In the summer of 2014 a number of exciting British robotics focussed small businesses joined an Entrepreneurs Mission to California. The purpose of the mission was to introduce these companies to a technology cluster with a record of accomplishment of innovating robotics technology, to identify potential customers and partners along with identifying sources of funding.
The mission was sponsored by Innovate UK, the UK’s leading innovation agency. Innovate UK has the remit to enable economic growth by supporting technology focussed businesses take concepts to commercialisation.
Delegates on the trip represented the wide scope of UK robotics companies with products ranging from Q-bot’s use of a robotic tool to insulate buildings, control system software from D-RisQ, through to the development of one of the smallest Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from MapleBird.
Following the mission, it is time to reflect on the key lessons from the trip. Along with our US visit, the summer of 2014 was particularly significant for the UK robotics industry with the launch by an industry focussed Special Interest Group of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) UK Strategy (connect.innovateuk.org/web/ras-sig).
The visit to Silicon Valley reinforced my personal experience of working and living in the region. Many commentators have written and debated on how other countries can replicate the success of Silicon Valley. As an outsider looking in, effective business gets done, deals are struck and partnerships forged because the working ethos is one of openness, intrigue and a willingness to engage. Yes, the sun shines; Stanford University, and the talent it produces, is at the heart of the ecosystem plus, of course, there is great access to funding. But do you know what? Silicon Valley is driven by three particular characteristics – openness, intrigue and willingness. That’s it. Simple.
The delegates on the mission experienced this first-hand. In five days we met formally with over twenty five organisations and many more if we count the informal networking that took place at several larger gatherings. Over the week I cannot recall a single discussion where our US hosts were overly protective of plans or key learning. People recognised that to build the robotics market, the more enabled organisations are to exploit technology, then the greater chance RAS has of making a significant impact. During the sessions where the UK companies pitched, the US roboticists were intrigued by the approaches and plans of their counterparts. Following our return, I have been privy to some of the subsequent email exchanges between companies on each side of the Atlantic – the willingness of the Silicon Valley companies to engage is clear.
Many lessons have been learned by the UK companies involved in the mission. First, open innovation works. Ideas can be obtained and successfully exploited from a variety of sources. Looking for ideas from outside your organisation is allowed! One of my personal highlights from the trip was when one of the delegates from Shadow Robot, a designer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art anthropomorphic robot hands, turned to me after a presentation earlier in the day from a US company and said “Huw, I’ve just realised that this US company isn’t a competitor, it’s a potential partner”. Now the two companies are engaged in a dialogue around future opportunities for collaboration. Who knows where any alliance, formal or informal, may lead. However, I am totally confident of one fact – both parties will learn from the experience.
Second, with potentially disruptive technology and a nascent market developing, supporting and nurturing a business ecosystem is vital for success. Several of the companies we visited were engaged in developing “enabling platforms” for RAS. A good example of this is Brain Corporation, which is developing novel algorithms based on the functionality of the nervous system, with applications in visual perception, motor control and autonomous navigation. The company aims to build and improve devices and consumer robots that can sense their environments, make decisions, take actions and learn. To do this for their target markets, Brain Corporation has recognised that cost-effective, high performance hardware having a small form factor is required. To meet these criteria they are designing such platforms and making the design openly available as a Developer Kit & Integrated Robotics Platform. In doing so, they are enabling both the design of new algorithms and developing the wider market. This kind of ecosystem system development through the advancement of enabling hardware fits perfectly with the aims and ethos of companies like Agilic whose first product PiBot is a “build your own” robot kit based on mini-computer platforms.
Third, and picking up the theme from lesson two, the convergence of smart-phone technology, 3D-printing and 3D-CAD design is facilitating development in the RAS market. Reliable, robust, cost-effective sensors, along with low power microprocessors developed (and tested) for the mobile phone market, are enabling the launch of minimum viable products into RAS markets. This is allowing innovators to rapidly learn from the “build-measure-learn” feedback loop. This approach resonated well with Auratech who specialise in advance unmanned robotics and automation technology. Over the coming months, more RAS concepts will emerge from the laboratory to address mass market opportunities. The emergence of a multitude of RAS technologies integrated into high volume products is not very far away. Just look at the success of NEST.
Fourth, manufacturers of the new robotics application are embracing the practice of “collaborative production”. This approach typically embraces the maxim of sourcing globally whilst integrating locally. This is particularly relevant to design consultancy Sebastian Conran Associates who are inclusively designing intelligent furniture with robotic capabilities. Many early stage high-tech companies in Silicon Valley are eschewing the well-trodden path of engaging with low-cost Chinese contract manufacturers preferring to retain a tighter control on the quality of their final product. Collaborative production takes this influence over the final product a step further with the start-up establishing an alliance with a partner company that has manufacturing capability and expertise. This provides the robotics start-up with a route to market and a reliable, high quality product, whilst the manufacturer gains insight into the requirements of the nascent RAS markets.
Fifth, routes to market for a company’s products and technology may not always be the most obvious or, indeed, the one that is first thought of. A great example of this was demonstrated at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Technology developed in their laboratory will soon be launched as a robotic toy through collaboration with Asian manufacturer, Woo Wee. This was of particular interest to Reach Robotics who is overcoming the problem that many robotic toys are passive and quickly become boring. The team at UCSD explained that this partnership provided great insight into the requirements of a “ready to manufacture” RAS solution with minimum bill-of-material costs, thereby providing great insights into the challenges and requirements of developing low-cost micro robots deployed in swarm configurations.
Finally, we learned that the market for RAS is really nascent and that – as one US robot expert said – “it’s all to play for”. As he pointed out, “how many robots do you encounter during your day?” The answer, I expect, is none. He likened the evolution of RAS to that of the computer. The computer went from mainframe to minicomputer to workstation to PC to tablet to smart phone. Using this progression as an analogy, the US roboticist proposed that RAS is now at the stage of moving from mainframe to minicomputer. Many industry experts expect RAS to gain similar market penetration to that of the smart phone and over a relatively short time frame.
Having had the privilege of leading the mission and seeing the opportunities, I am convinced RAS will be ubiquitous. In addition, the great news is that we have some fantastic UK companies and entrepreneurs ready, and inspired by the mission, to lead the RAS charge from this side of the pond. The mission provided the opportunity for meaningful engagement with our US counterparts and I know that the UK businesses are grasping this with both hands moving forwards with many commercial discussions.