO Chris Ciriello told me, “The idea that you can literally have this robot in your mouth for less than a minute and out the door 15 minutes later is a game changer. For people who really don’t like the dentist, this is a very attractive way to get in and out much faster.”
Kyle has a piece about the $32 million funding round of Ambi Robotics. The company is part of a growing army of companies competing to automate fulfillment centers and warehouses. It recently signed a $23 million deal to bring its systems to Pitney Bowes’ US-based fulfillment centers.
Something nice to close this week’s newsletter. I did a short post earlier this week about researchers programming MIT’s Mini Cheetah quadruped robots to play soccer goalkeeper. It’s extremely difficult to accomplish: teaching a robot to map a projectile’s path, react and move its body in less than a second. The paper notes:
Goalkeeping soccer with quadrupeds is a challenging problem that combines a very dynamic locomotion with precise and fast manipulation of objects (ball) without grip strength. The robot must react to a potentially flying ball in a very short time, usually less than a second, and intercept it using dynamic locomotion manoeuvres. In this article, we propose to tackle this problem using a hierarchical model-free RL framework.
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