If January is any indication, 2015 is going to be a milestone year for a number of Boston-area robotics companies. At CES earlier in the month, multiple Boston firms showcased upgraded machines, which are capable of doing everything from cleaning your floor to challenging you in a round of beirut. And these companies have gotten substantial support, too, between funding from noteworthy VCs, buzz from a late night celebrity and news of a partnership with a major multinational corporation.
Here are five local firms that turned heads this month:
Rethink Robotics gets funding from notable investors
Just a year ago, Rethink Robotics, the maker of the human-like helper robot Baxter, eliminated 21 jobs, and appeared to be falling behind its competitors.
But things have turned around, and the company just announced it raised $26.6 million, bringing the company to about $100 million in total funding. The round was led by GE Ventures (the venture capital unit of manufacturing giant General Electric), with a second new investor, Goldman Sachs (which is known to back companies that are headed for an IPO). Ongoing investors include Sigma Partners, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, DFJ, and Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions. The valuation for Rethink isn’t being disclosed, a spokeswoman said, but clearly, the company is on the upswing.
Boston Dynamics reveals a big upgrade to its Atlas robot
In summer of 2013, Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics unveiled an anthropomorphic robot called Atlas, which was designed to operate on rough terrain. The 6-foot-2, 330-pound humanoid robot, which some compared to the Terminator, was developed with funding from DARPA’s M3 program.
Then, last June, DARPA announced a challenge to get the robots to operate completely without wires. Boston Dynamics—which Google acquired in late 2013—has been working on upgrading Atlas to meet DARPA’s new demands for the challenge, which will take place in June. The only aspects carried over from the original Atlas design are the lower legs and feet. But on the whole, it’s safe to say the robot looks less terrifying.
The now 345-pound Atlas features a slew of improvements in regards to resilience, dexterity and efficiency. Atlas’ repositioned arms and shoulders allow it to see its own hands in motion, thus providing additional sensor feedback to the operator. An extra degree of flexibility in the wrist also enables the robot to turn a door handle without having to move its entire arm. A wireless router in the head also allows for untethered communication. And thanks to a new pump, Atlas is much quieter than ever before.
Jibo raises Series A funding and welcomes a notable new CEO
The “first family robot,” Jibo is intended to be friendly, helpful and intelligent. It also happens to be the No. 1 most successful technology campaign on Indiegogo. Now, the Weston-based startup has gotten a $25.3 million vote of confidence from an array of investors. The Series A round of funding included seed investors Fairhaven Capital and CRV and was led by RRE Ventures. Other new investors that participated included Flybridge Capital Partners, Two Sigma Ventures, Formation 8 and Samsung Ventures. The money will be used to help fulfill the $2.3 million worth of orders made via Indiegogo, as well as to hire new employees and accelerate the development of advanced prototypes of the robot. The Weston, Mass.-based company intends to release Jibo to its Indiegogo supporters by December and have the full public release of Jibo by the summer of 2016.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Jibo also announced that its founder and CEO, Cynthia Breazeal, is now taking on the position of chief scientist. Steve Chambers, the former president of sales and marketing at Burlington-based speech technology firm Nuance Communications, is taking her place as CEO.
Intel reveals partnership with iRobot at CES
The maker of the famous Roomba vacuum, iRobot showed off its new floor cleaning bot the Scooba 450 at CES earlier this month. But there was also buzz about the Bedford-based company at the event thanks to a partnership with Intel.
The company demonstrated an iRobot AVA 500 video collaboration robot equipped with Intel RealSense 3D cameras. It also featured a display, within which iRobot CEO Colin Angle spoke remotely from the Boston area. After the demo was done, the robot wheeled itself off stage. Intel revealed that its RealSense technology, combined with robotics, could support autonomous navigation and collision avoidance technologies, which are key to support its focus on capitalizing on the growing opportunities for multi-copter drones.
Update: iRobot has made another notable move this month—disclosing that it is now formalizing its venture capital investing program. The firm’s most recent startup investment was taking part in a $3.3 million round for 3D software firm Paracosm.
Empire Robotics makes a splash at CES — and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”
There’s one key distinguishing feature of Empire Robotics’ “Versaball” gripper: It can handle objects—something that was crucial to taking on human competitors in a beer bong tournament at CES. Versaball’s ability to pick up, grip and launch the balls with impressive accuracy makes it a tough opponent, even for the winners of Bpong’s World Series, which it competed with in a “man vs machine” round Jan. 6.
And even if you didn’t make it to CES this year, there’s a good chance the robot will look familiar. That’s because Jimmy Fallon recently played beer pong against the Versaball Gripper on “The Tonight Show.” While Fallon and the robot were tied 1-1, the host eventually won when he knocked the Versaball Gripper’s next shot away. (Empire Robotics representative John Dean has admitted that the robot isn’t perfect, though.)
Images courtesy of the companies.