There are more than 10,000 robot companies in China.
Reportedly, less than 5% of them are doing well.
But what if they didn’t all have to reinvent the wheel? Or the servomotor. Or computer vision, spatial recognition, natural language processing, gripping, navigating, or any of a host of different problems that robots need to understand in order to be useful. What if they only had to learn the specific pieces of functionality that are unique to their specific set of tasks?
That means, theoretically, that robot startups which share code could develop software to make dumb metal, plastic, batteries, motors, and computer chips intelligent and capable at least twice as fast as they currently do. There are some attempts to enable this on an open source basis like ROS, or Robotic Operating System, but it doesn’t cover everything, and there’s clearly room for improvement.
So how do you make robots smarter and more useful, faster?
30-year robotics veteran Risager thinks he has the answer. It looks kind of like an accelerator, kind of like a venture capital firm, kind of like a nursery for robotics companies. And it’s based — of course — in Odense, Denmark.
I’ve visited the city Odense, pre-pandemic. In an island community of just 500,000 people there are more than 150 robotics companies, and Denmark as a whole is home to more than 300 robotic, automation, and drone companies.
In effect, it’s a sort of “robot island.”
That’s no accident. In fact, it’s been a long time coming, because the dream started over 30 years ago.
“In the 1980s, we had a large shipyard, one of the largest in Europe that was placed on our island,” Risager told me. “And there was a very visionary CEO there and also at the local university there was a very, I would say untraditional professor who really was strong in mathematics and how to work with dynamic systems and stuff like that. But they found each other, they played golf together, and they kind of teamed up and started this dream about why don’t we make robots that can weld the ships, because this is really hard work for people.”
Risager was actually a part of the university team and, like many of the others, became part of a unique robotics ecosystem on a seemingly random northern European island. As more started companies, they worked together in sort of a Silicon Valley of robotics style: making grippers, building software, sharing insights, building components, and, as Risager says, standing on the success of all the others.
Doing what, in essence, Risager has now formalized in Blue Ocean Robotics: what he calls the world’s first robotics venture factory.
Building all the hardware and software needed for a commercially-viable robot is hard. There’s a lot of late nights and dead ends in building both.
(I have personal experience with this as my son, a fourth-year mechatronics engineering student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has participated in drone-maker DJI’s Robomaster robot-making challenge.)
“The challenge of building both a physical product and with all the software and being able to produce and deliver, and deliver something successful that the customers want to buy, that seems to be a very hard thing,” Risager says. “We have basically industrialized this. So we have in our portfolio three robots, and we can easily add a fourth and a fifth and so on, because all the technology that we use and all of the business components that we use, these are kind of the same and they can be reused across all the robots. So this is, in our view, a very unique thing.”
Almost three quarters of the software stack is generic, as Risager told me, meaning a robotics startup can focus on what delivers differentiation and competitive advantage for their chosen niche.
Blue Ocean Robotics has so far delivered a UV-using antiseptic robot for hospitals, schools, and other public places. It kills 99.99% of all bacteria and viruses in a large room in 10 minutes, apparently. They’ve also delivered a telepresence robot name GoBe— good timing for a pandemic — and a patient transfer robot for hospitals and care homes.
If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re not wrong.
“We wanted to make robots that go into new market areas where you don’t see robots today,” Risager says. “We focus a lot on these large market verticals where you have a lot of services provided to people, so professional service industry — especially hospitals or healthcare, construction, agriculture, and hospitality.”
30% of most countries’ populations work in these areas, Risager told me, and they share a number of common factors: low productivity growth, local delivery that can’t be outsourced to China, and major demands on efficiency with more demands placed on workers every year.
He’s also a strong proponent of robot/human interaction.
In other words: no job loss.
“The best robots you can find on the planet are those where you have thought about the user, put the user in the charge so the robot works for the user and not the other way around,” he says. “So start finding out what that person is good at and then make a robot that does all the dull and dangerous stuff for the user. That is very important and those robots have a great future.”
It sounds like it make sense.
It also sounds like a model that will eventually become a snowball rolling down a hill. Each robot the venture factory churns out will add to the core of software that all the member companies have access to. Each might further developer existing features that it needs just a bit more than the others, and the others will benefit from those improvements. And each will be able focus on task-specific software that only their particular startup requires.
This sort of virtuous cycle might just what we need to build the global capability to clean the oceans, decarbonize, provide homes and sufficient food for all. If we have the will, of course, to do so.