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

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in terms of robots hitting the commercial mainstream. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting really close,” says James Geshwiler, a managing director of Lexington, MA-based CommonAngels, who helped organize the session. (Geshwiler adds that his group is actively looking to make a seed-stage investment in robotics.)

Across the industry, selling robots has evolved to be more about the specific markets they could serve rather than about robots per se. And with that repositioning, VCs seem more hopeful than ever that big investments in robotics will pay off in terms of growth and exits. “We will see innovation from capital-intensive companies, led by people who own equity,” said Eric Paley, a managing partner at Founder Collective, an early-stage venture firm that recently participated in a $5.3 million financing round for Harvest Automation, a Billerica, MA-based agricultural robotics startup. “Twenty years from now, in Boston, this could be a real innovation space.”

Now, about that Google threat. Earlier last month, the Mountain View, CA-based Internet search giant (NASDAQ: GOOG) made a big splash with a New York Times article about its robotic car that can drive itself through traffic using a combination of position and motion sensors, GPS, mapping and radar technologies, computer vision, and smart software. My first reaction was that it was a lot of hype. An autonomous car like that might work well enough in Silicon Valley traffic (with a driver ready to take control if there’s a problem), but I wouldn’t bet on it surviving a day on the chaotic streets of Boston.

Turns out I was wrong. Boston robotics executives and investors in that conference room last month (and since then) had strong reactions to the Google car and what it means for the field. Carl Calabria, a senior vice president at Bedford, MA-based iRobot, said the project is “Google’s play to own the [operating system] for automation.” That technology, coupled with mapping and location-based services, could prove to be a potent combination.

“Autonomy and location are key,” Geshwiler says. “Google, in long efforts with autonomous cars, turns out to have lots of applicability to things we wouldn’t imagine, if we were limiting our thinking to cars. When you work out the bugs in that system, there’s a cascade of other things” that will come from mastering “where you are at every given point in time, and what’s around you.”

Tom Ryden, co-founder of the telepresence firm Vgo Communications (and co-chair of the MassTLC robotics cluster), was more blunt. “The Google car is a threat,” he said. “Autonomy is really what allows these robots to do what you want them to do.” He added that Boston companies and technologists need to work to “keep that [expertise] here.” Others I’ve talked to since then also shared his sentiment.

Google, for its part, is trying to advance the state of the art—and see where it might lead in terms of a business. The company did not respond to requests for comment on the car project. It’s no coincidence that Google has ramped up its efforts in automation at the same time as robotics companies in Boston (and elsewhere) are starting to see more investment. Better, cheaper technologies have led to more companies emerging around the country. (Anybots, a Silicon Valley startup working on remote-controlled robots, is another one to watch.)

In the meantime, we’ll be watching closely to see if the balance of power in robotics companies starts to shift westward.

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