Editor’s note: this post originally published on Chen’s blog Beyond the Bell Curve; this edited version is republished here with permission.
A couple years ago, I dug deep into the robotics space because I thought we were seeing the birth of exciting next-generation robotics companies that would reshape the way our society lives and thinks. Companies like Rethink Robotics, Industrial Perception, and Redwood Robotics emerged to tackle factory and warehouse logistics. Willow Garage was gaining notoriety for being a center of robotics talent and innovation that spawned many of these companies. Meanwhile, Amazon had just acquired Kiva for $775M, driving even more entrepreneurial excitement.
Where are these players now? Rethink had a well-publicized round of layoffs, and Willow Garage ceases to exist. Industrial Perception and Redwood Robotics were part of Google’s robotics shopping spree, and while acquisitions can inspire activity like Kiva’s did, Google’s purchases may have had the opposite effect. In one fell swoop, many of the most entrepreneurial and talented roboticists were shuttered away from the world. I often worry that this has caused the entire field to take a step back, or at least is a major progress inhibitor. No longer will the acquired talent build and support new technology for others to build upon, at least for now. What Google decides to do with the talent they purchased will have big ramifications for how the industry and field move forward. There’s potential for a positive outcome here. Perhaps these groups eventually will leave Google with an understanding of best practices in building and operating a business, something Google is quite good at.
So, why didn’t the aforementioned wave of robotics companies become massive game-changing corporations? The most obvious reason is that robotics is hard, but it’s certainly more than that. We are still at such an early stage in the field that the DNA of founding robotics teams often spawns overemphasis on technology and lack of focus on product. This naturally happens when a field is still so raw that its leaders are researchers and scientists consumed by building the best technology. And really, up to a certain point, these people are by far the most qualified to lead, given their deep understanding of the technology. Eventually, the mystique of exciting technologies attracts an infusion of new DNA that understands that markets value form and function more so than performance specs. The latter is something you can grow over time; a customer’s patience and tolerance is not. The formation of this melting pot (petri dish?) of technologists and product minds then creates a huge multiplier effect for growth.
I’m still very optimistic about robotics. In fact, I believe we are witnessing the creation of said melting pot (petri dish…) right now. I point to trailblazing startups like 3D Robotics, Airware, and Anki (among others), led by a potent mix of true makers, deep technical talent, and people who just understand what customers want. Automation in general has hit some high notes already. I would argue that Nest is in many ways a robotics company and point to their success thus far. In fact, they are perhaps a prime example of how product design can compel markets. So, I predict another wave of robotics companies to emerge, both in logistics and beyond. I can’t wait.