Boston Robotics Firms, While Making Strides, Could Lose Their Edge to Google and the Valley

None of this would have happened 10 years ago. Where to begin?

Last month, I walked into a room of about a dozen robotics experts and technology startup investors. It was one of the sessions at the MassTLC Innovation “unConference” in Boston. The discussion centered around how to build a successful robotics company. But it was some of the newer context around this question that turned the session into a watershed moment I won’t soon forget.

Two main takeaways: First, robotics companies around Boston have come a very long way since 2000, when I was a postdoc in a robotics group at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. That sort of academic research is still going strong, but the bigger story of the past decade has been the business success of robotic vacuum cleaners, bomb-disposal units, and surveillance drones, and how that has helped pave the way for a new generation of companies.

My second takeaway is that the business community thinks there is a new threat to Boston’s competitive position in robotics—and its name is Google. I’m not usually one to fan the flames of Boston vs. Silicon Valley arguments, but in this case the discussion hits close to home, so I wanted to see if there’s much truth to it.

The Boston area, of course, is home to numerous robotics companies—iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), Boston Dynamics, Harvest Automation, Heartland Robotics, Kiva Systems, iWalk, and CyPhy Works, just to name a few. Many of those companies were represented in the unConference session, along with investors from CommonAngels, Founder Collective, and General Catalyst. Historically the region has had lots of expertise, both in universities and industry, in key technologies underlying robotics such as sensors, actuators, control algorithms, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and data storage.

Yet 10 years ago, most early-stage investors (angels and VCs) wouldn’t think of touching a robotics startup. The development costs and business risks were too high, and the technology infrastructure—onboard processing power, wireless communication, programmable chips, sensors, algorithms—wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Now things have changed, certainly in investors’ minds, … Next Page »

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