I'm a VC at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV). Previously, I had a short-lived science career tinkering with photons and electrons at the smallest scales. Now I tinker with big ideas on how technology will shape society. I really love working, maybe because I'm still not sure what that means. I also love sports, food, and thinking about what lies beyond the bell curve.
This is where I share my stories. Twitter (@rgrchen) is where I think out loud.
On Wednesday, I dropped by the Robot Block Party put on by Andra Keay and the good folks at Silicon Valley Robotics. I thought I’d take some time to briefly recap the event. In case you weren’t able to drop by, I’m sharing some pictures I took below so you can see the sorts of things on display. Overall, it was a fun experience with a good dose of vibrancy. I’ve heard up to 1,500 people attended throughout the day to see the 40 demos, and the demographics ranged widely from students to children to enthusiasts and professionals.
Despite having a good time, I must admit that something bothered me while I was there. A couple years ago, I dug deep into the robotics space because I thought that we were seeing the birth of exciting next-generation robotics companies that would reshape the way our society lives and thinks. Companies like Rethink Robotics, Industrial Perception, and Redwood Robotics emerged to tackle factory and warehouse logistics. Willow Garage was gaining notoriety for being a center of robotics talent and innovation that spawned many of these companies. Meanwhile, Amazon had just acquired Kiva for $775M, driving even more entrepreneurial excitement. Where are these players now? Rethink had a well-publicized round of layoffs, and Willow Garage ceases to exist. Industrial Perception and Redwood Robotics were part of Google’s robotics shopping spree, and while acquisitions can inspire activity like Kiva’s did, Google’s purchases may have had the opposite effect. In one fell swoop, many of the most entrepreneurial and talented roboticists were shuttered away from the world. I often worry that this has caused the entire field to take a step back, or at least is a major progress inhibitor. No longer will the acquired talent build and support new technology for others to build upon, at least for now. What Google decides to do with the talent they purchased will have big ramifications for how the industry and field move forward. There’s potential for a positive outcome here. Perhaps these groups eventually leave Google with an understanding of best practice in building and operating a business, something Google is quite good at.
So why didn’t the aforementioned wave of robotics companies become massive game-changing corporations? The most obvious reason is that robotics is hard, but it’s certainly more than that. We are still at such an early stage in the field that the DNA of founding robotics teams often spawns overemphasis on technology and lack of focus on product. This naturally happens when a field is still so raw that its leaders are researchers and scientists consumed by building the best technology. And really, up to a certain point, these people are by far the most qualified to lead, given their deep understanding of the technology. Eventually, the mystique of exciting technologies attracts an infusion of new DNA that understands that markets value form and function more so than performance specs. The latter is something that you can grow over time. A customer’s patience and tolerance is not. The formation of this melting pot (petri dish?) of technologists and product minds then creates a huge multiplier effect for growth.
I’m still very optimistic about robotics. In fact, I believe we are witnessing the creation of said melting pot (petri dish…) right now. I point to trailblazing startups like 3D Robotics, Airware, and Anki among others, led by true makers, deep technical talent, and people that just understand what customers want. Automation in general has hit some high notes already. I would argue that Nest is in many ways a robotics company and point to their success thus far. In fact, they are perhaps a prime example of how product design can compel markets. So, I predict another wave of robotics companies to emerge, both in logistics and beyond. I can’t wait.
Whoa. What I intended to be a brief event recap turned into this. I’m going to stop now and just show some pictures, but feel free to tweet me (@rgrchen) if you want to chat.
A very real looking R2D2 with wear and tear and all
Using Oculus VR to immerse yourself into a virtual world created by Matterport. Talk about closing the loop…
Battle bots, pneubotics style. These bad boys from Otherlab are powered by air and are relatively low-cost while maintaining tons of strength and dexterity.
You make that orb thing fly by focusing your mind to generate beta waves (12-30 Hz brain activity)
Similar deal. You can make a magnetically floating flower spin by getting your mind into a meditative state (alpha and theta waves).
A NASA rover
SRI’s electrostatic gripper. This is the precursor to Grabit’s… grabber.
Egg decorator. Easter anyone?
Other Machine Co’s Othermill. Watch out 3D printers. What you build up, Othermill can mill down.
Neato Robotics’s Roomba competitor. What’s cool is the LIDAR system they built in.
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