Momentum building for MassRobotics, planned robotics industry hub

Ryan Merrikan 15, of Walpole, tried to control his entry down the course during a Robot Race held in Cambridge on the campus of robot-maker Vecna. Among the attendees was Jay Ash, the state's Secretary of Housing and Economic Development.
Ryan Merrikan 15, of Walpole, tried to control his entry down the course during a Robot Race held in Cambridge on the campus of robot-maker Vecna. Among the attendees was Jay Ash, the state's Secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

Last October, I broke the news that several companies, research labs, and trade associations were working together to create a shared workspace for robotics businesses.

Ten months later, things seem to be gaining momentum — but the crew behind MassRobotics is still trying to line up financial backing from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Earlier this month, Vecna chief technology officer Daniel Theobald, one of the key players in the project, met with Governor Charlie Baker and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash to talk about the plan for MassRobotics.

MassRobotics, now set up as a nonprofit, also had its first board meeting this summer. The board includes people like iRobot CEO Colin Angle, Daniela Rus of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and ex-Googler Ken Gabriel, who now heads the Draper Laboratory.

Theobald says that a number of entrepreneurs have already expressed interest in locating their companies at MassRobotics, and that several large companies like Panasonic have expressed interest in supporting it. MassRobotics will feature a workshop outfitted with tools and test equipment along with office space; it’ll be comparable to entrepreneurial hubs like Greentown Labs and LabCentral, which support startups in energy and life sciences sectors, respectively.

“The world is ready to accept Massachusetts as the hub of robotics, but we just need to step up and make it happen,” says Theobald, whose Cambridge company employs about 250 to design and make robots that roam hospitals and warehouses. “It doesn’t dawn on us that if we don’t get organized, we’re going to lose it. There’s a real opportunity to seize this.”

MassRobotics hasn’t yet identified a location, but Theobald says they’re looking for space in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville — and that being close to campuses and public transportation is a must. “It needs to be a place that will allow students to get back and forth from their university and their startup in MassRobotics,” he says.

And the group is talking concrete numbers now, too: Theobald estimates that it will take $50 million to $60 million “to create the type of world-class infrastructure” the MassRobotics team envisions. But that figure would include donations of staff time, equipment, and in-kind services.

MassRobotics is asking the state to chip in $20 million. That amount would come from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative‘s Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant Program. (The Mass Tech Collaborative is a quasi-public agency that supports economic development initiatives.)

Comparing $20 million to the estimated $500 million invested by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to support that industry under Governor Deval Patrick, Theobald says, “$20 million is not only a huge bargain for the state to get a long-term benefit,” but that federal agencies that might allocate money to MassRobotics like to see state support first.

Any grant from the Mass Tech Collaborative would go toward setting up the facility, explains Paul McMorrow, director of communications at the Office of Housing and Economic Development, as opposed to on-going operating expenses. For that reason, he says, his agency and the Mass Tech Collaborative want to be sure that MassRobotics has a business plan that will sustain it over the long haul, potentially with sponsorship money from big companies and rent or other payments from tenants and users of the space.

McMorrow says that his department and Mass Tech are “interested enough that we’re fleshing out the opportunity and putting resources in” by funding a research report about the state’s existing robotics players, and the potential for future growth. Work on that report hasn’t yet begun, however.

How soon could MassRobotics open? Theobald says that his goal is later in 2015, and that not all of the funding for the facility would need to be in place first.

Theobald says that the MassRobotics board held a meeting on Monday at iRobot. The board has been focused on “trying to nail down the mission statement of MassRobotics and formalize it,” he says, adding, “we need to get a staff in place, a location chosen, and a firm, real commitment from the state to support this.”

Both LabCentral and Greentown Labs got grants from the state to build out their facilities, though neither received as much as MassRobotics is asking for.

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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