GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs Are New Investors in Rethink Robotics

Rethink Robotics is trying to become the preeminent robot company of its generation—and in doing so, reinvent the fields of manufacturing and logistics.

The company certainly has interesting technology—a two-armed, dexterous robot named Baxter—but the question is whether it can gain widespread adoption in factories and warehouses, and if so, how quickly.

Now the company has revealed the new investors in its recent $26.6 million Series D financing round. The deal was led by GE Ventures, with Goldman Sachs also participating, as well as Rethink’s existing stable of tech VCs.

GE’s involvement is important: it signals closer ties with big manufacturers and a step toward getting more robots onto factory floors. If GE is betting on the technology, will other companies get in line?

Rethink’s CEO, Scott Eckert, answered a few questions about this over e-mail:

Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink Robotics

Eckert

Xconomy: Can you talk about the significance of your new investors? What does this mean for Rethink?

Scott Eckert: Our investors clearly recognize the impact of smart, collaborative robots for manufacturers of all sizes across the globe. We’re thrilled that our existing investors, in addition to these new investors, GE Ventures and Goldman Sachs, are helping to lead the way for collaborative robots.

For GE especially, as one of the world’s largest and most respected manufacturers, the fact that they are now both a strategic customer and investor will help show the market that this new category of robotics is making traction and that the factory of the future is here.

The funds will help drive continued company growth, product innovation, and an effort to expand further internationally.

Ultimately, manufacturers are looking for flexibility—the ability to switch from one product to another with little notice—and that’s something that traditional automation solutions cannot do. The factories of the future are here, and they include manufacturers deploying smart, capable robots to work hand-in-hand with humans on the factory floor.

X: What’s been the biggest surprise or challenge in getting Baxter out there?

SE: The trouble with leading a new category is that educating the market is critically important and that takes time. What we’ve seen in the past two years is that manufacturers often take baby steps when introducing collaborative robotics into their factories.

In 2013 nearly every robot we sold was one at a time. This past year, we’ve seen more and more manufacturers come back to purchase multiple robots after watching their first Baxter perform so well. Now we’re in a position to see major growth—manufacturers are realizing that smart, collaborative robots are drastically improving their business.

X: What will be the short-term and long-term impact of robots like Baxter on manufacturing jobs? There’s been a lot of fretting about robots taking away human jobs.

SE: Baxter is an enabling technology. It allows companies to create better jobs for employees. Our customers are growing and hiring faster than ever. Robots like Baxter are handling repetitive, often boring and sometimes ergonomically difficult jobs, while humans are taking on more complex roles that require skill, or dexterity, or decision making.

Of course, over the long term it’s impossible to predict. In the year 1970 nobody even knew what the Internet was, let alone the millions of jobs that it has created. We don’t know what jobs are going to look like in 40 years, but we can guess that many of them will be in things we don’t even currently know about.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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