Robot makers and tech trade group hope to create new workspace for robotics ventures

Vgo Communications makes a videoconferencing robot that is used by Audi at some of its service locations.
Vgo Communications makes a videoconferencing robot that is used by Audi at some of its service locations.

Robotics entrepreneurs may soon have their own special place for bot-building. A group of robotics companies, research-and-development labs, and the tech industry trade group Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council are working to create a shared workspace for fledgling robotics ventures, dubbed Mass Robotics. Plans could be announced as soon as mid-October. The space may be located at Alewife on the far fringe of Cambridge, but that’s still up in the air, as is a target opening date.

Key players in the project include Vecna, a Cambridge-based company that makes healthcare software and delivery robots; non-profit R&D lab Draper Labs, which has been working on unmanned aircraft; and MassTLC.

“Our goal,” says Vecna co-founder and chief technology officer Daniel Theobald, “is to make Massachusetts the undisputed, unambiguous leader for robotics in the world. Right now, it’s sort of up for grabs. The future of the world’s economy will run on the backs of robots, and whatever region is at the heart of that will have tremendous economic benefits.”

Theobald says that Rodney Brooks, a founder of iRobot and Rethink Robotics, was visiting Vecna earlier this year, noticed some extra space, and asked whether Theobald had ever thought about creating a robotics incubator. The idea gained momentum from there.

Mass Robotics would be incorporated as a non-profit. It would charge tenants rent, but offer them access to high-end tools and testing gear.

“It’s hard for smaller companies to get access to the latest 3D printers, or sensors specific to robotics, like an $8000 Lidar that you may not want to purchase yourself,” says Tom Ryden, co-founder of Vgo Communications in Nashua, New Hampshire and a former iRobot exec. “Mass Robotics will have that equipment.”

The hope is that rent would cover some of the costs, but that corporate sponsorships and government grants might help Mass Robotics get started. Sponsors would get an early glimpse at what the tenants were up to, and might work with some of them as partners or customers. Ryden says the organization wouldn’t supply funding or take equity in tenant companies. “It’s not a competition, and there’s no selection committee,” he says “The idea is, if you’re in robotics, come rent space.”

Chief executive Tom Hopcroft of MassTLC, which has a robotics sub-group, said yesterday that his organization wasn’t ready to talk about the project. MassTLC estimates that there are more than 150 robotics companies and robot-related organizations in New England.

“We want to keep this industry here in the state,” says Ryden. “One of the things that’s missing is help transitioning [things] out of the lab and into a product, working with contract manufacturers and other groups, to test and produce things for a reasonable amount. We believe that can be done here locally.”

The state’s largest robotics company, Bedford-based iRobot, hasn’t yet determined how or whether it will be involved with Mass Robotics. But chief executive Colin Angle said via e-mail that “the Mass Robotics incubator space is a great thing, as it creates opportunities for a growing list of entrepreneurs who are interested in robotics. iRobot found success by developing robots that serve a practical purpose in people’s lives. As other companies look to do the same, incubators like Mass Robotics will play an important role in helping them get off the ground.”

Will be interesting to watch how Mass Robotics evolves…

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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