Well maybe not any time soon but a few days ago I was on a robotics panel with a number of experts from the field and there was plenty of debate when robots would replace humans. One of the most informed people on the robotics field, arguably the modern day founder of the industry (and co-founder of iRobot and Heartland Robotics) is Rodney Brooks, who opened with a fascinating overview of the robotics industry (you should make a point of hearing it if you can). He and I were seated together on the panel and participated in a discussion of how one might go about building a robotics company – I am an investor in a robotics company called PolyRemedy which makes highly customized wound dressings. There were a number of interesting insights gleaned…
• Robots are more than just intelligent industrial automation and will probably not replace humans any time soon but rather make humans more productive
• Today there are many $0 billion robotics industry sectors so be careful about the value proposition and really understand the use cases for robots in new fields
• New England has a very dynamic robotics cluster and in fact may be one of the most compelling geographies to launch a robotics company
• April 13, 2010 is “Robotics Innovation Day” as proclaimed by Governor Deval Patrick
• There seemed to be a consensus that there were very bright prospects for military, industrial, medical and commercial robotics applications but very little consensus around what the personal robot opportunity would look like.
There was a lot of debate about the future “robot of the home.” While most of us agreed that in ten years it feels somewhat inevitable that we will all have a robotic device in our home to assist us with a wide range of chores as well as perhaps monitoring, communications and offering medical guidance, what that device looks like was anyone’s guess.
One of the important learnings for me from my involvement with PolyRemedy is that customers are less focused on the hardware platform but rather the applications that the robot is meant to deliver. Initially I thought hospital administrators and clinicians were going to be most enthusiastic about the automation and benefits to work flow and inventory savings which the robot could deliver, but over time, I have come to realize that it is the adherence to clinical protocols and consistency of care promised by the software applications which reside in the robot that most interested our customers. So like many industries, while the hardware is cool and may initially get the customer’s attention, it is really the applications which the customer most cares about.