INNOVATION MUST BE BALANCED AGAINST SCALE AND PROFITABILITY
The development of robots is a multi-disciplinary exercise, which is why you tend to see a lot of the real cutting-edge innovation come out of academia—academic researchers aren't held captive by the need to generate profitable growth, and they aren’t subject to conference calls around quarterly earnings. One such academic program that comes to mind is the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, where they are doing some really interesting work on autonomous quadrocopters that utilize a control system and sensors to fly indoors as well as outdoors.
People in academia can come up with incredibly innovative robots that look really neat, but the challenge is to take an innovative idea and turn it into a physical product that can be manufactured for profit. It is very difficult, however, to bring an innovative concept to market, protect the intellectual property, create a distribution model, build a brand, identify customers, and find the right price point based on the market.
As a firm, we own iRobot and have followed the company for quite some time. They’re a “rule breaker” in the robotics space, having scaled into a half-billion dollar revenue business—a good amount of that is driven by sales of home robots, like their vacuum-cleaning Roomba and floor-cleaning Scooba robots, and is complimented by sales of unmanned ground robots to the defense and security sectors.
One thing we like about their approach is that they apply the necessary financial rigor to the markets in the projects they pursue while remaining innovative. One project they previously worked on (but ceased because it was difficult to make the numbers work) was a robotic sea turtle, called the Transphibian. It had fins that enabled it to swim and maneuver in both shallow and deep water, and even crawl along the bottom of the ocean. They have also worked on “robot slime” for the government, which mechanically oozes like actual slime mold as it climbs up walls and across ceilings, and also on robots that have a softer, human-like grip…much softer than, say, the robots on the manufacturing line.
I think we will see much broader acceptance of robots when concepts evolve from being neat prototype ideas to real products that make a profound impact in people’s lives. These will be robots that help us do things better, faster, and with greater knowledge about the world around us. Ironically, they might even help us improve relationships we have with other people in remote locations, making us more human in the process.
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