Mass. robotics firms make trip to China seeking investors

Representatives from 10 Massachusetts robotics companies will travel to China at the end of October to meet with potential investors and companies there in an effort to connect American innovation with Chinese capital and partnership opportunities.

The trip, which is scheduled for Oct. 22-30, was organized by InTeahouse, a Chinese-style teahouse in Cambridge’s Central Square that helps to create bridges between technology innovators in the U.S. and potential investors and business partners in China.

While much of the Chinese investment in U.S. tech startups goes to Silicon Valley, this trip will be an opportunity to attract more interest to Massachusetts robotics companies, according to Val Livada, a senior adviser to InTeahouse and MIT lecturer who has worked as a consultant in areas such as innovation and strategic planning.

“There is a very interesting opportunity that I think is evolving here in connecting the technical community in the Boston area, the Northeastern part of the country, with sources of capital and partnerships in China,” he said. “There seems to be a good amount of interest there, and the question is how we can match interests on both sides that makes sense for everybody and I think it’s intriguing and this might be the first step.”

The participating robotics companies include a mix of startups and established companies, each seeking a relationship with potential Chinese investors and partners, as well as with manufacturers looking to expand their automation capabilities, according to Livada.

“Some companies are looking for equity investments to raise money for the company as a whole,” Livada said. “Others are looking for business partnerships that could be supporting particular projects, or could be co-marketing or co-selling in the China market. I know a couple companies are interested in how to establish a position in the Chinese market. It could be manufacturing agreements. It could be the whole gamut, and we won’t know until we sit down with the individual investors on the Chinese side.”

ON A MISSION

The companies participating will be Artaic, Ascend, GreenSight, Insightfil, iRobot, Locus Robotics, Next Droid, R-Storm Technology, Soft Robotics and Vecna Technologies. All are members of MassRobotics, a nonprofit working to connect local robotics companies to one another and the community.

Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics, said he hopes to accommodate each company’s needs on the trip. He said larger and more established companies are generally looking to expand their current business, while smaller companies and startups are generally more interested in investments.

“China is very active in investing in robotics companies,” Ryden said. “They recognize that robotics is really the future. They can no longer be the low-cost manufacturer – that’s not sustainable for the long run – so they’re looking at technology that will help them automate some of their manufacturing capabilities.”

China has been looking for solutions to a labor shortage and the government has been encouraging growth in automation. Last year, China launched an initiative called “Made in China 2025” to upgrade Chinese industry by improving quality of products and efficiency in ten primary sectors, including robotics.

China has been the biggest market for industrial robots since 2013, but its so-called “robot density” — the ratio of robots to humans employed in manufacturing — trails the international average, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics Inc., said he hopes the trip will help bring his company’s automation technology to new customers in China and throughout the world. Soft Robotics is a 3-year-old industrial robotics company based in Cambridge that deals mainly with manufacturing, food and bakery automation.

“An opportunity to work with Chinese manufacturers or Chinese firms that are looking to automate manufacturing wherever they operate that we can help them with would be a primary goal,” said Vause, who is representing his company on the trip. “And then any other potential partners or collaboration opportunities would be a success for us.”

A HUB OF ROBOTICS

Boston is a robotics hub, which Ryden said has led to the formation of “unique and active” robotics cluster in the area. “They’re very open in sharing so they want to see all companies grow,” he said. “They realize it’s a ‘rising tide floats all boats’ type of thought.”

Ryden said one of the driving factors behind the rise of the commonwealth’s robotics cluster is the number of universities doing robotics research in the area.

“Not not only do we have some of the early companies like iRobot that really started this kind of revolution, but there are so many universities that have robotics programs or are doing robotics research in the Greater Boston area,” he said. “That makes for a great idea generator, so it just kind of snowballed and built a great community.”

Livada and Ryden are leading the delegation, which plans to stop in five cities: Beijing, Shaoxing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Foshan. The latter three cities are part of Guangdong Province, with which the commonwealth of Massachusetts has shared a formal sister-state relationship with since 1983.

One representative from each company will join Livada, Ryden and an InTeahouse logistics coordinator on the trip. Local Chinese governments and potential investors will cover the costs of the trip, according to InTeahouse.