Ten Startups at Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator Make Their Big Debut

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) staged a pretty good sendoff in San Diego yesterday for the 10 startups that began the company’s robotics accelerator program 16 weeks ago. Techstars manages the startup-mentoring program in San Diego under a corporate partnership with Qualcomm.

The wireless technology giant held its inaugural “Demo Day” for the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator in the opulent Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort hotel. More than 400 people attended, including about 100 investors, Qualcomm officials said.

Demo days may be nothing new in the Bay Area, where Y Combinator has been operating since 2005, or in tech hubs like Seattle, Boston, and Boulder, CO, where Techstars began in 2006. But in the California cul de sac that is San Diego, the idea of holding a big event for robotics startups to make their entrée into the real world is still pretty exciting.

As the world’s biggest wireless chipmaker, Qualcomm used the occasion to showcase its expertise in technologies considered crucial to robotics, such as computer vision, machine learning, and sensing.

“Our biggest goal here is to foster innovation, and to support these companies,” said Houman Haghighi, a Qualcomm Ventures staff manager overseeing the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator.

Other executives offered similar comments, saying the mentoring program represents an opportunity for Qualcomm to kickstart the robotics ecosystem.

Techstars' Ryan Kuder, center, huddles with startup teams before the show.

Techstars’ Ryan Kuder, center, huddles with startup teams before the show.

For example, before the demos began, Qualcomm announced the introduction of “Snapdragon Flight,” a new integrated circuit board designed to help manufacturing partners quickly go to market with drones used chiefly as “flying cameras.” The chipset, along with an integrated reference platform and advanced software, is intended to enable drone makers to sell “consumer-friendly flying cameras” for less than $300, said Hugo Swart, a product management executive with Qualcomm Technologies.

“No one else has the scale, breadth, and technology expertise to lead in robotics” the way Qualcomm does, Swart told the crowd.

That sounds a lot like the business model for Qualcomm’s smartphone business. But it’s still unclear whether the wireless giant can build the same kind of protective ecosystem in robotics that it has in the wireless communications business.

To some robotics experts in the audience, a preferred model for the industry is the kind of open source software operating system and robotics development platform that was introduced years ago by Willow Garage, the renowned Silicon Valley robotics lab that’s no longer in business.

Swart later said that the company intends to support both approaches. Still, it’s worth noting that Qualcomm has traditionally made most of its money from technology licensing, so it will be interesting to see how this issue shakes out as the robotics industry matures.

In the meantime, here’s a rundown on the 10 startups that comprise the first class to graduate from the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars:

Carbon Robotics, founded last year in San Francisco, has been developing an industrial robotic arm that can be used by small and medium-sized businesses for such tasks as decorating a cake (based on a design drawn on an iPad), pasting shipping labels on boxes, and using pipettes in biotech lab experiments. “It doesn’t make sense to spend $100,000 for [robotic] tools that only operate a few hours at a time,” said Rosanna Myers, a co-founder and CEO.

CtrlWorks, founded in 2011 in Singapore, has developed the Axon, a robot that resembles a submarine periscope on wheels. The Axon can be attached to carts and pallet jacks used to move material around a warehouse, and wheelchairs used to move people around airports. Co-founder and CEO Sim Kai said the innovation lies in Axon’s connection to a cloud-based navigation platform that enables the robot to find its way around any shop floor or warehouse—and enables CtrlWorks to generate recurring revenue by charging a monthly subscription fee for its software as a service.

Skysense, founded in Berlin in 2014, has created a modular “drone service station in a box” that serves as a landing pad, charging station, and on-site storage unit for multi-rotor drones. Operators also can remotely re-program drones while they are being stored in the box. Co-founder and CEO Andrea Puiatti said one of the company’s first customers is Singapore Aerospace, which requires 10 drones.

Rational Robotics, founded last year in Edmonton, Canada, has developed a robot that uses 3D scanning technology to spray-paint parts in auto body shops—“all done without human intervention and at higher quality,” according to co-founder and CEO Ashley Reddy.

Skyfront drone on exhibit at Demo Day

Skyfront drone on exhibit at Demo Day

Skyfront, founded in Hoboken, NJ, in 2014, has developed a hybrid-electric technology that converts gasoline to electricity in flight—and extends the typical 20-minute to 30-minute flight time of a battery-powered drone to four hours. Co-founder and CEO Troy Mestler said Skyfront’s lawnmower-size Tailwind drone is ideal for use in search and rescue operations, and in scanning a “large farm the size of 1,000 football fields.”

CleverPet, founded in San Diego in 2013, has developed Internet-connected robotic technology that keeps stay-at-home pets occupied by interacting with kibble feeders and smart toys. The company has been collecting data from 1,000 CleverPet units in the field, and is targeting the estimated $7 billion a year that Americans spend every year on doggie day care. The crowd roared in laughter when co-founder and CEO Leo Trottier said, “Our user base literally has nothing better to do.”

Inova Drone was founded in San Diego last year. Co-founder and CEO Chad Amonn said the company has sharpened its focus on four technologies developed to operate its heavy-duty drone as an “aerial vision platform.” Amonn said Inova Drone’s high-performance Eagle 1 drone is ideally suited for public safety missions like wildfire spotting and surveillance and for such tasks as bridge and utility power-line inspections.

Muse Robotics, founded in Athens, Greece, in 2013, is focused on developing electro-mechanical components that can be used across a wide variety of robots. “Standardization is the way all industries grow,” co-founder and CEO Alexandros Nikolakakis told the audience.

Solenica, founded two years ago and based in Rome, Italy, has developed Lucy, a solar-tracking mirror (which is also solar-powered) that reflects sunlight into a home or office. According to co-founder and CEO Diva Tommei, the startup team spent its time at the accelerator working mostly on product development and market validation, yet Solenica still sold 320 Lucys and accrued over $60,000. A complementary smartphone app also measures how many lumens Lucy has delivered, and tracks electricity savings.

Reach Robotics, founded in Bristol, U.K., in 2013, is focused on the game industry. But co-founder and CEO Silas Adekunle told the audience, “The gaming landscape is changing, bringing the game out of the screen and into our world.” The startup said its crablike MekaMon is “the world’s first intelligent battle robot.” Players use augmented reality technology to create a futuristic world around the game.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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