Massachusetts emerges as a robot industry powerhouse

Daniel Theobald

By Nidhi Subbaraman, Beta Boston

Seventeen years ago, Helen Greiner was scrambling to find investors to back her company’s development of a robot that would clean people’s houses. As she made the rounds of venture capitalists, the responses ranged from “You’re not an Internet company” to “You’re too early stage” to “I would do this, but my partners would kill me.”

But Greiner and her partners, Colin Angle and MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks, persevered, funneling money from their firm’s contract engineering work to fund the robot project. Today, that company, iRobot Corp. of Bedford, is one of the nation’s largest makers of home robots, generating more than $500 million in annual sales from its Roomba floor vacuum and other products, and employing 600 people, including 500 in Massachusetts.

iRobot is an anchor of a burgeoning Massachusetts robotics industry that includes more than 100 companies, employs more than 3,000, and attracts tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars of investments. Since 2008, at least 20 robotics startups have launched in Massachusetts. Venture capital funding of the local industry tripled to more than $60 million in 2012, the most recent year available, from less than $20 million in 2008, according to the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a trade group in Burlington.

In addition, some the nation’s biggest technology companies, including Inc. of Seattle and Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., have poured hundreds of millions of dollars more into Boston robot makers through acquisitions and other investments.

Among the questions facing Boston’s industry is whether it can produce one or two significant corporations — a Google of robotics. In many other segments of the region’s tech sector, growing young companies sell to bigger firms before they can achieve a dominant size.

But Steve Chambers, chief executive of the Boston robotics startup Jibo Inc., said the robotic market is still so new that a local company could grow quickly enough to become a major player. “Just as there were no mobile phone providers and all of a sudden Google and Apple took over, this is one of the rare opportunities,” Chambers said.

Spending on robotics worldwide is expected to leap to $65 billion by 2025, from $15 billion in 2010, according to the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm. Industrial and military uses have historically dominated applications for robotics — robot arms that build cars, or bomb-disposal robots that accompany soldiers onto the battlefield.

But in the next 10 years, other markets are expected to grow for products such as personal robots for wired homes, and commercial robots that work on farms or warehouses.

Boston is considered as one of world’s leading robotics centers, in a list that includes Tokyo, specializing in industrial robots; Pittsburgh, where researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the Advanced Technologies Research Center established by the ride-hailing firm Uber Technologies Inc. of San Francisco are advancing self-driving cars; and Silicon Valley, which hosts companies developing drones, companion robots, and artificial intelligence.

In Boston, companies are making and developing robots for a wide range of tasks. Amazon Robotics — Kiva Systems before Amazon’s $775 million acquisition of the Reading company in 2012 — makes robots to move goods around the ­e-commerce company’s warehouses. Boston Dynamics, a Waltham company acquired by Google for an undisclosed sum in 2013, makes two- and four-legged robots that run through sand and uneven terrain carrying heavy loads, initially built to support soldiers in the field.

Jibo Inc. of Boston is developing a robotic personal assistant that can pull up recipes, do Web searches, and even tell the kids a bedtime story. Over the past year, the startup, founded in 2013, has raised $3 million in preorders through the crowd funding site Indiegogo, and $36 million in venture capital through several investors, including Samsung Ventures, the investment arm of the Korean electronics company, and the Taiwanese computer maker Acer Inc. The first robots are expected to ship in the spring of 2016. Preorder prices started at $599.

“What’s strong about Massachusetts is the diversity of its robotics,” said Patrick Larkin, director of the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasipublic development agency. “It’s a sector that has graduated from what we like to call the garage shop mentality to an emerging and dynamic sector.”

Like other segments of the state’s technology sector, robotics has its roots in the labs of the state’s universities. MIT, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Olin College of Engineering in Needham have established robotics programs; in 2007, Worcester Polytechnic Institute became the first university in the country to offer a robotics major.

Besides new research, universities are also fostering industry partnerships. When Google launched its Project Wing to build delivery drones, they hired MIT professor Nicholas Roy to lead the effort. (Roy returned to MIT after the project launched in September 2014.) This summer, Toyota committed $25 million to MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as part of an investment in self-driving cars.

Another emerging application: medical robots that can perform tasks from delivering supplies to doing surgery. The market for surgical robots alone is expected to approach $20 billion by 2019, according to Robotics Business Review, a trade publication in Framingham.

Vecna Robotics, founded in 1998 and based in Cambridge, is building robots to move supplies around hospital complexes and has sold about 1,000 to customers across the country. The company employs about 200, nearly all in Greater Boston. Vecna, a privately held firm, declined to disclose financial information.

Daniel Theobald, cofounder of Vecna Technologies, is the driving force behind a new initiative, MassRobotics, a nonprofit that aims to build the cluster by connecting companies to talent, investors to startups, and mentors to young entrepreneurs. The organization, incorporated this summer, also seeks to share resources, such as workspace where young companies can get started or machine shops where they can build prototypes.

MassRobotics’s board of directors is a who’s who of roboticists and investors, including venture capitalist C.A. Webb, Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council president Tom Hopcroft, Draper Labs chief executive Ken Gabriel, iRobot’s Angle, and Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.

“If you are a part of the MassRobotics ecosystem or cluster,” Theobald said, “you’re going to have a measurable advantage over companies that aren’t.”

Those advantages are attracting robot companies from other parts of the country — and the world. When two PhD engineers from Cornell University were looking to turn a research product into a startup, they picked Boston to be close to local universities and a pool of skilled workers.

Going after an estimated $6 billion market for robots that can grasp with the dexterity of human hands, the cofounders of Empire Robotics, Bill Culley and John Amend, designed a globe-shaped gripper able to pick up and toss and Ping-Pong ball. The company, which employs five, is based in the Seaport District.

Aldebaran SAS, a French company building robots to interact with retail customers and take them around stores, opened its first US office in Boston in 2010. About 25 employees work downtown in software, business development, and customer support.

Plenty of local companies are taking root here, too. Soft Robotics Inc., a Cambridge startup, is commercializing a design for a soft robotic gripper with flexible fingers that can handle odd and delicate shapes, from eggs to broccoli florets. A likely market is the food packaging industry, which has avoided robots because they are too clumsy.

Soft Robotics’s design for rubbery robotic fingers that grasp like the tentacles of an octopus was conceived in a Harvard University lab, and its path from idea to startup was smoothed by Zivthan Dubrovsky, a program manager in the university’s Wyss Institute charged with identifying promising technologies with commercial potential.

“There is a vast majority of research that is published that doesn’t get turned into [an] opportunity,” Dubrovsky said, “and we help bridge that gap.”

Greiner left iRobot in 2008 and subsequently founded CyPhy Works Inc., which makes flying robots, also known as drones. The Danvers company has targeted two main markets. It has developed surveillance drones for military and law enforcement uses and family-friendly drones for consumers. Controlled by a smartphone, the drone can follow families around and take photographs. CyPhy, a privately held company, declined to disclose employment or sales.

Greiner said she easily could have moved her new company elsewhere but decided to stay in Massachusetts in large part because of the rich network of universities, startup incubators and accelerators, suppliers, advanced materials firms, and machine shops — not to mention colleagues and friends.

“I had a choice to make. I could have gone to Silicon Valley,” Greiner said. “But I think there’s a real cluster here, a community.”